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Taiwan Panorama / Article:Riddle from the Ancient Past: The Mysteries of Sanxingdui
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1999/5/p.104
Riddle from the Ancient Past: The Mysteries of Sanxingdui
(Tsai Wen-ting/photos courtesy of the Pacific Cultural Foundation/tr. by David Mayer)
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At the National Palace Museum, the door-way to the Sanxingdui exhibit is designed to look like a time tunnel. Pass through it, and you are transported to a world that vanished millennia ago. The first thing that greets your eyes is a bronze statue over two meters tall, towering regal and majestic over the milling commoners. In a darkened room, masked bronze heads are laid out in two glowing sacrificial burial pits. Hanging on the wall is a huge photograph of the site where these treasures were recently unearthed after lying buried for thousands of years. In front of the photograph is a huge mask, its bug-eyes bulging out 16 cm from the sockets, staring straight at each modern-day visitor that enters through the time warp.

The bizarre-looking relics in this room might just as well be aliens from outer space, so odd is their appearance. Where they come from, however, is Sanxingdui, where they lay buried for over 3,000 years ago in a land regarded by the people of the Yellow River region as a wilderness inhabited by uncivilized barbarians. This is another in a string of recent archeological discoveries which prove that the Yellow River culture was not the only source of Chinese civilization. In addition to Sanxing-dui, we have also learned in recent years of other cultures from that same time period. Two especially notable examples are the Liangzhu and Hongshan cultures.

Sanxingdui is located in Sichuan Province near the city of Guanghan, through which the Mamu River flows. To the north of the river is a highland called Yueliangwan (literally "moon bay"). Across the river from the highland, there are three man-made mounds, each about the height of a man. Likening the mounds to a constellation of stars, locals have always called the area Sanxingdui ("three star mounds"), and in describing the area's topography they have spoken poetically for centuries about how "the three stars and the moon keep each other company." Little did they know that just beneath their feet lay the buried remains of an ancient culture dating back to a period ranging from 2,800 to 4,800 years ago. After several decades of research, however, archeologists have brought to light spectacular proof of an ancient "Sanxingdui culture." Relics have been unearthed at dozens of locations around the huge Sanxingdui site, which covers a total area of more than 15 square kilometers.

The story begins 70 years ago. In the spring of 1929, a farmer named Yan from Yueliang-wan was having a problem with the waterwheel that he used to irrigate his fields. It wasn't bringing up any water, so he decided to dig his well deeper. Instead of hitting water, though, what he found was a huge pit of buried jade, with an especially large number of bi (a round, flat piece of jade with a hole in the center). The largest were 80 cm in diameter, and even the small ones measured 10 cm. The farmer went around giving the jade away to people, and the fame of what came to be known as "Guanghan jade" spread rapidly among antique collectors. Some of the Guang-han jade made its way into the collection of the museum at Huaxi University, and five years after the original discovery, the museum dispatched a team to carry out a formal survey and excavation of the area where the farmer had found the jade. In addition to jade, the team also unearthed large amounts of pottery. Yueliang-wan became a mecca for archeological research in Sichuan Province.

A succession of wars, however, brought archeological work to a halt for many years before experts were finally able to return to Yueliang-wan and Sanxingdui in the 1950s and 60s. The growing number of sites and the enormous collection of jades and pottery that were gradually unearthed in scattered excavations led archeologists to suspect that the area might have been one of the principal cities of southwest China's Shu kingdom in prehistoric times.

Buried treasure

Villages throughout the Chengdu Plain built brickworks in the 1970s to meet the needs of China's growing cities. In Yueliangwan and Sanxingdui, brickworks dug up soil continuously from the area's rapeseed fields, rapidly unearthing and destroying ancient relics in the process. Finally, in 1980, an archeological team dispatched by the Sichuan provincial government began a systematic excavation at Sanxing-dui to protect the area's many archeological sites from further damage. The leader of the dig was Chen De'an, who currently serves as assistant director of the Sanxingdui Museum. Chen has now been directly involved in archeological excavations at Sanxingdui for nearly 20 years.

The members of that first archeological team lived in a noisy, dusty brickworks dormitory for six straight years. They conducted digs throughout the entire Sanxingdui area and unearthed a number of housing and burial sites. What they failed to turn up, however, was the sacrificial burial pits with the bronzes that would one day attract attention throughout the world. Says Chen, "Archeological work can be really strange that way. No matter how hard you search, you aren't always the one that turns up the really big find." He goes on to recount how the discovery was made.

It was July 1986, and the team had already decided to close down the dig when an exciting message came in: a worker at a brickworks had dug up an exquisitely crafted jade tablet. Archeologists rushed to the site and started digging. As the work proceeded, they couldn't help but wonder why the earth there had been tamped down so hard. The chances of unearthing a lot more treasures looked promising.

Baptism of fire

They were not disappointed. They had stumbled onto what would later come to be known as pit #1. In addition to the jades and pottery that they had been finding all along, they unearthed bronze zun (a type of wine vessel) and bowls made in the Shang dynasty style. The most intriguing discoveries, however, were yet to come-a series of items like none ever seen before. First came a bronze head. This was then followed by another, and many more still. The heads were adorned with round caps, pointed helmets, masks, and other headgear. There was also a life-size bronze statue of a man. These unfamiliar strangers from the distant past left everyone speechless.

Day and night, the archeologists dug feverishly for more ancient relics. About a month after the discovery of pit #1, another brick worker came running with the news that he had dug up two more heads some 30 meters away. He remarked, "The eyebrows are blue, and the lips are red." Just as the archeologists were beginning to calm down after the discovery of pit #1, the adrenaline started pumping again. As before, the soil was rammed hard, and once again, one stunning item after another was unearthed-over 60 elephant tusks, numerous delicate and complex bronze zun and lei (an urn-shaped wine vessel), bronze heads bedecked in a wide assortment of finery, and a huge bronze mask measuring over 130 cm from side to side. Even the archeologists were taken by surprise. Chen recalls his first reaction to the artifacts in pit #2: "I couldn't believe the way the eyes on that one mask popped out so far from the sockets. The feeling that they were staring at me kind of addled my brain. I had no idea what we were looking at."

The items from the two burial pits were compared with items unearthed earlier at Sanxingdui. This comparison, and the results of carbon-14 dating, indicated that the relics had been buried over 3,000 years ago, when the Shang culture flourished in the Yellow River region. There was clear evidence that the artifacts had been deliberately burnt and broken before being arranged neatly inside the burial pit. Many of the jade pieces in the pits were whitened, for example, and the edges of the bronzes were curled and warped. The culture of the ancient kingdom of Shu has always been an arresting enigma, but the uniquely designed bronzes of Sanxingdui and the evidence of "fire burials" have added considerably to the air of mystery.

Why would the ancient inhabitants of San-xingdui burn and break such exquisitely crafted bronze statues and jades? What exactly was the role of the tall bronze statue? Both of these two pits are of major archeological significance, and the relics found there have given us new insight into the complex and little-understood culture of ancient Shu. At the same time, however, all this additional knowledge has presented archeologists with a raft of puzzling new riddles.

The "giant of the East"

There is no parallel in human history for the bronze-making culture that flourished in China over 3,000 years ago. Particularly noteworthy are the bronzes that have been unearthed at Anyang in the Yellow River basin. The style and manufacturing techniques of Shang bronzes spread far and wide-to modern-day Shan-dong in the east, Shanxi and Shaanxi in the west, Liaoning in the north, and Guangdong in the south.

What archeologists have unearthed in Sanxingdui, however, is a large number of bronze statues and masks produced with very sophisticated technology in a style very different from the bronzes of the Yellow River basin. The Sanxingdui finds prove that a culture distinct from the Yellow River cultures existed in the upper Yangtze basin. More important still, this separate culture had achieved a high degree of sophistication in bronze working, and it also had its own unique art and burial culture. The most prominent representative of this culture is certainly the huge bronze statue of a man, which has been nicknamed "the giant of the East."

Prior to the surprising discoveries at Sanxingdui, examples of large human statues had never been found among pre-Buddhist Chinese bronzes. The only previously known life-size human sculptures dating to that period were the terra cotta figures in the tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty. Even among emperors and high imperial officials, there was simply no tradition of creating one's own image in sculpture. That is one reason why the relics from Sanxingdui are so remarkable. Predating by a millennium the tomb of the first Qin emperor, the Sanxingdui burial pits contained nearly 80 human figures in bronze, including heads, masks, and the 172-cm life-size bronze statue that, together with its base, towers to a height of 262 cm. This is one of the few large-scale bronze human statues to be made in China at any period of its history. Furthermore, very few items like it dating to the same period have been found anywhere in the world.

The bronze statue has sharp facial features-bushy eyebrows, big eyes that glare at the viewer, an aquiline nose, and a tightly closed mouth that reaches very nearly from ear to ear. The facial muscles are tensed, the expression is solemn, and both arms are held out in a circle, as if performing some kind of sacred rite. The figure wears a hard, round cap decorated with a feather-like ornament. The clothes consist of three layers of robes decorated with intricately crafted dragons, whorls, and human faces. All this suggests that the man must have enjoyed very high rank in the kingdom of Shu 3,000 years ago. Perhaps he was a king, or a high priest.

According to Dr. Chen Fang-mei, a specialist in Shang-period bronzes at National Taiwan University's Institute of Art History, one can tell just from the large size of the bronze statue that the Sanxingdui culture was quite sophisticated. The statue weighs over 180 kilograms and thus required the smelting of more than 10,000 kilograms of ore. We can infer that the people of Sanxingdui already knew how to bore a mine shaft, ventilate the shaft, and build some means of transport, otherwise they never would have been able to mine this quantity of ore.

With its great height and complex shape, the bronze statue could not be cast in a single piece. Instead, it was cast in sections, a complex technique totally different from that employed by the Shang culture for the production of bronze ding (three-legged cauldrons) and zun. Socket joints were used to join the pieces together, with the male element on one piece fitting into the female element of the next piece. When molten bronze was then poured into the joint, it would harden and join the pieces together while preserving the smooth outer surface. Dr. Chen attaches the highest importance to the bronze casting prowess of the Sanxingdui culture: "They had left the Stone Age behind and entered the Bronze Age. This accomplishment was every bit as significant as our lunar landing and entry into the space age."

Prehistoric fashion statement

In addition to the towering bronze statue, the two burial pits also contained 57 bronze heads. Sharp lines delineate big, protruding eyes and tightly closed lips. While each of these figures was used in religious rites, the air of religious intensity in each face is hidden behind a mask. The result is a solemn, mysterious feeling. The lower end of the neck on each of the heads ends in a pointed diamond shape, suggesting that the heads were all mounted on bodies made of some other material, and that they were arranged in solemn majesty around an altar, with the big bronze statue standing in the center. After the sacred rite was completed, the beautifully crafted statues and ceremonial implements were burnt, broken, and placed in the pit.

Why would anyone have done this? Some theorize that it may have had to do with the issue of dynastic succession, while others suggest that maybe the burning was intended to transmit to heaven the prayers and supplications of the worshippers.

These bronzes may represent humans, or they may represent gods, neither of which was often depicted in ancient bronzes from the Yellow River region. In either case, these bronzes reveal much about the changing fashions and hairstyles of the people of ancient Shu at the height of its prosperity. The bushy eyebrows are "dyed" a deep green, the large eyes are accented with a deep-blue eye shadow, the lips are painted red, and the ears are pierced. Dr. Chen quips, "Those ancient Shu people were even more fashionable than the girls you see on the street today in Sichuan!"

Seek truth from legends?

No evidence of any written language has yet been found in Sanxingdui, for which reason our knowledge of the history of ancient Shu is extremely sketchy. There are just a few scattered references in tortoise shell inscriptions from the Shang dynasty that mention war and other contacts with the kingdom of Shu. Moving forward in time to the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Yang Xiong wrote a history of Shu, but the book is no longer extant. Fact and fiction concerning Shu were later mixed together by the Jin dynasty (265-420) author of Huayang Guozhi, a history of southwest China. (Modern-day Sichuan constituted a part of the kingdom of Huayang, which existed for a time in ancient southwest China.)

According to popular legend, ancient Shu was ruled by a succession of five dynasties established, respectively, by the kings Cancong, Boguan, Yufu, Duyu, and Kaiming. The best known of these was Duyu, thanks to the well-known story of how he changed into a cuckoo and cried tears of blood at an unspeakable tragedy. Of interest to scholars studying Sanxing-dui, however, is the following passage from Huayang Guozhi: "There was a nobleman of Shu whose zongmu were the cause of his ascendance to the throne" Scholars long puzzled over the meaning of zongmu, which literally means "vertical eyes." Some guessed it was saying that the king had an extra eye in the middle of his forehead. Some conjectured that the king may have had tattoos above his eyes, others wondered whether he perhaps had big bulging eyes, and still others put forward the hypothesis that zongmu was simply a figure of speech.

Surprisingly, it appears that the discoveries of Sanxingdui may corroborate this legend. The ancient King Cancong had exaggerated, semi-divine facial characteristics, and his zongmu are manifested in concrete form in the bronzes of ancient Shu. Furthermore, one of the items unearthed in pit #1 is a 142-cm staff covered with gold foil. Carved into the staff are several human heads and a cormorant carrying an arrow with a fish impaled upon its shaft. In the view of Gao Dalun, assistant director of the Sichuan Provincial Museum, the owner of this golden staff was probably the king of the Yufu nation that is mentioned in legend, for the name "Yufu" basically means "cormorant."

Land of plenty

The Shan Hai Jing, an ancient "encyclopedia" compiled during the Warring States period (475-221 BC), contains many legends predating the Qin dynasty. This encyclopedia mentions a place called Duguang, which it describes as a huge city with walls extending for a mind-boggling 300 li (150 kilometers). According to the Shan Hai Jing, the land in Duguang was fertile, crops grew in abundance without anyone tending them, the people had enough to eat all year round, and animals frolicked together in harmony. The results of scholarly research indicate that this paradise must have corresponded to what is today known as the Chengdu Plain, and the findings at Sanxingdui further corroborate the argument that there was indeed an ancient city on the Chengdu Plain that was every bit as advanced as its contemporaries in the Yellow River basin. Legends can exaggerate-the 3.5-square-kilometer Sanxingdui site is considerably smaller than the Duguang mentioned in the Shan Hai Jing.

The natural environment of Sichuan Province is extremely favorable to human habitation, so much so, in fact, that the province has long been nicknamed the "land of plenty." Unlike sites in the North China Plain, much of the sculpture from Sanxingdui is modeled on nature. Beautifully executed statues of plants and animals number in the hundreds. Nine gorgeously plumed birds, each holding ripe, juicy berries in its talons, perch in the branches of a sacred bronze tree that stands close to four meters tall. Hanging from these branches are sea shells, a symbol of wealth. Perhaps the purpose of these decorations was to pray for wealth, or maybe the tree was meant to serve as a stairway to heaven. Every Chinese child today knows of the legendary tree that sheds coins whenever shaken. This story dates back to the Han dynasty, some 2,000 years ago. Could the tree unearthed at Sanxingdui have been the precursor to the money tree of legend?

Another intriguing artifact is a jade tablet engraved with a scene depicting a group of Shu people dressed in short skirts and holding jade tablets as they kneel in worship to the mountain god. This evidence of mountain god worship provides valuable insight into the religious beliefs of the Sanxingdui culture.

History textbooks have always described the Yellow River basin as the sole source of Chinese civilization, but the discoveries at Sanxing-dui provide additional proof that this traditional view is not correct. This is another reason why the Sanxingdui site is so important.

Chang Kuang-chih, former assistant director of Academia Sinica and now a well-known archeologist at Harvard University, states that Chinese civilization had already evolved by 4,000 BC into a number of separate cultural spheres. Each sphere was independent and unique, but the various spheres also interacted with and influenced each other, so that they all shared certain common characteristics. He likens their relationship to the petals in a flower, which overlap partially, but never all the way.

Diverse origins

A series of major archeological discoveries in recent years has proven that Chinese civilization has diverse roots. The brochure for the current Sanxingdui exhibit at the National Palace Museum, written by Dr. Tu Cheng-sheng, director of Academia Sinica's Institute of History and Philology, provides a chronological table to illustrate this point.

In the territory corresponding to modern-day China, northern China was home from some 5,000 years ago to the Hongshan culture located along the Liao River, and also to a string of successive Yellow River cultures-first the Yangshao, followed by the Longshan, Erlitou, and Shang. In the south, there was the Liangzhu culture in the lower Yangtze basin, and the Qujialing and Shijiahe cultures in the middle Yangtze region. Now the discoveries of Sanxingdui have revealed that there was also a unique culture in the Chengdu Plain of the upper Yangtze basin, thus adding emphatic proof of the diverse origins of Chinese civilization.

 
 
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