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8 May 2004
Unmasking Sanxingdui ruins

Some 100 years ago, Sanxingdui in today's Sichuan Province (southwest China) 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 to 5,000 years old.
     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. 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 Dayholiday.
    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 wine making ability, ceramic technology and sacrificial tools and mining was commonplace. But still today little is known about this culture. There is no clue from where it came from and no clue where it went. Nothing is known about the masks and statues but there is much educated guessing.
     It is easy to guess that these items were used as religious objects. Maybe they 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.
    The 'mystery of the masks' and the strange figures produced by this civilization has even spread as far as UFO and paranormal websites. The facial features and big nose of the masks with animal ears could even leave one wondering whether people out of China were involved. And there are those who still wonder about the authenticity of the findings.
     Anyway, 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 Sichuan Province. According to local officials, the festival lasts for 300 days from May 1.

Source: China View (6 May 2004)

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