This openwork belt plaque depicts an advancing feline in profile, most likely a tiger, attacking a small deer which has its hind legs pulled upwards. Its smooth and rounded appearance with well-defined paws are features characteristic of belt buckles excavated from Maoqinggou in southwest Inner Mongolia. On the reverse, there are three small loops, two at the head for vertical attachment, and one at the end for horizontal attachment. Casting marks are visible around the holes.
The tiger is the most distinctive motif used on belt plaques from southwest Inner Mongolia and northwest China. A fearsome but beautiful predator, a threat to the herdsmens’ flocks, as well as a symbol of fierce strength, it is not hard to see why pastoral peoples incorporated its image into their favoured iconography. Whilst belts were a common and important functional item – to hold up clothes as well as from which to hang swords and other tools – large zoomorphic plaques such as the present are a rare feature. The frequency of their distribution among tombs indicates that they were prestigious and elaborate indicators of status, intended only for special members of the community.
This plaque has a particularly distinctive buckling system. Designed to be worn as the left-hand plaque of a pair, it features a large perforation at the tiger’s shoulder. This was part of the fastening system, and the loops on the reverse would have functioned as attachment devices; because these plaques were designed as one half of a pair, only one plaque was pierced by a hole. The earliest known buckle of this type was found at Minusinsk in southern Siberia, associated with objects of the Tagar culture. It is therefore probable that this type of plaque was imported to the northern zone of China and southwest Inner Mongolia.
The motif of an animal attacking a smaller creature was also prevalent in southern Siberia and spread in popularity to north west China and Mongolia. Very likely, the theme was intended to indicate the wearer’s strength and authority. Ultimately derived from the artistic tradition of western Asia, it became an integral component in the symbolic iconography that dictated the designs employed on the belts of the pastoral peoples of the eastern Eurasian steppes. As the design was dispersed eastwards, local predatory animals, including the tiger, replaced the lions or panthers that adorned western Asian examples.
Duan Shuan, ed., Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji 15: Beijing minzu (Beijing, 1995), pl. 95.
This type of belt plaque, and the animal-attack motif are discussed by E.C. Bunker, T.S. Kawami, K.M Linduff, and W. En, Ancient Bronzes of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections (New York, 1997), pp. 57-58.
Private Collection, New York, 1970s.
Published: T. Pang, Treasures of the Eurasian Steppes: Animal Art from 800 BC to 200 AD (New York, 1998), no. 114.