New discoveries from the early dynasties

December 6, 1996

Recent archaeological finds in China have revolutionised our understanding of that country's ancient civilisation. Some of the astonishing artefacts are on show at the British Museum, where on December 6-8 an international conference, sponsored by the THES, will discuss their impact on Chinese scholarship. Jessica Rawson opens our eight-page supplement by explaining how academic orthodoxy has been challenged by the civilisations of peoples and cultures not dreamed of before

New archaeological finds have turned the world of Chinese scholarship upside down, serving to transform the avant-garde into the old hat almost overnight. Extensive excavation campaigns and rescue digs have revealed a multitude of objects, whose functions and meanings challenge earlier assumptions about the country.

Discoveries in every part of China show a multitude of different peoples inhabiting it from the neolithic period, about 6000BC, to the present day. Was there one civilisation or many? The term "Chinese civilisation'' suggests just one line of development; but the land mass of China is much larger than the areas of Egypt or Greece, with whose civilisations ancient China is conventionally matched. Differing technologies of ceramics or jades indicate several material cultures, differing from place to place; fine ornaments and imposing ritual objects indicate differing beliefs. Was one area, one group of people, one set of beliefs, more important than any other? Or did they all contribute to the final outcome - Chinese civilisation?

Finds, most particularly of carved jades, from two widely separate areas - Liaoning province in the northeast and from around Shanghai in the southeast - make especially pressing the questions: where did Chinese civilisation develop and did it spring from one source or many? Neither of these two areas would have been chosen by experienced archaeologists 20 years ago as the origin of later China's renowned jade industry and art. Yet astonishing finds have come from both, and the jades of the two areas are completely different. A disc and a square tube with a circular bore are included in the exhibition at the British Museum. Their decoration of strange figures and shapes, which have no utilitarian use, indicate objects for some religious or ritual purpose. In the north, the Hongshan people made a different category of object, coiled dragons known as pig-dragons, which seem to portray creatures of supernatural powers.

Now we have two ancestors for the famous Chinese tradition of jade carving. Durham University's Gina Barnes has been working with Chinese archaeologists at the principal Hongshan culture site, Niuheliang in north-eastern China, where these coiled creatures were found. Jades found here were part of an elaborate ritual complex and burial ground (c. 3500BC); was this the ancestor of all later jade carving? And if so, are we really looking at a single line of development? It seems very unlikely.

The same challenge to orthodox interpretations is developed by later Bronze Age finds, dating from between 2000-1000BC. Recent archaeological discoveries from southwestern China provide evidence of an unknown civilisation in contradistinction to traditional accounts of three dynasties or royal houses ruling China on the Yellow River: the Xia (legendary), the Shang (c.1500-c.1050BC) and the Zhou (c.1050-771BC). The traditional history, preserved in texts dating from a later period, was, until recently, accepted by all Chinese excavators, and many still see it as the prevailing paradigm. But the finds from Sanxingdui in the southwest undermine this account. Against the well-known Shang and Zhou bronze vessels (for offerings of food and wine to ancestors), made and used at the sites either side of the Yellow River, are now set dramatic human-like bronze figures of deities, spirits or priests. Strange masks with projecting pupils and elephant-like ears, elephant tusks, trees and birds in bronze, gold ornaments and many types of jade carving, represent an imagined spiritual universe, quite unlike anything discovered elsewhere. Indeed, the culture is so strange, so unprecedented, that we cannot begin to describe the society that produced these objects. The people inhabited a large city, whose walls survive in fragments. But we do not know what language they spoke and what drove them to bury this wealth of precious materials in two large sacrificial pits.

The traditional scheme that postulated a dominant state on the Yellow River has thus been shaken. Moreover, the peoples at Sanxingdui were not the only group in southern China using the Yangtze and its tributaries and lakes, developing sophisticated cities, technologies and beliefs. Other strange bronzes have come from central provinces and from further east. These fine vessels, weapons and sculptures indicate other groups or cultures who almost certainly spoke different dialects or languages. Such a mosaic of powers, proclaimed by their bronzes and jades, prepares the way for the diversity of the later Bronze Age (in the time of Confucius), a diversity that was finally joined into some sort of unity by the first emperor, the ruler of the western Qin state. Only from 221BC, the year of this unification, is it possible to see ancient China coming together as one civilisation.

One of the strands that recurs in debates about the origins of Chinese civilisation is the topic of ancient Chinese technology. Many of China's technologies were and are peculiarly her own. Jade carving has been mentioned, and equally famous are silk weaving and lacquer work. But even such technologies as bronze casting and ceramics, materials known in most other civilisations, were worked by methods developed in China.

Chinese operations were always conducted on a grand scale. This was presumably based on a large economic surplus to feed the craftsmen and foremen and clerks, as well as the elite who used the objects made. The Chinese developed a subdivision of labour, leading to very early mass-production. Bronze vessels and bells for sacrificial banquets, ceramic roof tiles, silken robes and terracotta warriors were also products of this system. The warriors, found in the tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, in 1974, exhibit standardisation, quantity and deliberate variation to respond to rank, that is the rank of the soldiers depicted. But this minute variation was used to cement the social hierarchy. Set ranks were accorded fixed categories of dress and possessions. Chinese culture may be defined as the area in which these mass production techniques prevailed.

We should also consider such technologies in a world context. Chinese silk weaving and ceramics prompted other countries to compete with their own products and perhaps led to factory traditions in areas such as Europe, as westerners struggled to achieve the finish of Chinese silken cloth and translucent porcelain.

If technologies have been one route by which to define areas of Chinese development, writing and religious beliefs and practices are others, all much changed in the light of recent excavations. The bronze-using Shang dynasty on the Yellow River used characters which are the direct ancestors of modern ones. It is unknown whether the peoples in other areas, such as Liaoning or Sanxingdui in Sichuan province had writing systems.

On page IV, William Boltz of Washington University describes the early writing on oracle bones of the Shang dynasty and bronze ritual vessels of both the Shang and the Zhou. But much more than the origins and development of the writing system have come to light in the great Chinese tombs. We see writing in its central role of communication; between the living and the dead - "the ancestors". These ancestors were drawn into the concerns of their living relatives by divination and by regular offerings of food and wine. They were kept abreast of the changes in the world by written reports. Such reports occur on bronze vessels for offering food. As the ancestors were drawn to the ceremonial banquets by the smells of rich food and wine, they presumably not only partook of the food, but also read the inscriptions underneath the food, which told of new achievements of their descendants, of new honours granted by the king. Later such communications with the spirit world were written on bamboo, wood and even jade.

Treatises found in tombs range from works on warfare and medicine to maps, acupuncture charts and law codes. Pragmatic works, they were probably intended for their owners, the individuals buried in the tombs, to use in an afterlife that had many bureaucratic features. For also interred were utensils for writing: tools to prepare bamboo strips, ink stones and grinders, that is two stones for crushing, with water, small pellets of carbon, and brushes for writing. These were the tools for the official to use in the afterlife.

The dominance of the bureaucracy is clear, not only in these tools, but in many artefacts. For clerks and managers would have had to organise the workers, draw up plans of tombs and pottery replicas, marshal bronze and organise distribution. It was, above all, a state bureaucracy that put in the field the huge armies of the fourth and third centuries BC. Without literate officials and their clerks, campaigns embroiling hundreds of thousands of men would have been impossible.

Early Chinese visions of the afterlife are very different from the western view of a glorious Kingdom of Heaven made brilliant by gold - imagery of eternity and revelation. For the Chinese, the other world was just a version of the present one. To enter their second life, the dead had to be equipped with all the most precious necessities of this world. Excavations of tombs and texts have led to the same conclusion: the picture of China as a philosophical society, with little religious belief, is simply incorrect. Yet it was not a consistent, revealed religion of the type familiar in western Christianity or eastern Buddhism. This was not a religion with an ordered church, but a series of practices that defined the universe, its worldly and spiritual realms, and which provided routes by which both living and dead could be managed.

It is hard to marry these realistic, early Chinese views of the afterlife, with its demons and bureaucrats, with the images and poems that describe immortals. The immortals live in paradises in the great mountains of the west or on the islands of the eastern sea. The ancient Chinese did not necessarily aspire to live there. They sought the drugs and recipes of immortality to be found there. Mirrors and lamps that depicted immortals and miraculous creatures were, like talismans and icons, means of describing the invisible and drawing it into the real world.

Rather than seeking an ascent to these distant realms by religious practice, the Chinese sought deathlessness through exercises, special foods and drugs and through the powers of jade. The jade suit is the epitome of this last, its purpose to render the body jade-like, as was the body of an immortal. Only with the recent spate of archaeological excavations has this complex range of notions about life, death and the afterlife been presented. Reliance on the classical texts would reveal little. As in many other areas of understanding, here too we contemplate changes of perspective that have been revised only in the last ten years. New finds will undoubtedly demand further revisions.

Jessica Rawson is warden of Merton College, Oxford.

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