Tomb masks from the Kingdom of Qatay

a similar gold mask-brushedEurope’s old name for China, Cathay, comes in fact from a northern neighbour and rival of China’s, Qatay or Khitai (or half a dozen transcriptions) between Great Khingan (Xingan) Mountains and the sea, a horse people on the easternmost steppe.

They remained a horse people, after they acquired a great Chinese population and ran a dual government – Chinese-style for the Chinese, tribal-style for the tribals – and took on dual nomenclature. In Chinese they were the Liao Dynasty, with dates 907-1125 CE.

These are their funerary masks. About which we know no more than we can see. We don’t know whether the masks are shamanist in inspiration or Buddhist – they were ardent Buddhists; but they must have learnt to entomb their dead from China? Before their Imperial Period they left their dead in trees on holy mountains, and after three years gathered the bones to burn and bury: along the lines of other shamanists.

Liao funerary 2But their practices are unique, and I am happy to say, they created their own from these elements. These face masks, with the individual’s features; and often a wire mesh wrapping the corpse – in aid of? Our guesses are merely guesses (vague waffle about shamanism). I hope to stumble on indirect evidence, a clue; then I can put them in my novel.

The mesh is silver or gold wire, the masks gilt bronze or silvered copper. Ears have ornamental squiggles or rings or flap. The expression tends to be serene, but features aren’t idealised. I’ll just note that Mongols, in their Imperial Period, as art patrons, encouraged a surge of portraiture. People’s faces were their idea of art, and Mongols are cousin to Qatat.512px-LiaoMask10-12thcentury

It’s a huge thing when a culture changes its burial practices, from a tribal style (the trees) to a civilized style (tombs learnt from the Chinese). I’ve read anthropology on equivalent cases, with a close-up on people’s feelings. If that’s what happened here; the old steppe, of course, had great burials and treasure in tombs. It’s easy to over-emphasise the China influence.

silvered copper

 

 

 

The woman’s face against black I must give you a link to. Here you can hover and see her enlarged. She’s worth it. And here see the above fellow against red, in zoom: he’s magnificent work that way.

 

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I’ll leave you with an odd few more: first, the most tranquil beauty, for me; second, a none-too-handsome royal woman – with her eyes open.
Empires Beyond cover cut

 

 

Golden_Mask_of_Princess_of_Chen_State

silver death maskLiao mask blue face cut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

death mask silverDeath_Mask

 

 

 

 

 

Liao mask with wire

 

 

 

 

 

a_rare_gilt-copper_death_mask_liao

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Additional: see this site, TibetArchaeology, on The golden funerary masks of the Himalaya. I am also collecting more specimens on my Pinterest board.

composition
about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

The Kyrgyz epic Manas, online

OttomanHorseArcherIt ain’t easy to find your steppe epic in English. So I alert you to a project to translate the epic Manas online. Here’s the link: The Kyrgyz Epic Manas, selections translated, introduced and annotated by Elmira Kocumkulkizil.

It’s the epic of a people – a little like the Shahnameh used to be, perhaps; it’s THE epic, people didn’t bother to make up others, they just added to Manas. In fact the Kyrgyz don’t have epic singers, they have manaschi: singers of Manas. They celebrated the poem’s 1000th anniversary a few years ago. Wiki contests that age, but Wiki can argue with the ‘new independent government of Kyrgyzstan’ and cultural pride. The version from which you find great swathes here is half a million lines: take the Iliad and the Odyssey together and times by twenty… or since the lines are short, yes Wiki, let’s say by ten. It’s oral epic, written down and saved in sixty versions from the last of the oral poets alive, who in the tradition of their art have each an original rendition. The art is alive in Kyrgyzstan, just not exclusively oral. That changes things.

horse-head fiddles

horse-head fiddles

W. Barthold, of the wonderful book Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, called it an absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history. That’s the sound of a frustrated historian; fast and loose is the least of Turk epic’s attitude to history, quite as bad as Homer and the Trojan War. Nora Chadwick, my fave person on steppe epic, thinks this the peak of the art: The Kirghiz were said to specialize in epic poetry almost to the exclusion of saga and lyric, and to pay especial regard to finished and polished diction… An individual feature of the poetry of the Kirghiz, and one which shows the advanced character of the tradition, is its tendency to fall into cycles. She means, Manas is a cycle rather than a single poem, with shifts to different central figures. Thus the neverending story.

Go explore.

Guest spot: A.J. Campbell’s gallery of steppe women

The Horsebreaker

The Horsebreaker

I’m proud to have A.J. Campbell on the blog. And gobsmacked by his steppe women. He’s the author of The Demon’s Door Bolt, and another novel to be out shortly, both of which are very strong on fighting women. I discover he’s also an artist. Here he is:

Thems what was real womenses, arr!

Steppe women have always intrigued me. Oft enough, they rose to greatness, as seen in the great number of female warrior burials. Some were buried in kurgans not reserved for just kings; and at least one woman – the so-called Golden Man of Issyk – achieved a status beyond the greatest of steppe chieftains. So, there really was a historical Xena.

Penthesilia's Little Helper

Penthesilia’s Little Helper

Brunhild and Hedgehog

Brunhild and Hedgehog

I’m not a prolific painter, especially when writing novels… which is most of the time, lately. But somehow, I’ve managed to dry-paint a few women warriors. My art tends to reflect my humour, which might not entertain everyone. Each painting is on vellum, similar to the art of the late Alberto Vargas. In essence they are ‘cartoons’ reflecting the nearly-dead pin-up genre of the 1930s and 40s.

Rokhshan (with a griffin egg)

Rokhshan (with a gryphon’s egg)

Behind each semi-realistic work, there’s an underlying truth. They are women who can hold their own against any man. More important, they are heroic, not passive reclining nudes. My favourites are The Horsebreaker, a brazen Alan woman replete with lasso, horned saddle, tamga iron and Sogdian blanket (a painting so outrageously priced that no-one will ever buy it) and Penthesilea’s Little Helper (with its baby gryphon).

Bryn back
Thanks, A.J. Another favourite of mine is Brunhild in spiky armour with a hedgehog, and she’s here although she isn’t steppe (so these are the spangens?) Rokhshan was Alexander’s wife, and A.J. had to tell me there’s a joke in there, because I wouldn’t recognise a football or a Corinthian football helmet.

I notice I’ve got him talking Xena. A.J.’s met the age of 70 (I hope he doesn’t mind me dropping that) and gave up the idiot box before Xena leapt into our lives; I’ve been telling him he missed a pop culture fighting-woman icon, if nothing else.

You can find these and others for sale on his End of Days Press website – along with a fantastic little shop for re-created arms and armour, horse bows and swords, steppe helmets, the akinakes as featured in The Demon’s Door Bolt, and even your steppe accessories. A.J. Campbell is an archery instructor and a living-history reenactor, and him and his make the weaponry.

Women, Barbarians and the Dread Interpretation

I think the person in the street knows by now, women were better off in barbarian societies. That’s a blanket statement I can conscientiously make. I have even thought, on my travels in the past, we aren’t the most feminist society that has ever been. I’m hesitant there, but I’d say, don’t make that assumption. If I were a woman in the Middle Ages, I’d want to be either Norse or from the steppe. So I have a laugh when I see macho projections onto Vikings or steppe hordes (that isn’t true: I don’t have a laugh, I have a cry).

It’s risky to let scholars intervene between you and the source material. They can skew your perceptions. In the Nibelungenlied (German, circa 1200), Brunhild warns her suitors: “He will have to cast the weight, follow through with a leap, and then throw the javelin with me. Do not be too hasty – you may well lose your lives and your reputations here,” said the charming woman. “Consider it very closely.”  And Hatto footnotes, There is always a touch of burlesque when Brunhild goes into action. I like you, A.T. Hatto; you translated a steppe epic, bless you; but why is this burlesque? Brunhild’s a riot, I grant you, but the butt of the burlesque is Gunther. The Nibelungenlied can be (mis)taken for misogynist. Its society, yes, which hides a girl away; but distinguish from that the author’s stance. Are we happy when Brunhild is robbed of her vast strength and Gunther manages to sleep with his wife? He can scarcely deserve her less. On his second attempt at a wedding night Hatto apologises for the poet, who as a child of his age, is shocked by her refusal to consummate the marriage. Is he? He’s thrown in a conservative sentence – at face value – but that has been a strategy of poets since. Does the story support a husband’s right? Doesn’t the story ask questions?

While we’re on this folklore motif – the girl who challenges her suitors to trials of strength – let’s visit Qaidu’s daughter Qutulun, over in Turkestan and eighty years after the Nibelungenlied was written: she put the folktale into practice. I love it when people decide to live out fiction. She had the wherewithal, and beat her suitors at wrestling. She didn’t have them killed, but only took a forfeit of horses.

Four centuries later – we’re in the 1650s now – a Dutch embassy to China, shortly after the Qing conquest, leaves us sketches of your typical northern woman, in contrast to Han Chinese. The women from the north strode around on big feet, with unpainted faces, while the Chinese were caked in make-up and didn’t walk anywhere on their lotus-feet. The Europeans seem amused and oddly charmed to meet these Tartar ladies – forward, free and easy, very hospitable – although the ambassador’s eyes might have spun when she unbuttoned him. Here are two encounters:

The Governor was by birth a Tartar, but understood not the Chinese language, therefore his sons were Interpreters. His Wife, a proper and comely Dame, spoke more than her husband, and was strangely inquisitive about Holland; she was not dismayed at our strange Arms, but like a bold Virago drew out our Swords, and discharged our Pistols, which much delighted her.

As we were riding out one day to take the air, we passed by the gate of the Old Imperial Court, where sat a great Tartar Lady, with her servants waiting upon her, about forty years of Age: She very civilly sent to our Interpreter to invite the Ambassadors into her House; Jacob de Keyzer hereupon alighted, and the Lady then made towards him: She was very debonair and free, looked upon our Swords, and much admired their bending without breaking: She took the Ambassador’s Hat, and put it on her own Head, and unbutton’d his Doublet almost down to the Waist: Afterwards she led the way into the house and desired him to follow… in her Apartment we found her standing with her Daughter about half her age, waiting our coming, in great state…. They set before us some of their Sweet-meats, much entreating us to Eat, excusing the meanness of their Entertainment, her husband being absent. 

Case study: were the women heads-of-state in Qara Khitai regents or khans? Once China had a woman emperor, and only one historian dares to call her that. Christopher I. Beckwith explains: The sources indicate she was called ‘Emperor’ (Chinese, ti) during her reign. Although she is better known by her posthumous name, Empress Wu Tse-t’ien, I prefer to follow her own intentions and also to give her credit for her accomplishments; thus I call her ‘Emperor Wu’.  It’s a similar tale in Qara Khitai (or Western Liao; Central Asia, dates 1141-1218) where Michal Biran is the first to acknowledge the women khans for what they were: Two out of the five Gurkhans were women… According to the Liao shi [Chinese source], the Qara Khitai empresses were merely regents, who reigned only temporarily, until their male children or nephews reached majority. Both Qara Khitai empresses, however, were specifically nominated for the post by their predecessors… Muslim sources suggest that the empress held unlimited authority in her realm, as is also implied by her titles… In fact, it is clear that the empresses functioned as rulers in their own right. They had their own reign titles, a feature that no Liao (or Chinese) regent ever had; they bore the titles Gurkhan [Universal Khan] and Dashi; and they certainly determined the empire’s internal and external policy.

On matters of sexual violence (a subject I have to research; my God, wish me luck or grant me strength), I was deeply struck, early in my education, by the sheer enlightenment found in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and yes, the kindness. Forget her Prologue, read her Tale. At eighteen or twenty I thought, this is so much more civilized than what I hear in the world today.

closer

about me and my novels on the Mongols –

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Talking Horses

“Throughout Turkic literature, human and superhuman faculties are attributed to horses. Not only are these generally gifted with human speech and reason, but they are superior morally and intellectually to the heroes themselves.” – Chadwick’s Oral Epics of Central Asia.

In steppe art, too, the horses talk. Take this bloke:

Mongol_cavalry - Persian Wcut horse headHe’s being galloped into the fray – a sad affray of Mongols against Mongols. And the people are lusty about it, but the horse is going, yes, this seems like a bloody great idea.

His eyes are set at the front of his head. Unanatomical, and done for effect: that’s so he can make eye-contact with us, and comment on the scene. This horse is definitely smarter than the humans.

Portrait with Horse is one of the commonest subjects in steppe art, and often the horse has more expression than its person. Which happens in the Secret History: Horses always have their features documented when they trot into the story, unlike the people on them; we’re told that Tchingis got his fatal injury in a fall from a red-earth roan, but for Tchingis’ own looks we have to consult Chinese travel journals and Persian war reports.

Here’s a Jurchen hunter (he’s squinting at his arrow) and a sheepish sort of horse, with his eyes on us again.Jurchen_man W

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I guess your average nomad saw more horse faces than human, daily, outside the family ger.

I thought I was being clever in the quarrel between Temujin and Jamuqa, late in book one: Jamuqa’s mare catches his mood and starts to give his body language for him, as Jamuqa becomes too deeply agitated to tell us how he’s feeling – even in pov – he can’t think about himself and only notices the antics of his mare. But no, I’m a rank amateur in use-of-a-horse. I’ll have to do much more with my horses in book three.