Petroglyph studies in modern and contemporary China

By By Zhu Lifeng / 08-01-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
  Rock inscription at Xianzi Lake by Taixi River, Fujian Province
China has rich resources of petroglyph relics; according to the latest statistics, more than 5,000 sites have been found in over 200 prefectures in 29 provinces or regions. As pre-historic cultural heritage, petroglyphs are valuable to studies of Chinese cultural and national history.
Four phases of petroglyph studies in China
Although petroglyphs have long been recorded in Han Feizi (c. 300 BCE) and Shui Jing Zhu (c. 600 CE), studies of petroglyphs did not start until the beginning of the 20th century. Petroglyph studies can be divided into four phases in modern and contemporary China.
The field research done by Huang Zhongqin in the rock inscription at Xianzi Lake by Taixi River, Fujian Province and his 1935 article “Ancient Writing at Taixi” mark the first forays into the field China. After Huang’s research and into the 1970s, both Chinese and international scholars reported discoveries of petroglyphs in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Yunnan.
From the beginning of the 1980s to mid-1990s, as part of the Second National Survey of Cultural Relics, more petroglyphs were discovered in many of China’s western provinces, including Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Tibet, triggering a new wave of archeological research. However, new of this substantial discovery failed to reach international scholarship; the map of world petroglyph distribution released in Archaeology in 1983 even showed a vacancy in China.
Following the windfall that lasted into the mid 90s, very little efforts and few notable discoveries were made from 1995 to 2007.
However, from 2008, petroglyph studies have begun a revival. Most pointedly, a large number of petroglyphs have been discovered in the central plain area, reversing the belief that no petroglyphs are to be found in the Han Chinese heartland, and reshaping the map of petroglyph distribution in China.
Research methodologies
Hunting, sacrificing and warfare in ancient time have been recorded in the petroglyphs, providing insight into the development of Chinese culture and national characteristics as well as the spread and exchange of world civilization. Among the scholarship, interdisciplinary perspectives have been taken in archaeology, cultural anthropology, ethnology, folklore, historic studies, religious studies, mythology, semiology, statistics and art history. In archaeology, some studies have been done by division of regions and patterns while some have tried to distinguish the historical periods of the petroglyphs by chronology. In the field of folklore, research of primitive art, society and religious belief has been carried out through both archaeological and field research. Theoretical attempts have focused on primitive mind-sets, Pan-shamanism theory and the symbolic system of picture languages. The most recent discoveries drew a fair amount of interest in the artistic style, as well as meaning, historical period, and cultural implications. The difficulty of determining their dynasty has been, to a large extent, a hindrance for in-depth research of petroglyphs and therefore addressing this problem has been the most important issue for petroglyph studies in China.
Preservation and Utilization of petroglyphs
Preservation of the petroglyphs has become all the more urgent as an increasing number of them are discovered. In most cases, three ways of reservation have been used. The first is to record them with words and videos; additionally, some are preserved through on-site maintenance in order to protect them from both ecological and human-caused damage. In some instances, museums have even been built around the petroglyphs. When on-site maintenance is not possible, relocation and off-site maintenance remains the best alternative. Good examples of petroglyph protection are found at Jiangjunya in Jiangsu, Helan Mountain in Ningxia, Yinshan Mountain in Inner Mongolia and Huashan Mountain in Guangxi.
In utilizing petroglyphs, efforts should be made not only to promote tourism, but also to raise local awareness by theoretical studies and disseminating knowledge of petroglyphs so that the rich resource of petroglyphs can be better preserved and effectively used in contemporary China.
Zhu Lifeng is from China Women’s University and Central University for Nationalities.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 373. Oct, 31, 2012.
Translated and edited by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne