Archaeologists in Sichuan Province, China announcement this week, they uncovered evidence of ancient efforts to commune with fairies. A cache of bronze, jade and gold artifacts as well as evidence of ancient sacrificial rituals have been unearthed. Some of the artifacts, the scientists say, are one-of-a-kind objects that hint at the “fairy world” of ancient Chinese religion and thought. But if you’re imagining folk religion and Tinkerbell, think again.
The finds were made at the famous archaeological site of Sanxingdui in the city of Guanghan in southwestern Sichuan province. The real treasure was excavated in Sacrificial Pits 7 and 8 by a collaborative team of scholars from Peking University and Sichuan University. Among the items was a bronze and green jade box adorned with dragon-headed handles and once wrapped in silk. Professor Li Haichao, from Sichuan University who runs Pit 7, told the Chinese new agencies that “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the vessel is one of a kind, given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design.”
The collection of intricate sculptures includes mythical creatures, man-snake hybrids, and bronze heads adorned with gold masks. The iconographic program of the sculptures, which were mainly located in pit 8, is “complex and imaginative”. Zhao Hao, associate professor at Peking University, said that they reflect “the fairy world imagined by people of the time, and that they demonstrate the diversity and richness of Chinese civilization”.
The finds are receiving a lot of attention, not only because of the historical significance of the site, but also because of the invocation of the word “fairy” in media statements. But “fairy” can be a misleading term here. The term is derived from Old English (Fae) from Old French (dolisten)) and refers to women gifted with magic or enchanted things and illusions. In pop culture, the word fairy is most often associated in English-speaking countries with Tinkerbell or, if you like to consider yourself cultured, Puck: winged, often undersized magical creatures associated with woods, the bottom of gardens and wishes. In Chinese mythology, entities described as “fairies” are often more powerful spirits associated with specific places, especially mountains, rivers, and oceans.
These “spirits” can be benevolent or malevolent and are sometimes linked to ancient human or animal beings who have been transfigured into local guardian spirits, ancestor spirits and deities. Guardian Spirit (Jingwei) of the mountain Departing-Doves, for example, was transformed into the Spirit-Guardian bird when she drowned in the East Sea. A former mortal, Strassberg A Chinese bestiary describes her as both a “goddess” and a “spiritual guardian” and notes that Taoists identify her as a “transcendent [human]and that in modern China she is a “symbol of someone who refuses to accept defeat”. Jingwei’s story is about metamorphosis and this fluidity is only amplified by changing interpretations of her status over time.
The invocation of the word “fairy” in the news reports is illuminating, however, not only because of what it tells us about the discovery in question, but because of the way it exposes the exclusion of fairies from supernatural consciousness. western. If you search for “fairy” in the Cambridge English dictionary, you will learn that fairies are “imaginary”. Look for the most Christian “angel” and you to find a total absence of existential judgments.
All this to say that communing with angels, spirits and fairies are not different activities. If talking to fairies sounds hokey but making sacrificial offerings to spirits seems expected, then we’re simply caught off guard by the cultural biases of our own Christian-centric English language. In the irrevocably hierarchical patchwork pantheon of Anglo-American culture, fairies sit at the bottom of the hierarchy and have no opportunity for promotion. But Chinese mythology does not share our assumptions and distinctions. If the current interpretation is correct, then the people of Sanxingdui were in contact with entities that could just as easily be described as spirits or gods. The “fairy” language captures how Chinese spirits and deities were often animal-human hybrids, but aesthetically, as Sanxingdui’s images reveal, they are quite different. You won’t find pixie cuts here.
Although scientists have not released precise dates for the most recent discoveries, the Sanxingdui ruins are between 3,500 and 4,800 years old and experts have said that the artifacts are around 3000 to 4500 years old. They are of great significance for what they reveal about the Shu civilization, which flourished in the region until 316 BCE (when the region was conquered by the Qin dynasty). Archaeological research is the primary means of reconstructing this otherwise mysterious civilization, as literary references to the state of Shu are largely mythological and derive from the fourth century BCE. Huayang Chronicles.
Previous studies of the finds at Sanxingdui have noted that the culture that flourished there in the Bronze Age was contemporary with that of the Shang dynasty and shares some elements in common with its mythology and religion. Not the least of these is the use of sacrificial bronze offerings as a means of communicating with spirits. (This interpretation of the pits is disputed: Chen Shen argued in a 2002 report book that the pits could have been burial pits rather than sacrificial sites. There are no human remains in the pits).
In a report on a bronze statue found in Sacrificial Pit 1, Shen Zhongchang and Robert Jones write that at that time “spirits were specifically worshipped” in this way in the Shang religion. At the same time, as Robert Bagley has writing“There is nothing in Shang archeology that prepares us for the bronze sculpture of the size and sophistication” found in Pit 1. Bagley argue that “The sacrificial ritual which produced the two [Sanxingdui] pits [1 and 2 ] has no exact parallel elsewhere in Chinese archaeology, and can only be related in the most general way” to ritual archaeologists unearthed at other Shang sites. Ran Honglin, from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute, said recent findings that some elements of the sculpture were similar to Zhou dynasty artefacts.
In other words, the Sanxingdui finds are of crucial importance for what they can tell us about the contacts between the different kingdoms of ancient China, the development of metallurgical technologies and ancient Chinese religious rituals. The discovery of these more complicated and ornate sacrificial offerings helps color our sketch of both Shu cosmology and culture and what Honglin calls “the early exchange and integration of Chinese civilization”. When Prof. Hao spoke of the “fairy world”, his statement focused on the “diversity and richness of Chinese civilization”. Reports of ancient Chinese fairies, eye-catching as they are, sell both the ancient divine spirits and the significance of the findings a bit short.