NPR logo Uncovering Ancient China

Art Silverman

Uncovering Ancient China


Two sacrificial pits discovered here in 1986 led to today's elaborate and quite pleasant tourist mecca. Photos by Art Silverman, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photos by Art Silverman, NPR

China has always been proud of it's long history. Much of it is known. But one day about 22 years ago, some brick workers stumbled on some strange objects on the ground. They were working about 35 miles north of Chengdu. What they found made it clear just how old this civilization really is.

In a place called Sanxingdui, hundreds of amazing relics of the ancient Shu people were unearthed, opening a window to an era that had been a blank page in history books. These forgotten people must have sat around carving bizarre heads that resemble our ideas of aliens. They also worked with copper alloys, and not just bronze. Some of there objects look like trees, and on them hang mteal leaves, making them look like a cross between early Calder and rusty plumbing.

All this in a two thousand years period, said to have started about 4800 BC.

And then they vanished.

Now the site of the 1986 discovery has blossomed into a big grassy park with a lake and several museum buildings. You enter one, and are greeted by a sign bragging about what was found here:

"The ancient remains at Sanxingdui are worldly renowned in the multitude of Chinese antiquities, they are among the most spectacular and of the highest historical, scientific, cultural and artistic value."

Another museum sign includes this unattributed quote:

"Having slumbered for thousands of years, once awakened, it shocks the world."

Someone said it. I wonder who?

In any case, the old stuff was quite amazing. But after a trip from Washington, D.C. what was most appealling was the soft grass outside the museum. Perfect for a midday nap. I'm sure the ancient Shu people would understand.

Sanxigdui Shu Carved Head

Did the aliens who settled Sichuan look like this?. Photo by Art Silverman, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Photo by Art Silverman, NPR



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Only if scientists could invent a time machine, we could travel back and learn about the past for ourselves. But we can only learn about our ancestors from the evidence they left from thousands of years ago.

Sent by Song Qiuying | 4:48 AM | 5-6-2008

I'm from Chengdu and often embarrassed by the self-congratulatory commentary in those museums. It shows a lack of knowledge of the outside world. I've seen older Egyptian artifacts with much more sophistication, yet no one claimed they "shock the world"

Sent by SaZiMa | 12:47 PM | 5-6-2008

To SaZiMa,

Why you think the museums shouldn't claim "shock the world?"

As the saying goes, "over-modest is as disgusting as over-proud."

Sanxingdui deserves all this praise.

Archeological discoveries at Sanxingdui indicate that civilizations in southern China date back at least 5,000 years. Such evidence contradicts the traditional theory that the Yellow River Delta was the sole "cradle of Chinese civilization."

Sent by moss | 1:38 AM | 5-7-2008

I think the ancient China you see nowadays in China is terribly distorted. Those bronze statue you see means really very, very little. Nowadays Chinese see them just like Hollywood films and Western Operas, by mentioning those I mean, with little indication of where we Chinese originated from.

The old rituals, manners, restrictions are all gone. It wasn't like this fifty years ago. If at that time you came to China, the nation would appear far more attractive.

I recommend the book, "Six Chapters of a Floating Life". You may figure out what really ancient China is in that book. I'm so sorry that we Chinese got lost in the trend of modernization.

Sent by Wecan Wong | 5:23 AM | 5-7-2008

To Wecan Wong,

Because as a nation we lost our way, we now should treasure all we have. Don't forget the tragic life before 1949; it certainly wasn't pastoral.

Chinese traditional rituals and manners had been distorted so much during the Qing Dynasty.

I felt regretful to see the words: "Those bronze statue you see means really very, very little."

You seem to lack knowledge about Chinese history and Sanxingdui. These bronze objects mean a lot.

Sent by moss | 10:27 AM | 5-7-2008

To Moss:

Yes, the museums can claim whatever they wish to claim, but based on what?

Please provide just one piece of evidence that the world (not just a few archeologists) was "shocked" by the discovery of Sanxingdui. It's those kind of wild claims that prevent people from taking these commentaires seriously. I'd called this the product of "basin mentality"

Sent by SaZiMa | 1:49 PM | 5-7-2008

The discovery of Sanxindui surely shocked every researcher in that field and, as Moss said, it imposes a strong challenge to the theory about the origin of civilization in China. In that sense, it is legitimate to claim its importance in the world.

To SaZiMa: every one has his own world in his heart, so does a group of people. For matters that are so subjective, it is simply a waste of time to argue whether or not something can be credited with certain level of importance.

Does the discovery of semiconductor shock the world more than the derivation of Mills-Yang Theory?

Sent by Liang | 12:31 AM | 5-8-2008

To Moss,

I'm sorry to offend you, but I take your attitude towards the modernization with a pinch of salt of . It seemed that you believe you're greatly benefited by the economy growth after 1949. However, here comes my arguments:

First, the major social problems in China now are caused by the terrifying population. This is mainly due to the babyboom after 1949. If not the babyboom, we owe nothing to the mordernization because it can be attained without such effort. Furthermore, the economy growth at the expense of environment and squandering precious energy is not the way we want.

Second, city dwellers as you are, you can go to museums and enjoy those exhibitions and your pride for your nation are greatly satisfied. Then how about those live in rural areas? Your idea seemed to be metropolis-centric however the culture tradition is NOT. Culture is something you can feel everywhere dissolved in the air, no matter cities or countries, and I believe whose incarnation was exactly the rituals and behaviors. They're far more important than the mere objects showing behind the glass curtains.

Finally, you overemphasized the significance of Sanxingdui. I myself does not have a recognition to it. Maybe it was unearthed near your hometown, but I'm sure it's unfamiliar to me. Maybe another hypothetical "Sanxingdui" excavated near my hometown will make me more excited. By mentioning this I do not mean the Sanxingdui is of no significance, but I want to say that China is huge, you cannot coerce the provincial culture onto other cultures. That's exactly the errorness of Qing Danasty.

To sum up, the Han culture is already at great risk, and I believe the mutual benefit among all Han people is to rebuild it rather than clinging to a trivial conflict.

Sent by Wecan Wong | 10:19 PM | 5-8-2008

To Wecan Wong,

Come on ...

Sanxingdui offend you?

Sanxingdui honors Shu and Sichuanese.

You gave a conditioned reflex about your discontentment with the government. It's weird.

Sent by moss | 5:30 AM | 5-9-2008

Wecan Wong,

I sense much anger in you. Remember What Yoda said, "Anger leads to hate, Hate leads to Dark side"

Baby boom is a moral problem? That's what humans naturally do after years of war and deprivation. We have lots of sex and make babies. Having said that, I will wholeheartedly support your volutary effort to give up on reproduction.

The fact that the baby boom happened after 1949 speaks volume about living conditions before and after.

But for a post-modernist such as you, you can always learn your history from the movie "1949" planned by John Woo.

As a Sichuanese, Sanxingdui represents tangible links to some of my ancestors. Nobody is trying to shove Sanxinfdui down your throat. Just chill out and be cool.

Sent by Cao Meng De | 2:44 AM | 5-23-2008