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Sanxingdui demonstrates a civilization that had its own customs, rituals, and remarkable innovation

APR . 21 2021
Peking University, April 21, 2021: In an afternoon of early spring 1929, a father and son in a village in Guanghan, an outer region of Chengdu in southwest China’s Sichuan province, accidentally unearthed a true wonder of civilization when digging a well. The farmers’ discovery of sacrificial pits containing treasures of bronze, gold, jade and pottery from the ancient Kingdom of Shu provided evidence for an ancient Chinese civilization that extended beyond China’s central plains in 3,000-5,000 years ago. Sanxingdui, also known as Three-star Piles, demonstrated a civilization that had its own customs and rituals, as well as remarkable innovation.

A bronze mask discovered from Sanxingdui

Sichuan province and its capital Chengdu are focal points for the discovery and research of ancient Chinese civilizations. Some of China’s oldest historical relics, providing evidence of ancient Chinese crafts, customs and practices, have been found in the region. Modern Chengdu and surrounding areas are a melting pot of culture and customs inherited from ancient times: taxi drivers recite the works of Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet, Du Fu; the relics of the Sanxingdui historical site; elderly retirees in public parks playing mahjong over cups of tea; the ancient rock carvings of Dazu caves; Chengdu’s famed bianlian (face-changing) performance, where performers change masks faster than audiences can follow. Each has its roots in ancient Chinese civilization or dynastic rituals, and each demonstrates the strong effect ancient civilization has on contemporary Sichuanese culture.

The Bronze Age civilization discovered at Sanxingdui is one of the earliest civilizations discovered in China, but is just one of several Chinese civilizations that existed at the time. The farmers’ discovery of the sacrificial pits and the treasures they contained aroused significant archaeological and scholarly interest. The artifacts were identified as belonging to the ancient Kingdom of Shu, which existed over 3,000 years ago, or around a thousand years before the Terracotta Army was built in Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi province.

This discovery provided strong evidence for the hypothesis put forward by many archeologists that Chinese civilization is descended from multiple centers of ancient innovation. This theory is further reinforced by the fact that many of the walls surrounding settlements of the ancient Baodun culture, located close to the Sanxingdui archeological site in Sichuan province, had similar methods of construction to those of the Shijiahe culture, located over a thousand kilometers away in what is now Tianmen, central China’s Hubei province. The artifacts, however, are unlike anything others discovered in other parts of China. The styles of the artifacts, for example bronze heads with bulging eyes, were previously unseen in China’s history, and the next known example of human statuary crafting does not appear on the archeological record for nearly a millennium. These facts reinforce the uniqueness of the artifacts and the civilization that produced them. Little is known of their makers, who they were, and whether they spoke a form of Chinese, or a language closer to Burmese or Thai.

The ancient nature of these discoveries, as well as the lack of accompanying historical records, creates difficulties in deducing information about the civilization that created them. Nevertheless, artifacts discovered at the Sanxingdui site do provide clues that can help historians speculate about the origins of Chinese civilization. For example, the technical quality and artistic style of the artifacts are suggestive of an advanced civilization. The bronze figures found at the site include a tree that is more than 13 feet in height, a statue of a man that stands at over eight feet, and over 50 bronze heads. The purpose of these artifacts remains ambiguous, leaving space for historians to speculate about their intended uses. In addition to daily utensils, there were many animal sculptures, perhaps used as children’s toys, and many jade jewelry pieces including beads, which are presumed to have been worn as accessories. We can also draw conclusions from other relics to gain a wider picture of Chinese society of that time. For example, pottery vessels that were immediately buried with food stored inside demonstrate an ancient understanding of refrigeration.

Artefacts of ritual and worship are equally fascinating, with the bronze trees found at Sanxingdui providing insights into how ancient Chinese civilizations connected their own world with the world of the supernatural. The trees are believed to have been regarded as an axis between the earthly world and the heavenly world. Rather than household ornaments then, these bronze trees can be considered mystical religious relics.

Archeological discoveries in Sichuan province play an important role in tracing the emergence of Chinese civilization. Being naturally fertile, the area attracted early settlers, and from sites such as Sanxingdui, archeologists and historians can discover much about the innovative, spiritual and practical nature of these early peoples. The mysteries of the Sanxingdui relics support the idea that the more one knows about Chinese civilization, the more difficult it becomes to grasp its complexities and nuances. The discoveries of ancient Sichuan both aid and perplex our understanding of Chinese civilization.

The author is Natasha Lock, a Yenching Academy scholar of Peking University from the UK.

Source: Beijing Review