A speculative reconstruction of a ritual scene from Hong Kong's Tung Lung carving. Courtesy of William Meacham
Millennia ago, a man of the Rukai tribe in Taiwan married a woman of another tribe. She cooked meals for the family, but she never ate with them.
One day, her father-in-law, already suspicious of the woman, returned home to find her cooking and eating snakes.
The Rukai tribe worshipped snakes, so the woman was ordered to leave. On her way to her father's home, she rested at the foot of some big rocks, hoping her husband would come for her. She drew on the rocks with her finger as she waited and the drawing became "gubatsaeh", meaning "carvings on the rocks" in the Rukai language.
This is the legend behind the Wanshan rock carvings in Wantoulan Mountain of Taiwan's Kaohsiung County. The carvings were unknown to the outside world until 1978, when artist Kao Yeh-jung learned of their existence from his aborigine students.
Since then, a total of four sets of carvings have been discovered.
But the true origin of the carvings remains a mystery.
Petroglyphs are found all over the world. In China, some researchers divide them into three geographical groups: the North (including Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi and Xinjiang), the Southwest (Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi) and the Southeast (Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan).
Petroglyphs are often attributed to prehistoric cultures. Many believe they started to decline after the use of written language.
The Wanshan carvings are generally dated to the Iron Age, between 300 and 600 AD, according to University of Hong Kong archaeologist William Meacham.
Petroglyphs have also been discovered in 10 locations in Hong Kong and are dated to the Bronze Age, 1,500-700 BC, he said.
But dating petroglyphs is not an exact science. Archaeologists' main dating method is through associating with the decoration of prehistoric artifacts.
For example, when dating the petroglyphs in Hong Kong, one piece of evidence is the carving found on Po Tai Island that contains elaborate spirals similar to those on Bronze Age ceramics.
Likewise, another piece of the evidence is the square spirals found on a carving in Shek Pik on Lantau Island, which have also been seen on Bronze Age coarse ware.
Who carved the designs into such rocks? The prehistoric inhabitants of southern China are known as "yueh", or "yue" in pinyin, in documents of the Shang and Zhou dynasties (16th century-256 BC).
It's a highly biased and over-generalized concept. In much the same way ancient Greeks used "Celt" to describe a broad culture group, Yueh is a collective term for all of the "southern barbarians" who do not speak the Han language.
But archaeological or linguistic evidence indicates that the Yueh cultures were influential in many ways. The Yueh people are credited with the invention of wet rice cultivation, tea and canoes. And some linguists believe that the language of Yueh is most likely the origin of the Austronesian language family.
There's strong linguistic evidence showing Austronesian languages have spread from southern China to the Philippines and Malaysia, and have reached as far as Madagascar, according to Benjamin Tsou, a linguistic professor at the City University of Hong Kong.
Austronesian languages are still spoken by aborigines of Taiwan and some tribes on the Hainan Island. Kam-Tai and Miao-Yao, spoken by ethnic groups in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, are often considered a bridge between Austronesian and Sino-Tibetan language families.
Cantonese and Fujian dialects contain identifiable Austronesian elements, too, according to some scholars, he added.
But rock carvings are not universal to all Yueh people. Meacham believes they're the "signature" of certain tribes or subgroups.
Petroglyphs have been found in Hong Kong, Macao and Macao's neighboring city of Zhuhai. Interestingly, no prehistoric rock carvings have been found farther away from the seashore, despite the abundance of other prehistoric artifacts in central or northern Guangdong, Meacham said.
"I believe the rock carvings in Hong Kong, Macao and Zhuhai were done by a particular fishing tribe living near the coast," he said. "They may have some exchange with people living upstream along the Pearl River, but they didn't migrate. Where they lived or worked, they left rock carvings."
The situation in Taiwan is similar. The island has many archaeological sites, but, so far, petroglyphs are only found in Mountain Wantoulan.
"Of all the indigenous tribes in Taiwan, it seems only one has made rock carvings," Meacham said.
Is it possible that the rock-carving tribe in Guangdong and the one in Taiwan share some kind of the kinship?
Kao once commented that the long, sinuous lines of Wanshan rock carvings are similar to those of Hong Kong. But Meacham refuses to draw a conclusion on that, saying: "Some elements are universal to petroglyphs in the world".
But from a broader perspective, the petroglyphs in Hong Kong and Taiwan do share a common style: abstraction.
While the Northern petroglyphs of China are most realistic in portraying animal or human figures, the Southeastern ones are characterized by symbols and geometric forms.
The Southwestern rock art, interestingly enough, falls in the middle of the realism-vs-abstraction spectrum.
The abstract style of Southeastern petroglyphs has made their interpretation especially difficult. The symbols are geometric figures that have appeared so often and so consistently that they are of obvious significance. But what that is, no one knows for certain.
Meacham believes the significance is religious.
The carvings were not done for fun or simply for the sake of art, he said.
"The considerable effort required for their execution, and the well-nigh universal association of art with religion in primitive societies, argue strongly against a purely aesthetic motivation for the petroglyphs," he wrote 33 years ago in his book, Rock Carvings in Hong Kong.
Meacham will publish the second edition in April.
Another clue is the setting of rock carvings. In Hong Kong, almost all carvings are located on coastlines and overlook fishing grounds.
It's interesting to compare them to some remote points of the same coastline, where the only signs of human presence are the Tin Hau Temples visited by fishermen, Meacham said.
Definite answers may never be found. What's clear is the value of these mysterious carvings.
"China is not just about Han," Tsou said. "It's composed of many ethnic groups and distinct cultures. The carvings are part of our rich, diverse cultural legacy."
(HK Edition 01/24/2009 page3)