A seminar on Bronze Age civilizations in southwest China was held by the Jinsha Site Museum in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on Sept. 15. Scholars exchanged views on the origins, evolution, and influence of these civilizations in southwest China and the interaction of ethnic cultures in this region, providing academic support for substantiating the development pattern of the pluralistic unity of Chinese civilization.
Ancient Shu culture
The Jinsha site emerged as another significant political, economic, and cultural center of the ancient Shu civilization in the Chengdu Plain, following the Sanxingdui site. The site, together with the prehistoric city groups in the Chengdu Plain, the Sanxingdui site, and the boat-shaped coffins of the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), constitutes the historical framework of the ancient Shu civilization.
This seminar represents an academic event supporting the exhibition “Golden Light Shines Miles Away—Bronze Civilization in Southwest China.” As a major annual original exhibition of the Jinsha Site Museum, it encompasses nearly 100 archaeological sites. On display are 294 pieces (sets) of bronze ware, gold vessels, jade articles, and other delicate cultural relics collected by 32 cultural institutions in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou provinces, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, as well as Chongqing Municipality. Displaying the latest archaeological artifacts, the exhibition tells the historical story of the interactions, exchanges, and integration among various ethnic groups in southwest China, providing empirical evidence of the evolution of pluralistic unity in China. It is currently the largest-scale special exhibition of Bronze Age civilizations in southwest China, boasting the largest number of exhibits and the highest-grade cultural relics.
The Sanxingdui and Jinsha sites are both representative of the ancient Shu civilization. According to Sun Hua, a professor from the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University, the ancient Shu civilization was born in the Sichuan Basin, which lies in a relatively closed-off geographical environment surrounded by mountains. While not the birthplace of bronze metallurgy, the people of this region showcased their distinctive creativity by incorporating the techniques and artistic elements of bronze smelting from the Central Plains. The cultural relics unearthed at the Sanxingdui and Jinsha sites vividly demonstrate the ingenuity of the ancient Shu people.
“The bronze altars found at Sanxingdui are chiefly used to offer sacrifices or worship gods, particularly worship the sun,” said Wang Renxiang, a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. These altars represent exquisite and enigmatic artworks from the ancient Shu era. “Statues of deities with fangs” on the bronze altars at Sanxingdui embody the belief of the ancient Shu people. Similar “fangs idols” are also significant features of the white pottery of the Gaomiao culture in Hunan Province. This type of sculpture can also be found in the Liangzhu and Shijiahe cultures, which feature consistent styles.
The “bird man” found on one of these bronze altars features sharp fangs and the bulge of round eyes, the latter representing the artistic portrayal of the legendary sun god, Wang added.
Supplementing research document
Bashu symbols refer to graphic symbols on the artifacts of the Warring States Period, and Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties unearthed in Sichuan and Chongqing. Yan Zhibin, a professor from the Research and Conservation Center for Unearthed Texts at Tsinghua University, suggested that the deciphering of ancient characters, especially extinct characters, should be incorporated into a major research focus. Bashu symbols are among the challenges. The nature and meaning of its symbol system needs lucid clarification, reconstructing and re-understanding the ancient Bashu culture.
Yuan Wei, deputy director of the research department of Guizhou Provincial Museum, analyzed the southward spread of the Bashu culture in the pre-Qin (prior to 221 BCE) era through the examination of artifacts bearing Bashu symbols unearthed in Guizhou.
New discoveries have been made at the Hebosuo Bronze Age site in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in recent years. The site’s precious cultural relics, including the Yizhou Prefecture Chief Seal, are showcased at the “Golden Light Shines Miles Away—Bronze Civilization in Southwest China” exhibition. Jiang Zhilong, a research fellow from the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and archaeological leader of the Hebosuo site, shared the latest research findings at the seminar. He stated that archaeological work has preliminarily confirmed the location of the government seat of Yizhou Prefecture in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE), verifying related records in Sima Qian’s Shiji [Records of the Grand Historian]. This deepens the study of national governance structures at the time, enriching our understanding of the early pluralistic integration of the Chinese nation.
The ancient Shu Bronze Age civilization has exerted a growing influence amid deepening cultural exchanges. Tianlong Jiao, a researcher at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, highlighted the significance of bronze ware research from a global perspective. The museum plans to launch a special exhibition of “Gazing at Sanxingdui—New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan” between Sept. 27, 2023 and Jan. 8, 2024. This exhibition aims to showcase the latest archaeological discoveries in Sichuan represented by the Sanxingdui site. It will feature 120 valuable cultural relics, including bronze, jade, gold, and pottery artifacts, marking the first time that this collection will be exhibited outside Sichuan. This special exhibition will kick off “the series exhibition of the origin and development of Chinese civilization” by the Hong Kong Palace Museum, presenting the formation and development of Chinese civilization to the world in a more comprehensive way.