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A golden face with patinaed turquoise eyes stares out of the darkness. Illuminated around it stand three other bronze heads — some have flat tops, others round — all looked over by a giant bronze statue almost 9 feet high. All have the same piercing, angular eyes.
There’s something about the “Faces of Sanxingdui” — as this collection of sculptures is being billed — that feels both familiar and alien. Currently on display at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, they may appear Mayan or Aztec to the untrained eye, but these over-3,000-year-old sculptures weren’t unearthed anywhere near Mesoamerica’s ancient civilizations. They were discovered on China’s Chengdu Plain, at an archeological dig site called Sanxingdui (which translates as “three star mound”).
Thought to be the largest and oldest site left by the Shu kingdom, a civilization in southwestern China once only hinted at in myths and legends, Sanxingdui was not discovered until the 1920s, when a farmer stumbled across objects while digging an irrigation ditch. The site has since been found to contain the ruins of an ancient city made up of residences, sacrificial pits and tombs enclosed by high dirt walls. Archaeologists from the Sanxingdui Museum say the city was established some 4,800 to 2,800 years ago, until it was abandoned around 800 BC for unknown reasons.
The Chinese government has long promoted Sanxingdui as evidence of the country’s long, uninterrupted history — with the discoveries included in history textbooks for more than a decade. And while thousands of visitors have already flocked to the groundbreaking exhibition in Hong Kong, some analysts suggest that the items are also being used to support the Chinese government’s vision of national identity.
The mysterious and talented Shu
The Shu kingdom, which emerged in the Sichuan basin during the Bronze Age, is believed to have developed independently of the Yellow River Valley societies traditionally considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. Its inhabitants created exquisitely crafted bronze, jade, gold and ceramic objects, depicting fantastical beasts, kings, gods and shamans with bulging eyes and enlarged ears.
Around 120 of the items are currently on display in Hong Kong, and it’s the first time many of these objects, most of which were excavated between 2019 and 2022, have been showcased outside Sichuan province.
Remarkably, the sculptures predate the Terracotta Army, a collection of earthenware statues depicting the armies of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, by at least 1,000 years. Wang Shengyu, an assistant curator at the Palace Museum told CNN said the objects are far more advanced, imaginative, and artistic than those being produced anywhere else in China at that time.
“You can tell that it’s very sculptural and very artsy,” Wang told CNN at the exhibition opening, pointing to a roughly 1-foot-tall bronze figure whose fantastical, braided hair extends out to three times the height of its body and, had it not been broken, would stretch much further. “You can imagine how magnificent it was. From above his nose and all the way up, it would’ve been over 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) tall, according to the fragments (archeologists) found. The end of the pigtail is on his shoulder.”
Little is known about the Shu kingdom other than what’s been discovered on the 3.6-square-kilometer (1.4-square-mile) site outside Chengdu. There is no evidence of a written Shu language, and historical literature contains scant information about its culture other than a handful of myths and legends, including a reference to a Shu king called Can Cong whose eyes were said to have protruded — perhaps explaining why so many of the 13,000 relics recovered from the site feature bulging eyes.
After the Shu state was conquered by the Qin dynasty in 316 BC, Shu culture was “buried” under the “mainstream” culture that later emerged on China’s central plain, Chinese authorities wrote in a 2013 UNESCO submission seeking to have Sanxingdui and two nearby archeological sites recognized as World Heritage Sites. They are currently on UNESCO’s “tentative list.”
Since 1986, eight excavated pits at Sanxingdui have yielded giant masks of gods with bulbous, insect-like eyes and protruding ears, mythical creatures with gaping mouths and an almost 4-meter-tall (13-foot) bronze “tree of life” sculpture decorated with ornaments like a Christmas tree. All the items were found shattered, burned and buried, leading experts to believe the pits were used for ritual sacrifices. Some have now been painstakingly re-constructed by archaeologists. “It took 10 years to reconstruct the tree,” said Wang Shengyu, an assistant curator at the museum who helped curate the exhibition.
That tree is not on show in Hong Kong, as it is considered too precious to send abroad, but a section of one of six others discovered and ornaments are on display at the museum, as well as a 3D holographic projection of what experts think it would have looked like – its layers and branches adorned with birds, flowers, fruit, dragons, bells as well as jade and gold foil ornaments. The set are thought to have been part of a theater space.
‘Historical myth’ of a continuous civilization
The exhibition places these items in the context of other ancient civilizations and includes the Shu among the many societies to have existed in the country’s “5,000-year history.” According to a press release from organizers, museum and Hong Kong government officials at the opening stressed the “continuity, inventiveness, unity, inclusiveness and emphasis on peace and harmony” of Chinese history.
Henry Tang, chairman of the governing body behind the West Kowloon Cultural District (where the Palace Museum is located) and a former candidate for Hong Kong’s top leadership role, said in a statement that the district and museum are looking to “promote cultural and artistic exchanges between China and the world, ‘tell China’s story well’, and strengthen the public’s cultural self-confidence.”
But the narrative that the Shu kingdom was innately Chinese is contentious, according to Ian Johnson, a senior fellow for China Studies at US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations.