Material Culture of Six Dynasties North China


A review of Leaves that Sway: Gold Xianbei Cap Ornaments from Northeast China, by Sarah Laursen.

Sarah Laursen’s dissertation is the first work in English to address the archaeology and history of the Murong Xianbei 慕容鮮卑 who ruled parts of Northeast Asia from the third to fifth century CE. The dissertation focuses on two distinct types of gold ornaments recovered from Murong tombs in Liaoyang, Inner Mongolia, and Henan, which have previously been interpreted as derivatives of Chinese ornaments. Originally attached to fabric caps, the first type are gold ornaments with swaying leaves that have been identified by Chinese archaeologists as buyao 步摇 (literally step-sway) based on descriptions in the “Yufu zhi 輿服誌 (Records of Chariots and Robes),” of the Xu Han shu 續漢書 (Continuation of the Book of Han). The second kind of gold ornaments are rectangular openwork plaques, identified as dang 璫, a frontal often cicada-shaped gold piece, which decorated the caps of Chinese rulers and officials as early as the Warring States period (ca. 475-221 BCE). Laursen shows that rather than being copied from these Chinese ornaments, the form, fabrication, and style of Murong ornaments are firmly grounded in Near Eastern and Central Asian traditions. They also share design elements with Han dynasty kua 銙 belts, i.e., belts consisting of a series of separated plaques with rings suspended from their lower edges. These kinds of belts were worn by members of the Chinese court during the Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Jin (265-420 CE) dynasties.

Laursen combines careful visual analysis with a study of manufacturing techniques, informed by her practical experience in metalsmithing acquired at the Moore College of Art and Design, to create a narrative of complex cultural and technological transmission. This approach stands in stark contrast to earlier scholarship, which is either grounded in sinicizing models in which the Murong and others cannot resist the siren song of a superior Han-Chinese culture, or has created unwieldy cultural complexes like the “Swaying- Leaf Culture 搖葉文化,” a concept that equates similarities in ornaments across Eurasia between the first and the seventh century CE with a single culture. By contrast, Laursen’s approach to the material culture of the Murong is grounded in traditional art historical methods, including visual analysis and scientific conservation methods; in this fashion, she sheds new light on Murong luxury goods, their production, and their place within the tradition of gold ornaments across Eurasia.

Chapter 1 includes a complete history of the Murong based on the Chinese dynastic histories and supplemented by material evidence and a few inscriptions from the growing number of Murong tombs excavated in the last fifty years. The written sources trace the supposed origins of the Murong back to the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) and then to the third to fifth century CE when they established a series of short-lived states. Just as with the histories and ethnographies of other frontier peoples in the dynastic histories, the account of the Murong is unsurprisingly sinocentric and heavy on political and military history, as the author rightfully points out. Archaeological studies of the Murong supplement and contradict this account and have been based on two kinds of approaches. The first approach closely follows historical sources and tells a story of gradual sinicization. The second focuses on specific items excavated from tombs, emphasizing similarities in luxury goods, while ignoring larger political, social, and cultural differences between groups. Chapter 1 provides the necessary context for the material presented in Chapter 2, which offers a detailed list of known step-sway ornaments and openwork plaques discovered in Murong tombs, as well as in other Six Dynasty (220-589 CE) tombs to the south and west, and similar unprovenanced ornaments held in private collections.

As Laursen shows, previous scholarship on Murong gold ornaments can be grouped in two camps: one that see their origins in Chinese buyao and dang, and one that argues that the origins of Murong gold ornaments lie farther to the West. In Chapters 3 and 4, Laursen highlights the shortcomings of both approaches. Based on descriptions in the “Yufu zhi 輿服誌 (Records of Chariots and Robes),” of the Xu Han shu 續漢書 (Continuation of the Book of Han), written by Sima Biao司馬彪 (d. 306 CE), Chinese archaeologists have claimed that these ornaments are derivatives of buyao and dang, two types of head ornaments worn by males and females in the Han and Jin dynasties. Textual descriptions and visual representations in tomb murals and later copies of early handscrolls, such as Tang dynasty copies of Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之’s (ca. 345-406 CE) Admonitions to the Court Instructress (Nüshi zhen tu 女史箴圖), clearly show that the buyao described in Chinese textual sources do not look like and were not worn in the same fashion as the Murong ornaments. Instead, as Laursen argues, evidence points to the pivotal role of steppe nomads in the development of dang plaques and the transmission of goldsmithing techniques from the west during the Warring States Period.

In Chapter 4, Laursen examines the western origins of the leaf-covered branches and openwork bases of Murong ornaments. By comparing their form, style, and motifs to ornaments and headgear from a wide range of places from Eastern Europe to Japan, Laursen shows that a strong case can be made for their western origins. Simultaneously, she problematizes the culturally reductive models proposed by earlier scholars. Rather than focusing on golden crowns and ornaments from Korea, Japan, and China in the the early to mid-first millennium CE, and Liao Dynasty (916-1125 CE) ornaments, Lauren focuses on the imagery, style, and use of pendant sheet gold elements in crowns, diadems and headdresses from the Mediterranean east across the Eurasian Steppe as potential precursors of the Murong ornaments. Although there are still large gaps in the overall process of transmission, for Laursen it is the differences in the manufacturing techniques of gold leaf ornaments across this vast geographic area that provide essential information about potential sites of contact and modes of transmission.

In Chapter 5, Laursen focuses on the form, function, and manufacture of Murong gold step-sway ornaments and openwork plaques. Although these objects have been traditionally understood as variations of buyao and dang, certain elements of their form and construction, including their raised central ridges, openwork comma shapes, and the attachment of wire elements without chemical bonding (used in such techniques as granulation, filigree, inlay, and soldering) make them rather similar to kua belts, which consist of openwork plaques and suspended rings. Laursen’s insightful analysis is only made possible through her understanding of goldsmithing techniques and an approach that combines close visual analysis with a thorough understanding of material and techniques.

Laursen’s dissertation is a major contribution to the study of East Asian archaeology, history, and art history in the early to mid-first millennium. By focusing on a particular type of ornament discovered in Murong tombs, she exposes many of the problems inherent in the study of the material culture of the groups that controlled northern China during the Six Dynasties. By making clear that the overall appearance of these ornaments is the result of complex cultural transmissions across time and space, her work also contributes to a growing body of scholarship that eschews sinocentric models and instead highlights the complex spheres of cultural interaction that characterized East Asia in the first millennium. Her examination of gold crowns, diadems, and headdresses from across such a wide geographic area is impressive in its all-encompassing detail. Few scholars possess the breadth of knowledge to address material culture across such a diverse temporal and geographic span, but as Laursen shows, the payout for such inquiries is well worth the effort.

Leslie Wallace
Art and Archaeology
Hood College

Primary Sources

Hou Han shu 後漢書
Jin shu 晉書
Sanguo zhi 三國志
Shiliuguo Chunqiu 十六國春秋
Xu Han shu 續漢書

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2011. 345 pp. Primary Advisor: Nancy S. Steinhardt.

Image: Gold cap ornament, H. 5-3/4 in. Fangshen village, Belpiao county, Liaoning province, late 3rd to mid-4th century CE. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang, China. Photo by Sarah Laursen.

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