Gilt bronze; H. 2 1/4 in. (5.7 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1918 (18.33.1)
This small ornament is one of a pair of belt buckles designed as mirror images. Enclosed in a braided frame, the ox stands with its lowered head in three-quarter view and its tail tucked between its hind legs. Numerous objects of this type have been found in both northern China and Inner Mongolia. They were made in China for the seminomadic people known as the Xiongnu, who wore them on belts buckled over long tunics as decoration and as a mark of status. Different techniques and metals were used in the production of these buckles: it is probable that those of gold and silver were prized above gilded examples such as this one, which in turn were more highly valued than tinned or plain bronze pieces.
Although references to the Xiongnu are common in early Chinese histories, their origins remain unclear. During the third century B.C., this confederacy of mixed ethnic and linguistic stock controlled a vast Central Asian territory that extended west as far as the Caucasus. Relations between the Han Chinese and these powerful northern neighbors were complicated and included military conflict, tribute payments of grain and silk, official exchanges of other goods, and trade both sanctioned and unsanctioned.