Ancient China: Sanxingdui


The latest exhibition at the Hong Kong Palace Museum highlights new archaeological discoveries of ancient China at  Sanxingdui in Sichuan province, featuring 120 bronze, jade, gold, and pottery objects dating to 2,600-4,500 years. Nearly half of these were unearthed in the most recent excavations at the Sanxingdui site between 2020 and 2022, and many are exhibited outside Sichuan for the first time, such as bronze heads, mythical creatures, eye-shaped objects, dragon-shaped objects, a hybrid tiger- dragon figure, as well as a jade rectangular stand with animal face and phoenix-bird motifs, which are currently on display at the new Sanxingdui Museum in Guanghan, Sichuan.

Among these 120 objects are 23 grade-one national treasures, including the bronzes unearthed in 1986 and on loan from the Sanxingdui Museum: a bronze head with mask, a mask with protruding pupils, a figure with animal headdress, a zun-vessel, and the stand of a bronze tree. Eighteen of the exhibits were unearthed from 2001 onwards and are on loan from the Jinsha Site Museum in Chengdu, including grade-one national treasures over 3,000 years old, including a bronze eye-shaped object; two jade yue-axes excavated in 2001, which are displayed in Hong Kong for the first time; and a gold trumpet-shaped object with openwork swirling cloud motifs discovered in 2007.

Latest Discoveries – Sanxingdui Culture

The latest discoveries of in Sichuan demonstrate the remarkable achievements of the ancient Shu civilisation, presenting the ‘diversity in unity’ developmental pattern of Chinese civilisation. The ancient Shu civilisation, represented by the Sanxingdui culture in Sichuan, is an integral part of this development early civilisations and demonstrates the remarkable achievements of the contemporaneous cultures in the upper Yangtze River region.

Jay Xu, in his essay discussing the character of the Sanxingdui Culture, (in Ancient Sichuan, Treasures from a Lost Civilisation, 2001), wrote, ‘In the second millennium BC, when the Sanxingdui culture was developing in the Chengdu Plain, civilised societies existed in several regions of China. In and near the middle Yellow River valley, in a region traditionally called the Zhongyuan (Central Plain), urban centres had arisen during the first half of the millennium. Large-scale bronze metallurgy made its first known appearance at the Zhongyuan sit of Erlitou. This Erlitou culture was felt over a wide area, reaching as far as Sanxingdui’. He continues to explain that in the Zhongyuan, power shifted from Zhengzhou to a new centre, Anyang, in about 1200 BC, the capital of the Shang dynasty. However, growing out of the Baodun culture, the Sanxingdui culture evolved against the backdrop of these wider developments – the rise of the Bronze Age civilization in Zhongyuan by 1500 BC, then its outward spread and regional diversification over the next three centuries. The Baodun culture (circa 2500-1700 BC) is a late Neolithic culture in the Chengdu plain and the adjacent region, characterised by the cluster of large cities that had evolved on the plains.

Exhibition’s Four Themes

The four thematic sections of the exhibition on ancient China at Sanxingdui present the art, urban life, belief systems, and origins and legacy of the ancient Shu civilisation from the sites of Sanxingdui, Jinsha, and Baodun to explore the achievements in art and technology across the Chengdu Plain.

Dense deposits excavated in the mid-1950s in the vicinity of a ‘three star mound’, sanxingdui, led for the first time to the site’s name. excavations in 1963 yielded further evidence of material traits suggesting developmental stages of a complex ancient culture. The existence of an archaeological culture at Sanxingdui was only confirmed in the early 1980s. Its duration was estimated by radiocarbon dating as extending from the late Neolithic era (circa 2500-1000 BC), that is the end of the Shang, to the beginning of the Western Zhou (circa 1100-771 BC). In 1986, the most extensive excavation of a remaining mound unearthed two major ‘sacrificial pits’. Dated a hundred years apart, the first pit, K1, uncovered 400 objects and the second, K2, 800, including bronze masks, heads and images, jade tablets and implements, copper objects and pottery. They indicate the material culture of an elite – consistent with that of an ancient metropolis, which has no precedent in Bronze Age China.

Archaeological Excavations at Sanxingdui

Archaeological excavations at Sanxingdui have greatly changed the face and knowledge of Chinese prehistory and archaeology. Situated 40 km northeast of Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, Sanxingdui appears to have been a political and religious centre for some 600 years. Embracing the middle Erlitou culture (1900-1600 BC) of the late Shang to the Yinxu or Anyang period (circa 1250-1050 BC), it was the most extensive Bronze age settlement in the Chengdu Plain, yielding ritual, sacrificial and funerary artefacts. The site challenges established theories about the nature of Chinese civilisation, believed to stem from a single source, the Yellow river basin in the north. Sanxingdui points to an early China that was pluralistic, with multiple sites, including a previously unknown centre in the Yangzi river basin of Sichuan. Once considered a backwater in archaeological terms, Sichuan is now critical to understanding the evolution of China’s ancient past.

The first section of the exhibition, Timeless Gazes, features various bronze human heads, masks, and depictions of deities. In different forms and shapes, they are expressive and magnificent, futuristic yet ancient. These gazes suggest stories now lost to history, guiding us through time and space. Sanxingdui’s state of bronze technology was relatively sophisticated. Ancient Chinese bronze comprised an alloy with varying proportions of copper, lead, and tin. These sources were rare in north China and were usually accessible from the south and southeast. Analysis of Sanxingdui’s bronze elements suggest they were reliant on sources closer to Yunnan. Defining an archaeological culture unique to Sanxingdui are objects that have no parallel in Bronze Age China. Large bronze masks, heads and figures appear to be physical manifestations of the supernatural. They betray an obsession with protruding pupils and defined almond-shaped eyes.

The second section, Urban Life at Sanxingdui, looks at and reconstructs Sanxingdui’s urban landscape as one of the largest Bronze Age metropolises in East Asia. This urban centre housed modest dwellings, as well as one of the biggest palatial or ritualistic constructions of its time in China. The section also displays a large number of bronze, jade, gold, and pottery objects created by the city’s craftsmen.

Religious Activities at Sanxingdui

The third section, Gods and Shamans at Sanxingdui, explores Sanxingdui people’s religious activities and their understanding of the cosmos. Through advanced technologies, archaeologists have restored bronze altars and statues to recreate the rituals conducted by the people of Sanxingdui. The Shu people apparently practised ancestor worship and adopted a system of avian iconography. The bird was an icon in bronze art and a totemic symbol of the sun, appearing also as bells and finials. The names of Shu emperors such as Cancong, Baiguan and Yufu were also used as bird appellations. Zoomorphic bronze sculptures from Sanxingdui include birds, roosters, dragons, snakes and tigers, a majestic bird’s head with a protruding beak has large eye sockets painted red, and a smaller bird sculpture sports an elaborate crest and a feathery tail. Series of confronting birds line the top of an openwork plaque. The snake, a traditional deity of Sichuan, was an ancient ‘gate keeper’ of the Chengdu Plain, prominent in Shu iconography. These zoomorphic forms allude to spiritual beliefs and the possible practice of shamanism.

The final section of object from ancient China at Sanxingdui is The Origin and Inheritance of Sanxingdui, traces Sanxingdui’s origins and legacy and explores how the Sanxingdui culture and other closely connected cultures influenced and integrated into each other over time, forming the ‘diversity in unity’ developmental pattern of Chinese civilisation. The exhibition also summarises the archaeological discoveries in and research on Sanxingdui and other areas, including the most recent discoveries and information.

Tang Fei, Director of the Sichuan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, commented on the exhibition, ‘These precious cultural relics unearthed from the Sanxingdui and Jinsha sites represent the splendour of the ancient Shu material and spiritual civilisation, an important part of Chinese civilisation. These artefacts reflect the remarkable achievements of the civilisation developed in the upper Yangtze River region before the Qin dynasty. The ancient Shu civilisation had close connections with the civilisations in the Yellow River region and the middle and lower Yangtze River regions’.

Until 8 January, 2024, discoveries of ancient China at Sanxingdui, is at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, Hong Kong,