The Splendid Ancient Shu Civilisation
The ancient Shu civilisation underwent three development stages: the Sanxingdui Culture, the Twelve Bridges Culture and the Qingyanggong Culture. The Glimpse of Cultural Relics of
Sichuan Exhibition currently displays an abundance of cultural relics from the three stages.
The Chengdu Plain nurtured the important ancient Shu Civilisation which underwent three major development stages— Sanxingdui culture, Shierqiao culture and Qingyanggong culture—ending in 316 BC after the State of Qin annexed the Ba and Shu states. It was thus integrated into the vast Chinese civilisation along with a series of development projects such as the Dujiangyan irrigation system, making a unique contribution to the formation of the Chinese civilisation.
At present, The Splendid Ancient Shu Civilisation – A Glimpse of Cultural Relics of Sichuan Exhibition, hosted by the National Museum of China (NMC), Department of Culture of Sichuan Province and the Sichuan Cultural Relics Administration, is open to visitors at the NMC in Beijing. Exhibits on display come from renowned institutions such as the Sichuan Museum, Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, Jinsha Site Museum in Chengdu and others. The wide range of cultural relics on show draw a detailed picture of each development stage of this ancient civilisation. The exhibition will run until September 19.
In the 1980s, the discovery of two burial pits in Sanxingdui unveiled the mystery of the ancient Shu Civilisation. The unearthed statues, busts, altars, sacred trees and bizarrely shaped bronzeware, as well as exquisite gold artefacts such as masks and animal figurines caused a huge stir both in China and overseas. A large bronze head, 66 centimetres (cm) x 138 cm x 85 cm, was unearthed in No.2 Pit of the Sanxingdui Site in Guanghan. The head is roughly square-shaped, with broad cheeks, eyes that look like the Chinese character “臣( chen, official),” oversized ears and protruding pupils. This object is one of the most distinctive examples of Sanxingdui culture.
The Sanxingdui culture period started around the early 18th century BC and ended in the middle of the 12th century BC, and the Sanxingdui (“three stars mound”) Site was the centre of this culture. The two large burial pits excavated in 1986 contain the most remarkable discoveries from the site. More than 1,700 artefacts were found, including a large bronze standing figure, bronze head statues, sacred bronze trees, bronze altars, gold sceptres, collared jade discs and other mysterious objects. Most of the artefacts mentioned in this section come from these two pits.
Many of the objects unearthed were artistically designed, of which the bronze coiling dragon column is particularly eye-catching. At the top of the column is the head of a dragon, which has a pair of large horns, its mouth wide-open and a beard. The dragon's body and tail meanwhile hang down both sides of the column and its two hind talons cling to it. Both the dragon and the main column are ingeniously designed. Some scholars have proposed that this column and another tiger-shaped column base with a diameter of 7.8 cm and a residual height
of 10.8 cm used to compose a beautifully designed sceptre.
The sun wheel-shaped bronze is one of the most mysterious objects unearthed from the Sanxingdui burial pits. The artefact is perfectly circular with a bulge in the centre, and five “spokes” connecting it to the outer ring. Judging from the sun decorations found on other objects in the burial pits, it can be inferred that this artefact may be an abstract portrayal of the sun—physical evidence of sun worship amongst the ancient Shu Civilisation. The eye-shaped bronzeware on display is also very representative.
The figure with the head of a human and body of a bird has a flat head as if it is wearing a mask, and has bulging eyes similar to the protruding-eyed head statue. A similar figure stood atop a broken branch was unearthed from the No.2 Pit. It is assumed that the remains of this figure was a sacred object. In the middle of the upper layer of the bronze altar unearthed in the same pit, there was also a similar image of a human head with bird wings extended, which bears the sacred and symbolic meaning of communication between heaven and earth.
The Sichuan Basin is surrounded by mountains on all sides, making land and water transportation difficult. Despite this, cultural exchanges into and out of the basin have never stopped. During the Sanxingdui culture period, the ancient Shu Civilisation assimilated bronze plaque ornaments and important ritual vessels such as jade tablets from the Central Plains. It then transformed the types of object which then composed the core of the ancient Shu Civilisation with far-reaching influence.
The exhibition only displays a single bronze plaque ornament unearthed from the Sanxingdui Site in Guanghan in 1987. This item is representative of objects from the Erlitou culture, which became popular in the Central Plains region as early as the Xia Dynasty. Similar bronze plaque ornaments have also been discovered in Tianshui, Gansu and Hami, Xinjiang. The Sanxingdui Site is located to the south of these three places, meaning the transportation route connecting the Shu and Long opened for traffic at least during the Xia and Shang periods.
One bronze vessel unearthed from Pit No.2 of the Sanxingdui Site contained shells inside, and other bronze shellshaped hanging decorations were found in the same pit. This proves that the ancient Shu Civilisation's contact with the outside world reached beyond the basin as far as coastal areas.
According to speculation by some scholars, these two burial pits reflect a violent political revolution that took place among the ancient Shu Civilisation towards the end of Sanxingdui culture. The ancient state's valuable artefacts were destroyed and buried as the ruler of the state changed among different ethnic groups, leading to a subsequent decline. The Shierqiao culture then emerged, resulting in the transfer of the centre of the ancient Shu Civilisation from the Sanxingdui Site to the Jinsha Site.
The Shierqiao culture period began in the middle of the 12th century BC and ended in the 6th century BC, roughly coinciding with the period from the late Shang Dynasty to the late Spring and Autumn Period. The archaeological sites from this period include the Fuqin Community, Fangchi Street, Junping Street, Zhihui Street, Minjiang Community and Jinsha Village. These are adjacent to the Shierqiao Site and stretch more than 10 kilometres, forming a huge cluster of sites.
Since 1995, archaeologists have been excavating the Jinsha Site. They have discovered houses, tombs, pottery kilns, ash pits, ivory piles and areas with jade, and unearthed more than 1,000 precious artefacts. Currently, the confirmed area of Jinsha Site covers more than five square kilometres, including the foundations of large-scale building areas, religious and sacrificial areas, residential areas and cemeteries. Those areas were divided into districts with separate functions and clear interior layouts. In addition, the discovery of large numbers of ceremonial objects and relics related to religious activities indicate that the Jinsha Site was the capital of the ancient Shu State during the Shierqiao period.
The Sanxingdui culture period and the Shierqiao culture period are two stages in the early development of the ancient Shu Civilisation with a distinct relationship of inheritance. This section focuses on
the representative artefacts unearthed from the Jinsha Site, and adopts the same structure as in the previous section regarding the Sanxingdui culture period, describing the historical landscapes of the two periods in terms of ethnic groups, powers, beliefs and etiquette.
Judging from the unearthed artefacts, the mixture of ethnic groups of the ancient Shu people experienced drastic changes during the Shierqiao culture period. The main ethnic group in charge of sacrificial ceremonies in the previous period was replaced by the “braided-hair group” who took charge of the religious affairs. This latter group may have become the only component of the upper class. In the exhibition, a small standing figure, which was discovered at the Jinsha Site, has a drooping twisted braid and flat head, and is wearing a solar disc-shaped crown. The figure is obviously a descendant of the “braidedhair group” from the Sanxingdui culture period. The small standing figure, its right hand facing upwards and left hand downwards, seems to be holding an object as part of a sacrificial ceremony. The posture is exactly the same as that of a large hairpin standing figure discovered at the Sanxingdui Site.
The exhibition also features a small gold mask that matches the small bronze standing figure and bronze head statues found at the Jinsha Site. Unlike the diamond-shaped eyes of the Sanxingdui gold mask, this delicately wrought mask has oval-shaped eyes, which also implies a change in the group in power.
Alongside the small standing figure and gold mask found at the Jinsha Site is a kneeling stone figure, with its hands behind its back. Despite serious damage to the stone surface, it is still possible to see a long, twisted braid painted on the back of its head. This suggests that the stone man and small bronze standing figure found at the Jinsha Site belong to the same ethnic group. However, in contrast with the upper-class figures, the kneeling stone man, used as a slave, has a middle parting hairstyle. As such, this is presumably a portrayal of an underclass person. In fact, such stone figures with hairstyles like this were also discovered at the Sanxingdui Site in the early 20th century, indicating an inheritance of certain hairstyles in the ancient Shu State.
During the Shierqiao culture period, the ancient Shu Civilisation inherited the belief system centred around worship of the sun, which was combined with worship of birds, and “birds and eyes” as a medium for communicating between people and the sun. The sun and birds on the sunbird gold foil unearthed from the Jinsha Site are portrayed in a concise and highly recognisable way. Compared with objects from the previous period, despite the different art form, they are similar in artistic expression. The exhibition includes many bronze eye-shaped objects unearthed from the Jinsha Site, serving as proof of an inherited belief system. These artefacts also evidence the attitude of the ancient Shu Civilisation towards outside art forms. A closer look shows that one of the eye-shaped bronze objects has pupils close to being circular and obvious inner canthus. All of these small details are taken from beast-face designs of the Central Plains.
As for etiquette, the ancient Shu during the Shierqiao period basically inherited the category of ritual vessels from the previous period, and developed corresponding bronze objects. In terms of expression of power, there was an evolution from a crowned person pattern on the surface of the Sanxingdui gold sceptre to an image of solid bronze crowned standing figure at the Jinsha Site which is evidence of a high degree of inheritance. During the Shierqiao culture period, a new form of power embodiment, a gold crown belt, appeared. Interestingly, the crown belt displayed in the exhibition is decorated with an image of an arrow piercing fish and birds. This image is also directly inherited from the ornamentation on the Sanxingdui gold sceptre.
Other important discoveries of the Shierqiao period include the two bronze hoards found on Zhuwa Street in Pengzhou during the 1950s and 80s. The bronzeware hidden in these two cellars witnessed the significant historical event when the ancient Shu Civilisation took part in the construction of the Chinese civilisation during the Shang and Zhou (1046-256 BC) dynasties. This kind of interaction was far greater than the sporadic exchanges during the Sanxingdui culture period.
Qingyanggong (lit. “green goat palace”) culture is an archaeological culture named after the site of the Qingyang Palace in Chengdu. The Qingyanggong culture
period began in the middle of the 5th century BC and ended in the middle of the 2nd century BC, roughly coinciding with the time from the Warring States Period (475–221 BC) until the early-han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) on the Central Plains.
Compared to the “early-shu culture” represented by the Sanxingdui culture and the Shierqiao culture, the archaeological culture in this period is known as “late-shu culture.”
Currently, only a few archaeological sites have been discovered containing Qingyanggong relics: the Chengdu Qingyanggong Site and Shangwangjiaguai Street Site. However, a large number of tombs from this period have been found. Among these, the most famous is the large wooden outer coffin tomb discovered in 1980 in Xindumajia Village. This tomb is large in scale, and despite having been looted many times, precious artefacts placed in the pit at the bottom of the coffin were left intact. Nearly 200 pieces of bronzeware were unearthed from here, of which the majority were grouped in fives and a few were grouped in pairs— very rare combinations. The scale of the tombs and the unearthed artefacts demonstrate truly royal grandeur at the end of the ancient Shu Civilisation and imply that the tomb's owner was a king of the ancient Shu.
On the whole, the artefacts found in tombs of this period still show the marvellous cultural temperament of the ancient Shu Civilisation. They present a cultural landscape indistinguishable from the Ba culture in the same area of the Sichuan Basin, and that led to increasingly closer exchanges with the Central Plains culture, Qin culture and Chu culture outside the basin.
Although the Qin annexed the states of Ba and Shu, the Shu culture survived the collapse of its state. The State of Qin sent a large number of people to the Sichuan area to develop agriculture and engage in military projects, with the survivors of the State of Shu also joining the construction. It was here that the Qin and Shu cultures converged. In the exhibition, a bronze spear from the Warring States Period is shown featuring a representative tiger pattern in Ba-shu figurative language, and is engraved with the word “Chengdu” in Qin script. The two cultures are integrated into one object.
The State of Qin also promoted the farming policy of “abolishing the wellfield system and opening crisscross paths between fields” under the Shangyang's Political Reform in the old Ba-shu area. The area of fields was also standardised according to the “Qin Law on Fields.” Moreover, a moratorium period for infrastructure projects such as weeding, road repair, bridge construction and water conservancy was established in line with the climate in the Ba-shu area.
Exhibits on display include a Qingchuan inscribed wooden tablet that is 46 cm x 2.5 cm x 0.4 cm. On its front, it reads: “In the second year of the Qin Dynasty (309 BC), the King Wu of Qin ordered Gan Mao, his left prime minister ( zuo chengxiang), to modify the Qin Law on Fields.” On its reverse there is a note related to the performance of the law. This tablet is the earliest government notice on farmland water conservancy in Sichuan and is also physical evidence of the Sichuan area going through large-scale developments.
At the end of your visit, do not forget to take a close look at the important diagram of ancient Shu cultural relics on the screen by the entrance to the exhibition. Simply tap on the name of a relic and an introduction regarding that item will slowly unfold. A map also includes the modern provincial capitals, cities and locations of the sites featured— footprints of how the ancient Shu civilisations converged. A visit to The Splendid Ancient Shu Civilisation–a Glimpse of Cultural Relics of Sichuan Exhibition is tantamount to wandering across this land for several centuries.
Bow-string pattern bronze
A bronze head with protruding pupils, unearthed from the No.2 Pit of the Sanxingdui Site in Guanghan
Bronze coiling dragon column
Tiger-shaped bronze ornament