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More than just a pretty face

While the main attractions of the most Sanxingdui exhibitions are uniquely vivid, exotic bronze masks, there is a greater story of regional integration to be told, Zhao Xu reports.

By ZHAO XU | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-20 10:20

A bronze head with gold foil mask, unearthed from the archaeological site of Sanxingdui.[Photo provided by the Shanghai Museum and the Sanxingdui Museum]

In the public imagination of the Chinese, the words Sanxingdui (Three Star Mounds) are the equivalent of a myth: What they see in exhibitions focusing on this major Bronze Age civilization, including a current one at the newly opened Shanghai Museum East, doesn't seem to align very well with their previous experiences.

They shouldn't be blamed: Many of the items that have been unearthed at the archaeological site located in Guanghan city, Southwest China's Sichuan province, have pointed to a style and a tradition little known in the long canonized history of Chinese art and culture. These include a gold scepter measuring nearly 1.5 meters long, an upright bronze figure staring down from its more than 2-meter height, and, most surprisingly, a 135-centimeter-wide bronze mask with protruding pupils that can't help but make one wonder: "Who's behind it?"

"The pursuance of an answer to that question by Chinese archaeologists over the past four decades has led to a whole set of knowledge fundamental to our understanding of the formation of not only the Sanxingdui culture, but the entire Chinese civilization of which it had been an integral part," says Hu Jialin, curator of the Shanghai exhibition, who has sought, through more than 360 carefully chosen exhibits, to contextualize the story of Sanxingdui.

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