In many countries of the world, the finest ancient objects are to be found in the national museum - the UK’s British Museum, the US’s Smithsonian, Canada’s National Museum of History, and so on. One might be forgiven for thinking the same might be true in China - that China’s most extraordinary treasures are concentrated in its National museum in Beijing, perhaps alongside some of the country’s most famous sites: the Forbidden city, The Great Wall and Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors. But whilst these sites provide a window into the richness of history in this land, what is remarkable about China is just how many more world class treasures are nestled in provincial, city and site museums you may never have heard of.
And those provincial and local museums tell so many fascinating stories, such as that told by the Quanzhou Maritime Museum, which describes the Song Dynasty (969-1279) blending of Buddhist, Islamic, Christian and Hindu styles through buildings, stone stellae and tombstones. Or the Xi’an stele museum which contains the famous Nestorian stele - the first evidence of Christianity in China.
But I’m going to linger on three world class - but likely lesser-known - museums:
Sanxingdui literally means “three star mound”. This museum was built very close to a group of c.1100-1200BCE burial mounds first discovered in 1986, which have turned all conceptions of the history of China on their head. Hitherto the narrative was one of the growth of Chinese civilisation from the central plain by the yellow river. But the artistic style of Sanxingdui was completely unknown in the history of Chinese art. It’s symbolic golden masks, bird totems, jade objects, axes, sacrifices all have an aesthetic that feels more Peruvian than Chinese. A major civilisation so developed but different to the Shang was a revelation to archaeologists.
The current prevailing theory is that the site was part of a legendary kingdom called Shu. According to legend, the founder of the Shu kingdom, Cancong, had markedly protruding eyes. Some of the most extraordinary objects found at the site are very distinct bronze heads with very markedly protruding eyes - thought to be stylistic representations of Cancong. The largest bronze mask found at the site at 72cm high and 132cm wide is pictured at top. There is so much still to learn and new finds uncovered every year. This unfolding mystery adds to making this museum one of the most wondrous in China.
In 1899, Chinese Imperial Academy director Wáng Yirong had malaria. He sought a traditional Chinese medicine solution: “dragon bone” powder. But to his surprise, the “dragon” bones prescribed were covered in what he recognised to be an ancient form of writing. It took eleven years, but in 1910 the bones were traced to Yinxu village near Anyang. Wáng Yirong, and scholar Luo Zhenyu after him, had discovered oracle bones: the first written evidence of the Shāng. And they had definitive proof that the rural village of Yinxu had - for 255 years been the site of the royal tombs of the capital of the Shāng kingdom. A kingdom that would have been thriving at the same time as Sanxingdui to the south.
There is so much to see at the Yinxu Museum - including China’s oldest buried chariots, sacrificial pits , finds from the tombs of the 12 kings who ruled during the Shāng. But for me, the highlight is the tomb of Lady Fuhao. Mulan is a myth - but Lady Fuhao, initially a concubine, rose to be a Queen, a priestess and a military general - all by the time of her untimely death at around 35 years of age in 1250 BCE. When discovered, her tomb was entirely undisturbed and, alongside Fuhao’s remains, contained 6 dog skeletons, 16 human slave skeletons, and numerous grave goods of huge archaeological value.
Unfortunately Wuhan is now known globally as the source of the world’s first COVID cases, but Hubei province should be known for so much more. The provincial museum contains a staggering array of fantastic finds, including so many treasures from the 8th century BCE tomb of Marquis Yì of Zeng, a vassal state under the Zhou dynasty.
But this museum’s most extraordinary piece is from the cusp of the Spring and Autumn and Warring states periods: the sword of Goujian. Goujian was the king of Yuè, who in 473 BCE conquered the kingdom of Wu after years of hardship and humiliation following an earlier defeat, including three years as a servant of the king of Wu. The sword is inscribed, identifying it as that of the King of yuè, also although there were nine, archaeological consensus was that it belonged to this famous king known for perseverance in hardship. This makes it extraordinary enough. But what is even more extraordinary is it’s state of is it’s almost perfect preservation, attributed to the seal provided by its sheath, the very fine bronze casting, and the stable clay environment in the tomb in which it was found.
Every visit to every museum yields extraordinary moments in history and tells a story of a country that has been, in the past, divided into many kingdoms with huge religious and cultural diversity. By reaching into the past, there is so much to learn for the present and for the the future.
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Danae has been a Minister Counsellor at the British Embassy to China since October 2018. Her role includes engagement with China on Energy and Climate Change, Health, Science and Technology, and provincially/locally, through a brilliant team of outreach officers based all over China. Prior to that, Danae was the UK’s Special Envoy to the Great Lakes of Africa and Head of the Southern and Central Africa Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. During her 20 year diplomatic career, she has also worked in Pretoria, on Eastern Europe and Central Asia, on counter-terrorism, on NATO, on the EU, and on UN and environmental issues. Before becoming a diplomat, Danae worked in the NGO sector in Africa for seven years. Danae is an inclusion and diversity champion with a particular interest in gender. She speaks Mandarin and is fascinated by Chinese history and culture.
You can follow her on twitter at @danaedholakia.