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Sanxingdui offers insight into the Bronze Age of China

HUO WEI | 2022-11-10 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The “Fu Hao” owl-shaped bronze zun unearthed from the tomb of Fu Hao at Yinxu site, Henan Province, representing the pinnacle of bronze art in the late Shang period (c. 1600–1046 BCE) Photo: CFP

Archaeological study of Sanxingdui not only redraws the landscape of China’s Bronze Age, but also reveals many characteristics of the origins of Chinese civilization. It is of great importance to study the origins of Chinese civilization and the evolution of the plurality and unity in the configuration of the Chinese nationality by using the latest archaeological achievements.

China’s Bronze Age

The Bronze Age is an important stage that human society has experienced. Compared with other ancient civilizations, China’s Bronze Age featured unique taste and design. In terms of the form and function, most of China’s ancient bronzeware were ritual vessels, followed by bronze weapons. Bronze farming tools were quite rare in ancient China. Additionally, the ancient Chinese regarded bronzeware as a symbol of wealth and power at the national level, which is obviously different from the West, where bronzes mainly served as production tools and weapons.

Like other ancient civilizations, Chinese bronzeware evolved over a long period of time. In 1973, a semicircular artifact, identified as brass, or a copper-based alloy that contains zinc, was unearthed at the Jiangzhai Yangshao culture archaeological site in Shaanxi Province. The ruins of a semi-crypt residence, where the brass was discovered, dated to around 4700 BCE, according to the carbon-14 dating results. Metallurgical archaeology proves that brass could be obtained from copper-zinc ores through primitive metallurgical methods. Excluding the possibility of human or natural disturbance of deposition, the discovery of the brass at Jiangzhai site suggests that copper metallurgy existed in China about 7,000 years ago.

The earliest bronzeware in China was a bronze knife, unearthed at the Linjia site, Dongxiang Autonomous County, Gansu Province. Carbon 14 dating estimates that the layer where the knife was buried dated to about 3000 BCE. From the Erlitou [approximately 1750 to 1530 BCE] to the Erligang [approximately 1600 to 1300 BCE] periods, bronzes represented by those produced in the Central Plain have shown many unified features: they were mainly made using the mold casting technique, and most of the unearthed bronzes are vessels including ding [a cauldron standing upon legs with a lid and two facing handles], li [cookware featuring extravagant mouth, round belly, and three bag-shaped feet], gui [a bowl-shaped ritual vessel], gu [a tall and slender vessel used to drink liquor or to offer ritual libations], jue [a drinking or ritual vessel featuring an ovoid body supported by three legs], as well as various weapons. During the Erligang period, the basic forms and types of the bronzes of the Chinese Bronze Age have come into shape. People were able to produce large bronzes, and decorative patterns and inscriptions started to appear on bronze utensils. 

Then, during the Yin-Shang era [the period roughly between 1300 and 1046 BCE, beginning with the Shang Dynasty locating its capital at the city of Yin in present-day Anyang, Henan Province], China’s Bronze Age ushered in its first peak. As the site of the capital of the late Shang Dynasty, the Yinxu site yielded not only ruins of palaces, royal mausoleums, chariot pits, and oracle bone inscriptions, but also bronzes of a strikingly high level. Among the bronze civilizations in the world of the same period, the bronzes unearthed at the Yinxu site represented the highest level of the Eastern civilizational system at that time. In terms of form and style, although the bronzes unearthed in different places of the time started to bear local characteristics, such as the bronzes unearthed in Hunan Province and some other places which were decorated with various animal patterns, revealing a strong flavor of south China, their basic types, styles, and decorations were derived from the same source as the bronzes from the Yinxu site in the Central Plain—they didn’t break through the basic pattern and form of the Shang Dynasty bronzeware.

Sanxingdui bronzes

After the discovery of the two “sacrificial pits” at the Sanxingdui site in Guanghan, Sichuan Province, in 1986, archaeologists found six more sacrificial pits at the same site in recent years. The bronzes unearthed from those eight pits are not only visually stunning, but also have rewritten the history of China’s Bronze Age.

The bronzes unearthed at Sanxingdui can be roughly divided into two categories: one can be regarded as the result of the influence of the Shang Dynasty bronzeware expanding south from the Central Plain to the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. These bronzes are not only similar in form and shape to those in the Central Plain during the Yin-Shang era, the ox, tiger, and dragon-shaped decorations worn at the shoulders of these bronzes are closer to the design of the Shang Dynasty bronzeware unearthed in present-day Hunan Province.

Another category unearthed at Sanxingdui was a completely original creation of the ancient Shu people [Shu was an ancient state in what is now Sichuan Province], including tall bronze statues, peculiar bronze masks and heads, various divine animal images such as birds, dragons, tigers, snakes, and winged beasts, as well as bronze sacred trees, bronze altars, and other objects with an enormous ritual background. Together with the gold masks and gold scepter, they constitute a group of artifacts never seen before in the Bronze Age of China.

The archaeological discoveries in Sanxingdui have shocked the whole world, and go radically beyond what is known today. Merely with the “common sense” of the Yin-Shang bronze culture that people had in the past, it is difficult to give a satisfactory explanation for numerous original types and categories of artifacts unearthed at Sanxingdui; hence, various hypotheses and conjectures have arisen. Ruling out the speculations that Sanxingdui culture was created by aliens, and observing the Sanxingdui culture in the grand context of ancient Chinese civilization, we can find that these “new objects” at Sanxingdui are the innovative creation of ancient Shu people.

Concentration of Chinese characteristics 

What are the characteristics of the Chinese Bronze Age? According to the famous archaeologist Kwang-chih Chang (1931–2001), the Chinese Bronze Age’s most significant characteristic is that bronze is inseparable from sacrifices and wars: in other words, bronze is the symbol of political power.

China’s bronzeware and its copper resources are very different from that of the Bronze Age in the West. According to Chang, for the civilizations of China’s Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, bronzeware were by no means luxury items or ornaments in the court, but a necessary means of political struggle: he who possessed bronzeware would rule the world.

In terms of the orientation and function of bronzeware, sacrifice and war as “major national events” determined the destiny of rulers. As far as sacrifice is concerned, Chang believed that the ancient Chinese people divided the world into layers such as Heaven, Earth, human beings, and gods, which is an important component of ancient Chinese civilization. Ritual, religious thought, and behavior in ancient China were considered communication between different layers of the world. This is what Chang called the “feature of shamanistic worldview.” People who conducted these sacrificial rituals were called wu-xi [in ancient China, wu referred mostly to female shamans or sorceresses, while male shamans or sorcerers were called xi], whose job was to communicate with Heaven, Earth, human beings, and gods. Ancient archives show that sacred mountains and sacred trees served as the tools and means for wu-xi to communicate with gods. Birds that perch and fly on the sacred trees and mountains could also be regarded as an extension of the stairs for wu-xi to ascend to Heaven. Other divine animals could also act as a bridge between humans and gods, especially dragons, tigers, and the taotie motifs [inspired by a mythological bulging-eyed, gapping-mouthed creature named Taotie], which are commonly found on Shang and Zhou bronzes.

If the Yin-Shang bronzes mainly demonstrate the traits of the Chinese Bronze Age with ritual bronzes, then Sanxingdui reflects the traits of the Chinese Bronze Age in another simpler, more primitive, and more intuitive way. Many details and procedures of sacrificial rituals during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, and even before, were absent from archives and documents. Luckily, the unearthed artifacts at Sanxingdui site have systematically provided a lot of valuable historical clues.

Huo Wei is the curator of Sichuan University Museum, and a professor of Sichuan University.