The nearly 4,000-year-old artifacts on display in the Sanxingdui Museum comprise an archaeological rarity in many respects, most of all, perhaps, because the collection of ornate bronze masks and idols turn a longstanding myth into reality.
Thirty years ago, the existence of an ancient Shu civilization in Sichuan was based on little more than folklore and conjecture. But in the 1980s, farmers near Guanghan, around 40 km north of Chengdu, struck pits laden with some of the most sophisticated bronze carvings in the world.
Sanxingdui (or "three stars mound") is now thought to be the site of the capital of the ancient Shu, a civilization as old, if not older, than the first Shang and Zhou Dynasties that cultivated areas around the Yellow River in northeastern China.
Today, the Sanxingdui Museum is as impressive as the findings are significant. Set among pleasant landscaped gardens and small streams, it is, for now, mercifully lacking in shops trying to sell touristy tat. Sanxingdui's main attraction is the two collections: the comprehensive collection—a mix of earthenware, jade, and lithic items—and the much more beautiful bronze collection, housed in a separate building.
Build up your visit to the museum's highlight by leaving the bronze collection until the end. The pieces are both beautiful and bizarre. Among the collection is a series of masks whose features are quite unlike anything else found in China. The most grotesque are up to a meter wide and feature solid bronze pupils protruding a foot out of the eyeballs. With such large, menacing eyes, prominent noses, and, in many, cases parts of animals incorporated into the human features, the masks are striking and intimidating. Historians believe this is their intended effect, surmising that they were central to shamanistic rituals that characterised local religion at the time. Others depict members of the local ruling class, their otherworldly features serving to physically distinguish them from their subjects.
Whatever the relics' specific purpose, historians have concluded that Sanxingdui was a well-ordered and well-established society, with advanced bronzing techniques, a set of religious beliefs, and hierarchical political power—immediately disputing the notion that while the Yellow River civilizations laid the foundations for Chinese culture, the southwest was primitive. With cultural longevity such an important part of China's identity, it is no wonder that Sanxingdui is a source of pride for Sichuanese; their history seems now to stand toe-to-toe with any of the country's oldest civilizations.
But Sanxingdui raises as many questions as it answers. Historians cannot explain why the site was abandoned sometime between 3,200 and 2,800 years ago, though similar archaeological findings at Jinsha, Chengdu, makes southern migration the likeliest explanation. None of the artifacts found at Sanxingdui have revealed a script or writing system, which, while in itself is a mystery, also makes it harder to provide answers. Written sources from elsewhere in China only refer to much later periods of the Shu civilization. Historians do not have a Sanxingdui equivalent of Shang Dynasty "oracle bones" to piece together a more accurate picture of what existed at the time. Regardless of these unsolved mysteries, Sanxingdui gives Shu culture a starting point, paving the way for Liu Bei and his cohorts, who were immortalized during the Three Kingdoms period when Chengdu formally became the capital of Shu Han.
A sign in the museum issues a rallying cry: "The soul of Shu, thousands of years old, will exist eternally. May the three stars [san xing] shine brightly forever." Sanxingdui is both an archaeological marvel and a reminder that regional distinctiveness is deep-rooted and will continue to color Chinese culture and identity. It is, on many levels, worth a visit.
Getting there is easy: Buses to Guanghan (广汉) regularly leave from the Zhaojue Bus Station (昭觉寺车站) near the Panda Base). The journey takes between 30 minutes and an hour and costs RMB15 or RMB10, depending on whether your bus takes the expressway or surface streets. From the Guanghan Bus Station, a 15-minute ride on the No. 6 bus drops will take you directly to the museum entrance. Alternatively, a taxi directly there will cost around RMB150. Standard admission to the museum is RMB80; child, student, and senior discounts are available. While the museum signage is probably informative enough for all but the most fervent archaeology buffs, free English-language audio tours are available (a refundable RMB200 deposit is required) as are guided tours in English and Japanese (RMB120 per person). Opening hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 34 ("Chengdu's mad tea party"). Text by Joseph McDevitt. Photos by Dan Sandoval and Leo Chen