Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan

Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan

September 30, 2001 to January 13, 2002


Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan
presented the fascinating world of the art, material culture, and spiritual life of ancient Sichuan, a province in southwestern China, much of which had just been uncovered in the 15 years previous to the exhibition, which was on view at the Kimbell Art Museum from September 30, 2001, through January 13, 2002.

In the summer of 1986, a startling discovery was made by brickyard workers digging clay at Sanxingdui, a small village about 20 miles northeast of Chengdu in Sichuan province: two sacrificial pits, dating from about 1200 B.C., buried and hidden for over 3,000 years, and filled with hundreds of strange objects never before encountered, such as a long gold sheaf of a staff, imposing humanlike bronze heads, unusual bronze masks, and jade and stone implements.

Drawing from the archaeological record, this exhibition presented 124 stunning works of art, many of which are among the most unusual and spectacular produced anywhere in the ancient world; they cover nearly 1,600 years, from the mysterious bronze-using civilization at Sanxingdui in the 13th century B.C. through the period of contending kingdoms up to the Han dynasty in the third century A.D.

The exhibition, composed of three sections, focused first on the Sanxingdui civilization, with more than 60 artifacts of unique manufacture from the two sacrificial pits, including an awe-inspiring figure of a gesturing man (the only life-size statue known from ancient China that predates the famous terra-cotta army of the first emperor Qin Shihuangdi), fantastic bronze masks of supernatural beings, and luxurious jade and gold items. The second section, covering the Zhou dynasty and Warring States period (11th–3rd century B.C.), featured exquisite and flamboyant bronze vessels, finely crafted bells capable of sophisticated music, and lethal weapons, which became a preoccupation in Sichuan at this time of rivalry and warfare. The third section, about the material culture of Sichuan during the Han dynasty, presented superb sculptures such as a life-size bronze horse, bronze trees strung with images of immortals and money (coins), and ceramic tomb figurines of entertainers, servants, and guardians. It also included bricks stamped with everyday scenes: winemaking, hunting and fishing, banqueting, and acrobatic performances, as well as the universe of mythology and religion. The sense of life, humor, and pursuit of happiness expressed by these sculptures and bricks was unparalleled. These objects testify to the joys and preoccupations, material and spiritual, of the propertied classes in this affluent place, who were seemingly untroubled by open expressions of tenderness, pleasure, and worldly gain.

The spectacular discovery at Sanxingdui in 1986 turned Sichuan into a focal point in the study of ancient China. Collectively, the Bronze Age objects in the two pits date to the time of the Shang dynasty, in the late second millennium B.C., when the primary civilized society was flourishing in the Yellow River valley, in north China, thousands of miles from Sichuan. No similar find has been made anywhere else, and there are no inscriptions at the Sanxingdui site to shed light on its culture, which was apparently a distinctive Bronze Age civilization, unrecorded in historical texts and previously unknown. The discovery contributed to a fundamental shift from the traditional understanding of a single center of civilization in north China to the recognition of the existence of multiple regional traditions, of which Sichuan was clearly one of the most distinct. Moreover, it gave new impetus to a reexamination of ancient cultures in Sichuan in later periods. The art of those cultures remained surprisingly diverse while continuing to assert a strong regional character, even at the time when Sichuan became part of a unified China under the empire of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220).

The two pits at Sanxingdui yielded 57 human-like heads, a dozen or so small
figures, and a life-size statue of a man who is sumptuously dressed and clearly of high status. Common to most of these images are their blocky angular facial appearance. Perhaps the heads were mounted on bodies of another material, probably wood, as the material lends itself well to the statue’s columnar anatomy. Their bodies would have been dressed in real or depicted silk robes with a similar neckline. With faces painted and heads crowned with feathered headdresses of various kinds, a gathering of such figures would have been an awesome sight. The pits also contained 21 masks ranging in size from 7 to 54 inches wide. The majority of the masks have humanlike features, but the three largest have the most weirdly supernatural features of all the Sanxingdui images, with animal-like ears, monstrously protruding pupils, or an additional ornate trunk. Trees were central to the sacrifice rituals at Sanxingdui. A substantial proportion of the objects in Pit 2, including some of the most impressive, were bronze trees, ornaments for trees, and creatures that inhabit trees—birds above all. Trees and birds obviously had some deep significance to the Sanxingdui ritualists that has been lost to us. About 25 bronze vessels, tall vases of the types today called zun and lei, were also found in the two pits. These vessels were used as containers for small objects of offering including jades, bronzes, cowry shells, and ivory beads; this differed from north China, where such vessels were used as ritual wine containers. Many of the Sanxingdui vessels today still retain traces of vermilion smeared on the surface, which further indicates their special significance as ritual offerings. More than 200 jade and stone implements were excavated from the two pits, an overwhelming majority of which were blades made specifically for ritual use. Curiously, most of the objects were burned or broken and then deposited in the pits in a certain order, as if in an elaborate ritual.

In Sichuan, archaeological discoveries from the seven centuries or so following the Sanxingdui civilization remain extremely spotty. At Zhuwajie, about six miles from Sanxingdui, two hoards, each in an enormous pottery jar, were accidentally discovered in 1959 and 1980, yielding ornate bronze vessels, weapons, and tools. Unlike the Sanxingdui finds, the objects had not been burned or battered, and therefore may have been buried with the intention of later retrieval. Sichuan of the Warring States period (fifth to third century B.C.) was occupied by two political entities: the Shu in the western part of the Sichuan Basin, and the Ba in the east. For this period, a large number of cemeteries and individual tombs have been discovered in the region, bringing to light a wealth of tomb furnishings, including bronze chime bells and a variety of bronze weapons.

People of the Han dynasty harbored a relentless ambition of transferring what they
possessed and wished to possess in this world to the next, everlasting afterlife. They realized that ambition in the form of images ranging from three-dimensional models of architecture, carriages, entertainers, servants, farmers, and soldiers to more two-dimensional devices such as stone reliefs or molded bricks with scenes from many walks of life. The models were interred in tombs as furnishings, while the pictorial stone reliefs and bricks became part of the underground architecture, used to decorate walls and thus create a virtual world. In this national quest for eternal prosperity, Sichuan distinguished itself by producing the most lively images focusing on everyday activities. Also peculiar to Sichuan were bronze trees strung with images of deities, immortals, and coins, which symbolized prosperity and longevity.

At the end of each section of the exhibition, there were three kiosks housing interactive, multimedia computers that provided contextual information for the works of art on display. On the computers, visitors could access 12 short stories that explored the unique aspects of ancient Sichuan art. The stories, created for adults and children, featured images, text, narration, music, sound effects, and animations with games and puzzles. Visitors could click through at a comfortable pace that allowed time for reflection and offered multiple pathways for exploration.

The exhibition was organized by the Seattle Art Museum in collaboration with The Bureau of Cultural Relics, Sichuan Province of the People’s Republic of China. The Boeing Company provided the leadership grant for the exhibition with major support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Additional funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. This exhibition was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support for the exhibition was provided by American Airlines and WFAA-TV.

Caption: Bird's Head (detail), excavated from Sanxingdui Pit 2, Sichuan province, China, twelfth century BC, bronze. Sanxingdui Museum 00644