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Shu Masks (ca. 1050 BC) gold mask in foreground, bronze head in back

Here is a 3000 year old gold mask discovered in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdu (which are located in Sichuan (Szechuan)) in Southwest China. The mask was not made for humans but was meant to be worn by a bronze head which was also one of the numerous items deliberately interred in the pits by the Shu people back during the time of the Shang Dynasty. Although the Shang Dynasty is sometimes known as China’s first dynasty and is a time when the first definitive Chinese writings emerged (along with many of the typical hallmarks of Han civilization), the Shu kingdom was not part of the Shang civilization centered in Anyang (as explained by this nebulous yet informative map).

Uh, so who were the Shu people and why were they making these gorgeous stylized heads out of gold and bronze only to bury them among burnt offerings? Well that is a really good question which lacks a really good answer (although analogous instances of buried offerings and treasure in other cultures probably prove instructive). Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about the Shu society and artworks before, and this newly discovered gold mask does not add much to that previous account…except for beauty and wonder. Those will have to suffice until somebody digs up a more definitive answer!

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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

My favorite demiurge is the Chinese snake goddess Nüwa. Nüwa tends to be portrayed as a beneficent creator who loves humankind and goes out of her way to protect them (while modestly shunning the worship craved by lesser deities). There is, however, a scene in Chinese mythological literature where a presumptuous human manages to rile up the usually gentle goddess. In the Ming dynasty era epic Fengshen Yanyi (AKA “The Investiture of the Gods”) the last Shang ruler King Zhou, a legendary debauched ruler, visits the temple of Nüwa to ask for her blessing. The sybaritic king sees a pulchritudinous statue of the great goddess and makes extremely inappropriate remarks about her charms before defacing the temple with obscene poetry/graffiti. In response, Nüwa sets aside her traditional compassion and decrees that King Zhou will be the last ruler of the Shang kingdom. To make her pronouncement come true, Nüwa sends three spirits to destroy the king: a thousand-year old white vixen, a nine-headed phoenix, and a jade pipa. Each spirit takes the form of a beautiful woman and soon they are destroying the king and his empire with erotic wiles and the darkest treachery! I don’t want to spoil the rest of the tale for you, but perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that things go downhill for King Zhou… The moral of the story is to respect Nüwa, the mother goddess of humankind and maybe also beware if numerous supernaturally beautiful women are suddenly throwing themselves at you.

Chinese Fox Spirit

Chinese Fox Spirit

Nine-headed Phoenix

Nine-headed Phoenix

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

 

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