New Exhibition Explores Chinese Civilization’s Earliest Origins

New Exhibition Explores Chinese Civilization’s Earliest Origins thumbnail

SHANGHAI — A jade dagger inscribed with a dragon and phoenix pattern. A plaque inlaid with a turquoise animal mask. An owl-shaped wine goblet that once belonged to the wife of Wu Ding, one of China’s earliest known rulers.

A new exhibition at the Shanghai Museum has brought together a remarkable collection of artifacts dating back to the very beginning of Chinese civilization. It’s the first installment of a series of shows, which the museum says will explore the “essence of China.”

Launched in late July, the three-month show — titled “The Making of China” — features over 300 objects from the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, which ruled ancient China from around 2,000 B.C. to 256 B.C. Almost all of them were excavated in the central Henan province.

A turquoise-inlaid bronze plaque with an animal mask pattern, which was unearthed from the Erlitou archeological site in 1984. VCG

A turquoise-inlaid bronze plaque with an animal mask pattern, which was unearthed from the Erlitou archeological site in 1984. VCG

The exhibition’s Chinese name — “Zhaizi Zhongguo,” which translates literally as “located in the central area” — is a reference to an inscription found on a bronze wine vessel from the Zhou dynasty, which is the first known use of the word zhongguo, or China, in history.

Henan is considered to be one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. The capitals of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties — the first three dynasties recorded in Chinese history — were all located in the province. On an official list of the top 100 Chinese archeological discoveries of the past century, six of the 25 sites dating back to these earliest three dynasties are based in Henan.

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Chen Jie, deputy director at the Shanghai Museum, said many consider Chinese civilization to start during the late Shang dynasty, when inscriptions of Chinese characters begin showing up on oracle bones. But this exhibition provides insights into an even earlier period.

“We hope to provide more content to the story of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, and help visitors have a sense of China’s long history and civilization,” said Chen. “These physical objects cannot be erased and are the visual proof of this history.”

Reservation slots for the next five days of the exhibition till Sunday are fully booked, according to the museum’s online booking system, though no data on the number of daily visitors is available.

The exhibition is split into three parts that present the history of the three dynasties in chronological order, the gradual evolution of the bronze and jade objects mirroring the development of the early Chinese states and providing a glimpse of their social rituals and hierarchy.

One of the highlights of the current exhibition is a ding, or bronze food vessel, that dates back to the Xia dynasty, over 3,000 years ago. Unearthed from a tomb at the Erlitou site in 1987, it’s the earliest bronze ding found in China, and shows that a system of royalty and ritual was already in place at that time.

Another object unearthed from the same site — a plaque with hundreds of pieces of turquoise inlaid in the pattern of an animal’s face pattern — was found pierced and tied to the chest of a body inside a tomb. Archeologists say the artifact likely served as a means to communicate with the heavens.

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(Header image: Visitors browse “The Making of China: the Civilization of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties,” a new exhibition at the Shanghai Museum, Aug. 4, 2022. VCG)

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