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Unmasking China's Sanxingdui Ruins


By Jenny Leal


In an out-of-the-way area of southwest China not on the beaten path of most foreign tourists visiting the picturesque home of the giant panda, giant Buddha and Tibetan people lies a little-known site that holds its own unique mystique.


Some 100 years ago, Sanxingdui in today's Sichuan Province hadn't seemed to anyone anything more than a typical rural area, and just 20 years ago its significance was not fully known. But when a farmer hollowing out a just-dug ditch in 1929 found some jade he unwittingly opened the door on an unknown culture between 3,000 to5,000 years old.


Perhaps it's not so startling in itself that an accidental strike of the hoe would unearth ruins as new archeological sites from China's rich history are being discovered almost every day.


But what no one could have expected was that this particular discovery would rewrite Chinese history by unearthing a culture contemporary with the first civilizations of China but that had left no clues in historical records, that seemingly disappeared without a trace and which left artifacts never before discovered elsewhere in China.


The discovery of the jade, which the family thought to keep secret at first, later brought archeologists, though one of them have predicted in the 1930s that this might be the capital of the ancient Shu kingdom, they still might have been startled by another accidental discovery by workers at a brick factory in 1986.


Two sacrificial pits were filled with gold masks, bronze wares,jade tablets, elephant tusks and sacred trees - and they opened a world of mystery. The discovery pushed back the date of the bronze age in China and yet the objects made are unlike any made in any other period of Chinese civilization with the creation of human-like figures and faces particularly unique.


They left experts asking what the purpose of the objects was, where the culture came from, why there was no mention of it in historical texts and how such an ancient culture, at the origin of Chinese civilization, could be so advanced.


Theories abound, but whatever the answer, the unique part-human, part-animal masks have become the symbol of Sanxingdui and of the mysterious culture. So recently the local government invited some foreign journalists to participate in the opening of the Sanxingdui International Mask Festival at the start of the May Day holiday.


The area whose name means "three-star mounds" in English is not a place foreigners who aren't archeologists would know to visit and little is left for the common person to see of the actual ruins but some ancient objects and many reproductions showing off this advanced culture are on display in the local museum.


The more we learned about the mystery behind what was dug up, the more intriguing and important this site seemed. Many objects at first seem somewhat commonplace for old cultures until you realize that the people making these objects were those living at the beginning of Chinese civilization.


It is believed that Sanxingdui was capital of the ancient "Shu culture" of the Sichuan area, previously believed to be 3,000 years old. A metropolis of its time, covering about three square kilometers, Sanxingdui had highly developed agriculture, including winemaking ability, ceramic technology and sacrificial tools and mining was commonplace.


This discovery enables an overall picture of early society, which had diverse origins in China, and perhaps somewhat a rethink of just how "primitive" a primitive culture was.


But it is perhaps the mystery that is the biggest draw of this culture, at least for many foreigners. Still today little is known about it. There is no clue where the culture came from and no clue where it went. Nothing is known about these masks and statues but there is much educated guessing.


It is easy to guess that these items were used as religious objects. How they were used exactly is anyone's guess but a museum guide pointed out that it was common for ancient cultures to use religion as a form of power - to use fear to control the people. The masks may have been made in such a strange form so as to both inspire awe and encourage people to feel protected from evil.


But still, as these types of objects were not found in other cultures of the same era, Sanxingdui seems to stand out as a theocracy-tinted power where statues ruled the mortal and spiritual world. Museum signs noted that sorcerers and politicians would pretend to be gods and rule in this way, perhaps using the masks and statues in some way to accomplish the deception.


The "mystery of the masks" and the strange figures produced by this civilization has even spread as far as UFO and paranormal websites who picked up on a People's Daily article mentioning speculation that aliens might be the answer and quoting locals in the area as having said they spotted UFOs in the area some 20 years ago.


The facial features and big nose of the masks with animal ears could even leave one wondering whether foreigners were involved. And there are those who still wonder about the authenticity of the findings.


Whatever the truth, the Sanxingdui ruins provide plenty of room for discovery by archeologists and for imagination by we average people. And in that knowledge that there is still much we don't have the answers to about history and our ancestors, perhaps lies part of the charm.


It's not too late to visit the Sanxingdui International Mask Festival and these ancient ruins, fast becoming one of the top-promoted tourist sites in China.


The festival is being held near Guanghan, only some 40 kilometers from Chengdu, capital of SichuanProvince, already a popular destination for those wishing to see the giant panda or Sichuan's beautiful spots. According to local officials, the festival lasts for 300 days from May 1.

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