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Exhibition unveils the mysteries of the Qidan

By Wang Ru | China Daily | Updated: 2018-10-09 07:05
Gold rings unearthed from the Tomb of Chenguo Princess of Liao are part of more than 270 or so relics of the Qidan nomadic ethnic tribe, which established the Liao Dynasty, on display at an ongoing exhibition at Beijing's Capital Museum. The show runs through Dec 9. [Photo by Zou Hong/China Daily]

Qidan, also known as Khitan, was a nomadic ethnic tribe that established the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) and dominated the vast area of former Manchuria, Mongolia and parts of northern China for over 200 years.

However, the tribe has disappeared over the long course of history and a great deal about their existence is still shrouded in mystery.

An exhibition of Qidan cultural relics, which opened on Sept 6 at Beijing's Capital Museum and will run through Dec 9, strives to tell some stories of the tribe.

Seventeen institutions in Northeast China's Liaoning province, North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region and Beijing have contributed collections to support this exhibition.

According to Chen Yongzhi, director of the Inner Mongolia Museum, the 270 or so relics on display include 182 from Inner Mongolia, mainly unearthed from the sites including the Upper Capital of the Liao, Tomb of Chenguo Princess of the Liao, Tomb of Yelyu Yuzhi, cousin of Emperor Yelyu Abaoji who served as a senior official of the Liao, and Concubine Xiao's Tomb in Duolun county.

"I am really impressed by the exquisite relics from Chenguo Princess' tomb," says Tang Wenrao, a visitor to the exhibition.

It seems the history of Liao has failed to record the princess, but people get to know her from the inscriptions on her gravestone. As the niece of a Liao emperor, she was buried with extravagant artifacts when she died at the age of 18.

The tomb was excavated in 1986 when people building a reservoir in the vicinity found the site.

After the two-month excavation, archaeologists found 3,227 precious artifacts from the tomb where the princess and her husband were buried, making it a milestone discovery in the study of the Liao.

Among them, there were 11 gold rings with fine patterns. "Except the 10 worn on each finger for daily decoration, the extra one was made especially as a burial artifact and given to her when she got married. It suggests that in the Qidan tradition, a woman receives both a dowry and her burial artifacts when she gets married," says Chen.

A stela on display reminds visitors of the intermarriage between the distinguished Yelyu and Xiao families, including how many betrothal presents they exchanged and what they were. According to Chen, all of the prime ministers and most empresses of the Liao came from the Xiao family, while all of the emperors shared the surname Yelyu. The two families kept the intermarriage relationship for generations.

The Empress Xiao Chuo, who is known for appearing in the traditional legend Generals of the Yang Family and other folk operas, was an important politician at that time.

Foreign exchanges can also be traced from the relics. Glassware, which was imported from Western countries, have been found in Liao tombs. It suggests the exchange between Qidan and other nations and the fact that the steppe route of the ancient Silk Road, a trade channel between Mongolian grasslands and Europe, was prominent during the Qidan time.

There are also Indian elements on unearthed jewelry boxes.

This year represents the 1,080th anniversary of the Liao's establishment of its south capital, located in what is now southwest of Beijing. "The exhibition is held to promote cooperation between Inner Mongolia and Beijing, and to commemorate the anniversary," says Han Zhanming, director of the Capital Museum.

"As a history major, I focused more on the history of the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC - AD 220) dynasties and had a very limited understanding of the Liao. I am overjoyed to see so many Liao relics and learn their story," says Tang.

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