Evidence of a Vanished Civilisation
by Annie Chuah Siew Yen
What emotions do the above masks evoke in you? Intriguing and intimidating, they did not appeal to me initially for I did not then realise whence they had come or the mysteries attached to them. However, I was curious and wanted to find out the reason for their ubiquitous presence in advertisements and tourist literature on Sichuan.
… so in May 2017, my sister and I hired a car with a driver from Chengdu to take us to Guanghan, the archaeological site of these Bronze Age relics, 40 km north of Chengdu. The SanXingDui Museum is the current home of artefacts unearthed in Guanghan County and they are valued as Grade 1 Treasures of the People’s Republic of China.
The main museum building, on the excavated site of San Xing Dui (three-star mound: san –three, xing – stars, dui – mound) was completed in 1992 and opened to the public in 1997. It is not easy to get to due to its remote location. San Xing Dui is the ruins of the capital of the ancient Shu Kingdom that existed over 4000 years ago.
Before the excavations, there were no reliable written materials recording the ancient Shu civilization. There is hardly any mention of Shu in early Chinese historical records until the fourth century BCE, thereby shrouding this society in mystery. With the excavation of these cultural relics, the mystery has only deepened.
Discovered in 1929, and re-discovered in 1986, the famous discoveries in two sacrificial pits included animal- and human-faced sculptures and masks, a five-metre tall bronze tree, the best-preserved bronze human figure at 2.62 metres and hundreds of other unique items, each exceedingly exquisite. These relics are believed to be remnants of the Shu Kingdom, which can be dated to 2600 years to 4800 years ago. The discovery surprised archaeologists and historians alike and opened up a world of intrigue as it indicated a semi-Chinese culture that was previously unknown.
It is said that SanXingDui slept for three thousand years and has just woken up to astound the world with its mystique. These 20th century finds caught the world’s attention and the site is considered one with great historical and scientific significance.
The cache of religious bronze sculptures excavated at SanXingDui manifests the sophistication of the Shu culture. The bold lines and forceful contours of the masks combine to create magnificent images, which feature the union of humanity and divinity. The ritual objects reflect the spiritual pursuit of the Shu people. For more than half a century, archaeologists from Sichuan have been investigating the finds and forming theories of the Shu culture.
The large exhibition halls, filled with hundreds of artefacts, are dimly lit. It feels surreal to be inside, especially the first hall I entered, being surrounded by case after case of large masks and human heads, but visitors just move on with their audio guides to gaze upon and marvel at the mysteries of this once-forgotten civilisation. If they could talk, what secrets would these strange human heads reveal?
Exaggerated eyes and ears are the hallmark of SanXingDui masks, but the enormous masks have stalked eye balls (like extended protruding rods) and they seem to represent Can Cong, founder of the Kingdom of Shu. Cynics have commented that if this is true, then Can Cong must be half-insect! The Chinese character for insect, 虫 appears in both Can Cong’s name and the character for Shu, 蜀. The big eyes and ears symbolise the great powers of seeing and hearing from afar. It is believed that Can Cong had protruding eyes and ears.
The sacrificial life and religious rituals of the ancient Shu people are represented through bronze god statues and wares of gold, bronze, jade and stone. Among them is a 2.62 metres tall statue (Bronze Standing Man) wearing a crown and ceremonial garb, standing upright and barefoot on a cloud-patterned base supported by four elephant heads. His two large hands seem to hold a sacred vessel as if commanding a sacrifice. In the minds of the ancient people, he is a combination of god, wizard and king.
Most academicians believe the religious worship was a complex system involving a mix of many types, including nature worship, ancestor worship and god worship. The main function of the holy tree was to act as the axis for ascension to heaven. They connected heaven and earth, gods and humans. These Shamanistic trees were popularly used by shamans to communicate with the universe.
The spiritual world of the Shu people who believed that everything had a soul is shown not only through the magical bronze trees but also through animal-shaped objects such as fish and, more notably, birds. Bronze animal sculptures reflect the ancient Shu people’s ideology that all animals have spirits and their faith in the spirits of birds is the core of this belief.
Some of the artefacts are so large that they have to be seen to be appreciated. Standing at five metres, the Sacred Tree of SanXingDui, the most prized relic, gets pride of place in the central lobby of the museum. The spiral feature of the building’s architecture must have been designed for its display. Overseas display of this valued artefact is prohibited.
I no longer regard the masks of SanXingDui as menacing nor grotesque, but rather as stunning artefacts with deep symbolism guarding secrets of a glorious past. They are objects to be admired, and from which to draw upon for confirmation of hypotheses. How did the bronze smelting technique and the culture symbolized by the Sanxingdui bronze ware come into being? New research may solve the mystery of SanXingDui.
Earlier studies theorised that the disappearance of SanXingDui was due to floods or war but these theories are speculative. LiveScience reports that a mighty earthquake that occurred 3000 years ago decimated the ancient metropolis that was SanXingDui, but this theory is also speculative.
There is still much to learn about this mysterious civilisation. Excavations at the Three Star Mounds continue, the various projects involving researchers from China and abroad aim to discover more items from this lost civilisation. Tang Fei, head of the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, believes there are more sacrifice and worship sites, and aristocratic tombs to be unearthed.
The puzzle of the Three Star Mounds is a puzzle of the ages, but I hope it will eventually be unravelled.
SanXingDui Museum bi-lingual explanatory notes for some of the exhibits