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Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

The traditional narrative of Chinese civilization is that the Han people (who originated on the fertile central plains around the Yellow River) invented cities, writing, advanced agriculture, bronzework, and Chinese civilization in general. The first great era of Han Chinese civilization was the Shang “dynasty” which lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC (although stories persist of an earlier—perhaps mythical—Xia dynasty). After the Shang age, the superior Han gradually spread through all of China incorporating lesser peoples into their greater hegemony (which endures to this day as the mighty nation we call China). This narrative was called into question in 1986 when workers at the Lanxing Second Brick Factory in Sichuan discovered an ancient pit full of exceedingly weird and magnificent bronze statues.

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Archaeologists flocked to the site and began researching the civilization which was behind these strange works or art. It became apparent that the bronzeworks came from a culture which was contemporary to Shang dynasty China, but which was not directly connected. These ancient people are known as the Sanxingdui culture. They flourished in the Sichuan region, but, aside from the self-evident fact that they were gifted bronze artists, very little is known about the. Archaeologists speculate that the Sanxingdui people lived unified under a strong centralized theocracy in a walled city; also some Chinese scholars identify the Sanxingdui with the Shu kingdom (which is mentioned occasionally in extremely ancient Shang-era sources). I would love to tell you more, but since the Sanxingdui left no recorded history, that is virtually all we know about the creators of these exquisite bug-eyed sculptures and masks. It is believed that some natural disaster or invasion wiped out their city-state and the survivors became integrated with the Ba culture which were in turn swallowed up by the Chin Empire.

 

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Whatever the truth about them, they made amazing art. In addition to the huge alien faces, animals such as snakes, fish, and birds abound in Sanxingdui artwork—as do zoomorphic combination animals and fantasy creatures like dragons. Practical items such as axes and chariot wheels were also found.  Naturally there is a vocal minority out there who insist that Sanxingdui culture was influenced by aliens, Atlantis, or whatever other supernatural entity du jour is selling books, but to find out more about them, we are going to have to wait for more discoveries.

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

lead-image-halloweenDuring secondary school in rural Ohio the music teacher annually dug out the moth-eaten scores for a bunch of Halloween songs including “Black and Gold,” (the lyrics of which I still somewhat remember). The song was a doggerel hymn about the colors of Halloween season and the lyrics were just a list of black and gold items: jet black cats with golden eyes, golden goblins, pumpkins, and black shadows. Some young wag always said “this should be titled ‘black and orange,’” which I thought was a fair point based on all of the orange and black candy and decorations around.

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Allegedly the seasonal color scheme of black and orange go back to the ancient Celtic traditions which Halloween comes from. Orange (or rich gold/saffron, maybe) is the symbolic color of the harvest, the crops, and the autumn leaves whereas black represents night, death, and winter darkness. It’s a good color combination, but I always wonder whether the seasonal obsession with bright orange and black may be more a result of marketers rather than ancient Celts—or maybe they actually dug out black robes and golden sickles every year for Samhain just like the music teacher got out those smudged Halloween music sheets.

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If it is a marketing tradition, the marketers chose well. Orange and black are beautiful together and perfectly fit the season, but you rarely see people running around wearing this combination other than tigers and baseball players (and tigers aren’t even people). I wonder of there are shopping seasons in the future that likewise will be known by color—like back to school will be aqua and puce. Perhaps the seasonal holiday colors are predetermined by the natural colors season. Do Australians have a creepy death holiday in their fall (our spring) or what? Or is everything just orange, dun, and buff there every season? What are holiday color combinations from other cultures?

Polynesian Halloween?

Polynesian Halloween?

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