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100 years of Western Xia archaeology

YANG RUI | 2022-06-09 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A view of Khara-Khoto Photo: CFP

The Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) was established by the Tangut people [who historically lived in present-day northwestern China]. The Western Xia was an important contributor to Chinese civilization by adopting the refined cultures of the Central Plain and surrounding ethnic groups, creating their writing system, and developing the northwest of China. Since the 1980s, the discipline known as the “Western Xia studies” was put forward by academia, which covered the language and literature, archaeology, and history of the Western Xia. Nowadays, archaeology is the most dynamic field of the Western Xia studies, which not only provides new materials for the Western Xia studies, but also enriches China’s archaeology.

Findings prior to 1949
Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, there had been three important archaeological discoveries related to the Western Xia, including the finding of the Liangzhou Stele, the ruins of Khara-Khoto [meaning “black city” in Mongolian, a ruined fortified city in today’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region] and Western Xia texts, and research on the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang. 
The Liangzhou Stele [an ancient stele inscribed with both Tangut and Chinese scripts], also known as the Western Xia Stele, was discovered by Zhang Shu, a renowned historian and geographer of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), when he was visiting the Qingying Temple [present-day Dayun Temple] with friends in Liangzhou [in present-day Wuwei City, Gansu Province]. The discovery of the Langzhou Stele not only offered new historical materials, but also put the history of the Western Xia in the spotlight. Furthermore, it brought the Tangut script, which had disappeared for centuries, into academia’s view again. Since then, scholars have started to explore the history and interpret the script of the Western Xia. 
The discovery of the ruins of Khara-Khoto is quite influential in China’s academic history. The Russian traveler Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov (1863–1935) had been to Khara-Khoto twice. In his first expedition to Khara-Khoto, Kozlov filled ten cases—each case weighed 1 pood, or approximately 16.38 kilograms—with cultural relics unearthed from the ruins of Khara-Khoto and sent them to Russia. The cultural relics he found in the second expedition loaded 40 camels. Those cultural relics are preserved in the St Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Winter Palace. Kozlov’s book, Mongolia, Amdo and the Dead City of Khara-Khoto, detailed his expeditions and excavations at Khara-Khoto. The texts unearthed at the ruins of Khara-Khoto laid foundations for the study of the Western Xia.
The Western Xia people were ardent devotees of Buddhism. Many of the caves in Guazhou and Shazhou [both in present-day Gansu Province] were constructed during the Western Xia era. However, early experts believed that there were only a few caves dated to the Western Xia Dynasty in Dunhuang, and their research seldom included these caves. Chinese archaeologists and artists launched field investigations in Dunhuang starting in the 1940s. With limited knowledge of the art of the Western Xia caves, they merely made specific introductions of these caves in several books. It is in the last 30 years that experts started to go deep into the art of the Western Xia caves in Dunhuang.
Progress between 1949 and 1979
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, archaeological fieldwork over the Western Xia remains was gradually carried out.
In terms of city ruins, a significant archaeological event was the two excavations of an ancient city ruins in Shizuishan [in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region], conducted by the Ningxia Museum between 1965 and 1966. Studies show that it may be the site of Shengwei City in the Western Xia era. It was the first time that Chinese archaeologists excavated Western Xia city ruins. In 1962 and 1963, the Inner Mongolian archaeological team visited the ruins of Khara-Khoto twice, and excavated 25 Buddha statues dated to the Western Xia Dynasty. After the 1980s, an archaeological team led by the Chinese archaeologist Li Yiyou launched systematic excavations at the ruins of Khara-Khoto. 
The archaeological research and excavation of the Western Xia Mausoleums represented China’s progress in the archaeological study of Western Xia tombs during this period. Excavations of the Western Xia Mausoleums began in 1972, led by the Ningxia cultural heritage administration. An imperial mausoleum and four subordinate tombs were excavated. Mausoleum No. 8 was the only imperial Western Xia mausoleum that had been found at the time. The inscriptions written in Tangut and Chinese on steles suggest that the person buried in this mausoleum was Li Zunxu (1163–1226), the eighth emperor of the Western Xia Dynasty. In 1977, the Ningxia archaeological authority excavated the Subordinate Tomb No. 101, and unearthed two important treasures: a gilded bronze ox and a giant stone horse.
Achievements since the reform and opening up
Over the past four decades of reform and opening up, with the increasing popularity of the study of the Western Xia Dynasty, more experts have engaged in this field and continuously made achievements.
In 1983 and 1984, the Inner Mongolian cultural heritage administration launched two archaeological investigations at the ruins of Khara-Khoto, obtaining archaeological materials which revealed the construction history and layout of this city. It was the most comprehensive, systematic, and scientific fieldwork at Khara-Khoto since Kozlov’s expedition.
The Western Xia Mausoleums became the highlight of Western Xia archaeology at the time. Fieldwork and excavations at the Western Xia Mausoleums were conducted through three phases. Archaeologists focused on surveying and mapping the mausoleums systematically from the 1980s to the 1990s, exposed and cleaned the bei-ting [a traditional Chinese pavilion where a stele is housed] in the east and west of the Tomb No. 3 in the 1990s, and conducted land clearing and excavations after the 2000s. Eventually, nine imperial mausoleums and 271 subordinate tombs were discovered within this mausoleum complex.
Archaeological study of the Western Xia religious remains has also started to boom. The Dunhuang Academy spent several years conducting thorough investigations and archaeological excavations of the caves in the northern zone of Dunhuang. A total of 243 caves have been excavated and cleared. These caves dated from the Northern Dynasty (386–581) to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), including the ones constructed during the Western Xia Dynasty. 
In the 1980s, the discovery of the Vajravārāhī Grotto Temple in Wuwei also had a great impact. A large number of precious cultural relics were unearthed from the temple, including Vimalakīrti Sūtra, the oldest extant Buddhist scripture written in Tangut script, printed by clay movable type technology. The Buddhist pagodas dated to the Western Xia Dynasty are mainly situated in Ningxia and the Hexi Corridor, with most distributed in Ningxia. Therefore, since the 1980s, four major important fieldworks have been carried out in Ningxia. The first fieldwork included dismantling and repairing the Hongfo Pagoda [in Yinchuan City, Ningxia], which resulted in the discovery of 14 silk painted Buddha paintings, more than 2,000 fragments of wood carvings with Tangut characters, six Buddha heads, and cultural relics such as painted wood carvings, wooden slips written in Tangut script, and Western Xia documents. These cultural relics are of great value to the Western Xia studies, Buddhist art, and ancient Chinese printing technology. In the second fieldwork, archaeologists surveyed and cleared the Baisigou Square Pagoda [in Helan County, Ningxia], discovering Auspicious Tantra of All-Reaching Union, which was considered the earliest extant example of a book printed using wooden movable type. The third time was the repair of the 108 Buddhist Pagodas [in Wuzhong City, Ningxia] and the Baisikou Twin Pagodas. Archaeologists re-identified the date of these pagodas, claiming that they were built in the Western Xia Dynasty instead of the Yuan Dynasty. In the fourth expedition, archaeologists excavated the terrace in the north of the Baisikou Twin Pagodas, and found “Tsha-Tsha” [small stupa and joss, a Buddhist artwork introduced from ancient India]. 
Way ahead
Summarizing and cataloging Western Xia archaeology reveals the way ahead:
First, it’s essential to focus on the collection and collation of the basic archaeological materials of the Western Xia. As an ethnic minority regime in the northwest frontier, the Western Xia remains were not on par with the cultural heritage of the Central Plain. However, Western Xia archaeology is still rich in regional characteristics and cultural connotations. The pity is that the archaeological materials are widely scattered and not systematic.
Second, some major sites and regions need more attention. Chen Xingcan, director of the Institute of Archaeology at CASS, noted that some high-quality archaeological achievements actually came from years of continuous excavation and academic accumulation. The same is true of Western Xia archaeology. Obtaining high-quality results requires continuous accumulation and attention to the major fields of Western Xia archaeology, such as the Western Xia Mausoleums and caves.
Third, the documents and materials for the Western Xia studies have been scarce, which means that the materials obtained from archaeological fieldwork and excavations are highly precious. In a sense, the archaeological research of Western Xia will be an important force to promote the overall development of the Western Xia studies in the future. The comprehensive and interdisciplinary nature of archaeology will be fully verified in Western Xia studies.
Yang Rui is an expert in Western Xia studies and dean of the School of Ethnology at North Minzu University.