Leaves that Sway: Gold Xianbei Cap Ornaments from Northeast China
Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Art and Architecture
Art and Design
East Asian Languages and Societies
History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology
Over the last fifty years, rich finds of gold objects have been uncovered in China’s northeastern Liaoning province. These tombs belonged to a tribe of steppe nomads called the Murong Xianbei who settled north of the Great Wall during the Han dynasty and established a succession of short-lived states called Yan that ruled parts of Northeast Asia during the third to fifth centuries CE. Until now, the history of the Murong and the rapidly emerging field of Murong archaeology have been published almost exclusively in Chinese. This dissertation seeks to rectify the lack of Western scholarship about this unique border population and their cultural identity as expressed though gold personal adornments. The gold objects in Murong tombs are typically decorated with some combination of openwork and pendant gold leaves attached by wires, some taking the form of trees or antlers. These were probably affixed to fabric caps and have been associated with ornaments described in the Chinese histories as buyao (“step-sway”) ornaments because their thin sheet gold leaves tremble and sway with each step the wearer takes. However, leaf-covered gold crowns and headdresses excavated from tombs across Central Asia, Western Asia, and the Mediterranean have also been proposed as prototypes. This dissertation considers the existing textual and visual data supporting arguments for local and western origins and arrives at new conclusions concerning the relationships between Murong artisans and their counterparts in China, Central Asia, and the Near East though the careful study of the visible traces of the manufacturing process.
Victor H. Mair