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Sanxingdui is Back and Brighter Than Ever
What does a 3000-year-old lightshow on the streets of Chengdu really mean? Part I of the Annals of Bronze Age Fusion
I have a Google alert set to the keyword “Sichuan.” On most days, the results are mundane; announcements of the construction of new battery manufacturing facilities; reports on various panda exploits; rehashed government propaganda about economic indicators. The summer’s news was more drastic: a mega-heatwave, a severe Covid lockdown, a bad earthquake. Last week, my attention was caught by something completely different, a striking trio of photographs of a Chengdu lightshow “featuring the ancient Sichuan culture.”
The lightshow images were copies of artifacts unearthed in 1986 from two pits near Sanxingdui, a town about 40 miles directly north of Chengdu. The bronze, gold and jade ritual items discovered in these pits date back to the second millennium B.C. Their stunning aesthetic qualities – utterly unlike anything elsewhere in East Asia during that time or later – immediately forced archaeologists to rethink some of their most fundamental assumptions about the emergence of “Chinese” civilization.
There is no mention of Sanxingdui in China’s historical written records, dating all the way back to the oracle bones of the Shang. No one knew the Sanxingdui civilization existed until the 20th century. In the 1950s, one of China’s leading archaeologists went so far as to dismiss Sichuan as a “backwater” in the flow of Chinese history.
And yet here, on the streets of Chengdu in 2022, Sanxingdui was alive once more, the backdrop for countless selfies.
I’ve been lingering over these photographs for the past week, because the question of whether “ancient Sichuan culture” has any relevance for contemporary Sichuan is something that has both puzzled and intrigued me. Is it possible to say that there is any tangible connection between the people appreciating these illuminations and the people who lived on the Chengdu plain 3000 years ago? On the face of it, the question seems ludicrous. Even a genetic connection between the residents of then and now would seem dubious, owing to the repeated cycles of local depopulation followed by immigration from elsewhere in China that the province we now call “Sichuan” experienced over the millennia.
Yet at the same time one could also theorize that the unique physical characteristics of Sichuan – its isolation from the rest of China, its warm climate, and the fecundity of its well-watered, fertile soils, might exert some kind of transformative magic on the peoples living there that could be perceived in cultural attributes dating back to Neolithic and Bronze Age times. Some archaeologists and historians have even argued that the qualities of the Chengdu plain that earned Sichuan the sobriquets of “The Land of Plenty” or “The Storehouse of Heaven” were reflected in equally fertile traditions of art and expression that survived well into the imperial era. The people of Sanxingdui were shaped by their environment, and so too must be people in Sichuan today.
And of course, with respect to the rest of China, it is absolutely commonplace to witness politicians, archaeologists, and historians trace cultural continuities that reach from the present day all the way back to the Neolithic and beyond. Some of this is ideologically motivated, such as the nationalist efforts, previously discussed in this newsletter, by the government of China led by Xi Jinping to manipulate the archaeological record in order “to support narratives that essentialize Chinese-ness in ways that fuel extravagant patriotism.”
But some of it is also well-grounded. In Social Memory and State Formation in Early China, a book I stumbled upon about a year ago, author Li Min makes a compelling case that a set of cultural attributes dating back to early Neolithic times are clearly visible in the material culture of the Shang and Zhou dynasties – and, in fact, continue to resonate today. At the center of his thesis is the story of how the ding tripod, a cauldron believed to be used for cooking meat that served as a staple of Neolithic culinary culture across East Asia, evolved into the premier symbol of the power and authority of the Chinese state. The magnificent bronze dings that are a hallmark of Shang dynasty elite tombs were centrally important objects in the ritualized acts of ancestor worship that defined Shang culture. When the Zhou dynasty defeated the Shang, the Zhou rulers supposedly marked the transition of state authority by seizing the “Nine Tripods” that legitimized Shang rule.
The bronze ding is alive and well in China today. As recently as 1997, according to the art historian Lillian Lan-ying Tseng, the forging of a new massive bronze tetrapod (four-footed) ding was commissioned to commemorate the return of Hong Kong to China. It can now be found in Beijing’s Yuanming Yuan, the Summer Palace so notoriously looted and destroyed by French and British soldiers in the Second Opium War.
Chew on that: An artifact modeled on a Shang dynasty ritual culinary vessel is currently being deployed to celebrate China’s triumph over Western imperialism.
Readers of this newsletter will no doubt appreciate that my discovery of how Neolithic cooking ware intersected with the authority of the Chinese state exerted an irresistibly seductive narrative power. As a result, I have spent much of the past year improving my Chinese archaeology muscle-tone. I have been especially confounded by the thesis, convincingly argued by Anne Underhill in her book Craft Production and Social Change in Northern China, that Neolithic era “competitive feasting” featuring the display and use of “prestige” culinary ware, was a key driver for social stratification and the eventual emergence of the state.
I think of feasting as a celebratory way to build community and find joy. To see it reframed as a mechanism for increasing status and power, culminating in the spectacle of Shang dynasty funeral banquets that incorporated human sacrifice on a significant scale is more than a bit distressing.
Does it mean anything that practically alone among Bronze Age civilizations in China, the Sanxingdui culture did not include dings in their culinary assemblages? Or that, so far as we know, it also did not include human sacrifice in its rituals?
The height of Sanxingdui civilization is roughly coterminous with the peak of the late Shang, and there is evidence to suggest that the two cultures were connected by “a mutual exchange network” that moved prestige goods back and forth across the East Asian landmass. But they were obviously very, very different.
I am here to celebrate that difference. The more I have learned about Chinese archaeology the more messy and complicated the question of how Chinese civilization initially emerged has become, and the easier it is to question received narratives that define “China” or “Chineseness.” There’s always a mashup happening, a reciprocal interaction between cultures, a hybridized give and take. There’s always another story to tell. Could it be possible that “ancient Sichuan culture” reveals a narrative more palatable than the tale of how competitive feasting built the dynastic Chinese state? In the series of newsletter posts that this installment introduces I intend to find out.