Ordos culture

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This article is about Ordos culture as a Bronze Age and Iron Age culture. For other uses, see Ordos (disambiguation). For the Ordos culture of the Paleolithic, see Ordosian culture. For the history of human settlement in the Ordos Plateau, see Ordos Loop.
The Ordos people were located at the doorstep of Qin China, and were just east of the Yuezhi in the 3rd century BCE.
Bronze statuette of a man, Ordos, 3-1st century BCE. British Museum. Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen notes that the statuette displays clear Europoid features.[1]

The Ordos culture was a culture occupying a region centred on the Ordos Plateau, now in the south of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, during the Bronze Age and early Iron Age from the 6th to 2nd centuries BCE. The Ordos culture is known for significant finds of Steppes art and is thought to represent the easternmost extension equestrian Europoid peoples, specifically the Scythians.[2] Under the Qin and Han dynasties the area came under at least loose Chinese control.


Equestrian nomads occupied the area of the Ordos Plateau previously settled by the Zhukaigou culture from the 6th to the 2nd century BCE before being driven away by the Xiongnu. The Ordos Plateau was covered by grass, bushes, and trees and was sufficiently watered by numerous rivers and streams to produce rich grazing lands.[3] At the time it contained the best pasture lands on the Asian steppe at this time.[4] However it has now mostly turned to the Ordos Desert, through a combination of over-grazing and climatic change, with modern interventions by the Chinese government being especially harmful.


The Ordos are mainly known from their skeletal remains and artifacts. The Ordos culture of about 500 BCE to 100 CE is known for its "Ordos bronzes", blade weapons, finials for tent-poles,horse gear, and small plaques and fittings for clothes and horse harness, using animal style decoration with relationships both with the Scythian art of regions much further west, and also Chinese art. Its relationship with the Xiongnu is controversial; for some scholars they are the same, and for others different.[5] Many buried metal artefacts have emerged on the surface of the land as a result of the progressive desertification of the region.[6]

According to Iaroslav Lebedynsky, they are thought to be the easternmost people of Scythian affinity to have settled here, just to the east of the better-known Yuezhi.[7] Because the people represented in archaeological finds tend to display Europoid features, also earlier noted by Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen,[1] Lededynsky suggests the Ordos to be of Scythian affinity.[8] Other scholars have associated it with the Yuezhi.[3] The weapons, found in tombs throughout the steppes of the Ordos, are very close to those of the Scythians, known on the Asian Steppe as Sakas.[9]


The Ordos were in contact and often at war with the pre-Han and Han Chinese populations of the period. Their former territory is now located just north of the Great Wall of China, and on the south bank of the northernmost hook of the Yellow river. The western neighbours of Ordos may have been identical with the Yuezhi who, after being vanquished by the Xiongnu, migrated to southern Asia to form the Kushan empire.

They were also culturally related to another nomadic tribe to the east, the Eastern Hu (Chinese:東胡, "Donghu"), who shared a similar "art of the steppes" but appear to have been Mongoloids (Donghu is synonymous with Dongyi, which refers to the inhabitants of Korea, Japan, and what is now northeast China; the ancestors of the people living there today are likely to be these Eastern Hu or related to them in some way).[10] They may also have been related to the Di people (Chinese:氐 "Western Barbarians") of Chinese annals.

Appearance of the Xiongnu[edit]

Horse attacked by tiger, Ordos, 4th-1st century BCE

In Chinese accounts, the Xiongnu first appear at Ordos in the Yizhoushu and Shanhaijing during the Warring States period before it was occupied by Qin and Zhao. It is generally thought to be their homeland, however when exactly they came to occupy the region is unclear, and it might have been much earlier than traditionally thought, as suggested by archaeological finds.[11]

As the Xiongnu expanded southward into Yuezhi territory around 160 BCE under their leader Modun, the Yuezhi in turn defeated the Sakas (Scythians) and pushed them away at the Issyk Kul. It is thought the Xiongnu also occupied the Ordos area during the same period, when they came in direct contact with the Chinese. From there, the Xiongnu conducted numerous devastating raids into Chinese territory (167, 158, 142, 129 BCE).[12]

The Han Dynasty started to fight the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BCE under emperor Han Wudi, and colonized the area of the Ordos under Shuofang commandery in 127 BCE. Prior to the campaign, there were already commanderies established earlier by Qin and Zhao until they were overrun by the Xiongnu in 209 BCE.[13]


Ordos bronzes from the British Museum (Asian Gallery):



  1. ^ a b Maenchen-Helfen 1973, p. 369-375
  2. ^ Lebedynsky 2007, p. 131
  3. ^ a b Hanks & Linduff 2009, p. 284-286
  4. ^ Beckwith 2009, p. 71
  5. ^ Compare this and this account, both from the 1970s. Bunker, 200, sees them as the same, or rather the Ordos people as a subgroup of the Xiongnu.
  6. ^ Bunker, 200
  7. ^ Lebedynsky 2007, p. 125 "The Mongoloid types of the Transbaikal area and Central and Eastern Mongolia are strongly contrasted with the Europoid type displayed at the same time by the Scythian nomads occupying Western Mongolia and their predecessors of the Bronze age."
  8. ^ Lebedynsky 2007, p. 125 "Europoid faces in some depictions of the Ordos, which should be attributed to a Scythian affinity"
  9. ^ Lebedynsky 2007, p. 127
  10. ^ Lebedynsky, p.124
  11. ^ Ma 2005, p. 220-225
  12. ^ Lebedymsky p131
  13. ^ Ma 2005, p. 224