Ancient Civilization and Statue in Sanxingdui

Sanxingdui: A Lost Civilization in Ancient China

Chinese Archaeologists excavating the Sanxingdui pit
Chinese Archaeologists excavating the Sanxingdui pit

On March 20, 2021, the Institute of Chinese Archaeology announced a stunning discovery regarding the Sanxingdui Ruins. More than 500 pieces of ancient artifacts were unveiled during the exciting weekend, providing a more detailed perspective of a mysterious civilization dating back to almost 3000 years ago around the Yangtze river basin in China.

Sanxingdui, or Sanxingdui Ruins, is an archaeological site located in Guanghan, Si Chuan province, China. It is famous for a completely different art style compared to any other ancient Chinese dynasties. Thus, there is also a saying that a hidden culture is contemporaneous with the Shang Dynasty in Southern China. The Sanxingdui civilization was an independent culture outside the Yellow River, which proves that the Yellow River basin was the sole origin of ancient Chinese culture is inaccurate.

In this blog, I will briefly introduce the discovery history of this remarkable archaeological site and the story behind the Sanxingdui culture and its value to human heritage. We will look at the importance of the Sanxingdui culture, too, representing a non-mainstream civilization in ancient China.

Discovery history

First Discovery

In spring 1929, a farmer named Dao Cheng Yan was digging a well in front of his house. He dug up a triangle-shaped pit full of delicate jade items by accident. Some stone panels surrounded the pit, making it look like a tomb. Yan and his family kept silent about what they had discovered. They quickly moved most of the jade items home and hid these old-time treasures away from the public. Yan did not allow his family to spread any information that they found an ancient tomb beneath their house.

Sanxingdui jade ware
Sanxingdui jade ware

However, Yan could not resist the thinking of selling some pieces of jade to improve his living conditions. He did not realise the actual value of this ancient jade either, so he sold some at a moderate price. These jade items soon caught the attention of other jade traders because of their unique art style. Some jade traders finally found the source of these jade artifacts by tracing the sales channels. Soon, the rumour spread across the antique market that there were a considerable was of jade items underneath the grounds of Yan’s village, which was called “Guanghan jade” at that time.

Some scholars and archaeologists in China also noticed these jade wares in the market. A famous epigraphist, Xi Tai Gong bought four pieces of jade ware from Yan for his study. Gong published a research journal in the newspaper about his findings on “Guanghan jade”. After publishing this journal, people had a frenzy going to Yan’s village and hoping they could dig up some ancient jade.

Assistance from university scholars

In 1931, V. H. Donnithorne, a British missionary, borrowed some pieces of jade from Yan’s family and brought them back to West China Union University (hereinafter referred to as WCUU, merged with Sichuan University nowadays). He handed these relics to Daniel Sheets Dye, an American geologist, to identify these jade ware. Dye soon concluded these jade ware were from Late Shang Dynasty. In June 1931, Donnithorne and Dye visited Yan’s village, hoping they could find more clues leading to the history behind Yan’s discovery.

After the visit, Yan realised the importance of his discovery. He donated part of his collection to WCUU for further studies. The county head, Yu Cang Luo, ordered to prohibit any private excavation from protecting the relic. In 1934, Luo invited David Crockett Graham, an American missionary and archaeologist who worked in the WCUU museum, to form an official excavation team. They found 600 more artifacts in over ten days in the first organised excavation of Sanxingdui. Graham wrote a report about this excavation, named “Han Zhou excavation report”, which is also the first report for purposes of Sanxingdui for academic purposes.

Modern Stage of Excavation

In the 1950s, during the Chengyu Railway construction, workers spotted jade and bronze relics alongside the railway several times. The curator of the Southwest Museum (nowadays Three Gorges Museum), Han Ji Feng, proposed that some ancient tombs might be lying under the railway. Three years later, Southwest Museum requested permission to start excavation around the Sanxingdui area. They have been searching for damaged and lost pieces of the Sanxingdui Ruins since then. In the 1970s, many brick factories were located around the relic, causing massive damage to nearby historical remains. In May 1980, the Sichuan province’s archaeology team tried to rescue the artifacts in Sanxingdui Ruins, protecting them from being damaged by local economic activities. They found 18 housing foundations from 3000 to 4000 years ago, four tombs, and hundreds and thousands of pottery, stone, jade crafts.

In 1982, the National Cultural Heritage Administration (hereinafter referred to as NCHA) set up special funding to support the excavation and research of the Sanxingdui Ruins. One of the most significant excavations happened in 1986, where Chinese archaeologists found two large sacrifice pits with thousands of gold, jade, bronze and pottery crafts in them, including those well-known bronze masks and the bronze tree.

Notably, there are some rumours about the Sanxingdui Ruins excavation. One most spreading story says the excavation had stopped since 1986. The Sanxingdui Museum clarified it on their official Weibo post. The saying that the excavation had stopped for 34 years since 1986 is incorrect. The fact is that they have been working on more discoveries rather than focusing on those unveiled sacrificial pits. The latest update on March 20, 2021, is about a new sacrificial pit. Chinese archaeologists had reported a lot of new findings before this update.

About Sanxingdui culture

As mentioned above, the Sanxingdui culture proves that a highly developed and independent civilization existed simultaneously with the Shang Dynasty in southern China. Three theories explain the origin of Sanxingdui culture. One of them sounds ridiculous: that the Sanxingdui culture was an alien culture that came from space. The other two theories arise from some ancient documentaries.

The “Cang Cong” Theory

The protruding eyes on the Sanxingdui bronze mask
The protruding eyes on the Sanxingdui bronze mask

The first one says that a country called Cang Cong created the Sanxingdui culture. Most Chinese scholars believe in Cang Cong origins because they find the styles of bronze masks strongly corresponding to the king of Cang Cong’s appearance. Some documentaries recorded that the king of Cang Cong had protruding eyes. Interestingly enough, those bronze masks have precisely the same feature of protruding eyes too. According to the Chronicles of Hua Yang, a gazetteer in the Jin Dynasty (A.D. 348-354), there was an old kingdom called Shu, which occupied southwest China 3000 to 4000 years ago. Cang Cong founded the Shu kingdom. The Shu people forged bronze masks and other eye-shaped crafts with bizarre protruding eyes to worship their king- Cang Cong.

The “Yu Fu” Theory

The second theory mentioned another country called Yu Fu. In the Chronicles of Hua Yang, Yu Fu was the third king of the Shu kingdom. Yu Fu set Guanghan city as the Shu kingdom’s capital, which geologically matches the Sanxingdui Ruins’ location. Also, at the time Yu Fu reigned, the Shu kingdom was contemporary with the Late Shang Dynasty, according to The Shang Shu, an ancient Chinese documentary. Scholars find that the Shu kingdom crafted those bronze and jade artifacts in the Sanxingdui Ruins around the Late Shang Dynasty. Therefore, the location and time evidence can support the Yu Fu theory as well.

The Alien Origin Theory

Sanxingdui Golden Mask
Credit: Xinhua/Sanxingdui Ruins sacrificial pits archeological project

This one seems a bit ridiculous because the alien origin theory is more like folklore. People insisting on this theory believe that the Sanxingdui culture came from space 3000 years ago. They claim that the Sanxingdui relics’ bizarre art style is so much different from any other known art styles from existing or past civilisations.

The Bronze Tree
The Bronze Tree

However, studies prove that the unearthed bronzewares from Sanxingdui have a similar crafting technique to other artifacts from the Central Plains (the Yellow River basin). Scholars find the typical Chinese bronze “Zun” and “Lei” sacrificial vessels from Sanxingdui Ruins sharing similar features with Late Shang Dynasty handicrafts. Although the bronze trees and masks are so unique that they look like from space, strong evidence shows that Sanxingdui culture somewhat communicated with the Yellow River basin.

Mysterious Civilization

Scholars believe that the Sanxingdui culture was a highly developed and independent civilisation. This civilization had some connections and communications with other ancient Asian civilizations at that time. Sanxingdui jade ware and gold crafts’ crafting technique and art style share some similarities with other relics found in southeast, west and central Asia. The pottery and seashells that remain in the sacrificial pits came from India and other parts of Asia through maritime routes. Scholars are uncertain about how the Sanxingdui culture did it since southwest China’s landscape is mountainous.

A gold mask recently found in the Sanxingdui Ruins
A gold mask recently found in the Sanxingdui Ruins

Mystery 1: No official records of history

Apart from the highly innovative art style and handicraft techniques, the Sanxingdui civilisation leaves us with too many mysteries. First of all, the Shu kingdom founded the Sanxingdui civilization. But all the documentaries mentioned about this ancient kingdom were lost during wars and changes of dynasties. There once was a written record expressly about the Shu kingdom, but it was already lost in the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279). Therefore, no existing written records can provide scholars with any evidence explaining the Shu kingdom regarding its customs and history.

Mystery 2: No written or verbal language

Secondly, the Sanxingdui civilisation had neither literal language nor verbal language evidence. Usually, such as in the Yellow River basin art style, ancient Chinese would carve some texts onto sacrificial vessels as a part of the ritual. However, except for animal or eye-shaped patterns, no texts have been found on Sanxingdui relics. However, some ancient documentaries like The Chronicles of Hua Yang or The Shang Shu did not mention the Shu kingdom’s details. These two reasons are the main obstacles to scholars finding out more about the Sanxingdui civilisation.

Mystery 3: the “Invisible” Sanxingdui culture

Thirdly, scholars confirm that the Sanxingdui civilisation existed for at least 2000 years. Other ancient civilisations near it (such as the Jinsha site and Baodun culture) had no record of the Sanxingdui civilisation. How can a developed civilisation become “invisible” to other ancient civilisations? If the Sanxingdui civilisation was “invisible” to them, how did the Shu kingdom incorporate a similar handicraft technique to the Central Plains?

Mystery 4: Sudden disappearance

Last but not least, the Sanxingdui civilisation suddenly disappeared after its existence of 2000 years. Just like the Maya civilisation, the Sanxingdui civilisation vanished from the earth without signs. Was there a war that destroyed the Shu kingdom? Was there a natural catastrophe that caused extinction? Where did people go? Why did they not keep their old traditions if they managed to survive and moved away? So far, no one can answer these questions. Notably, the Sanxingdui civilisation was located on the 30th parallel north, the same as the Maya civilisation and Ancient Egyptian civilization.

Anthropology: The importance of the Sanxingdui Culture

The latest update from the Institute of Chinese Archaeology confirms that they found ivory, silk and gold from the ruins. This might lead to a correction of the relationship between the Sanxingdui culture and other ancient cultures near it. Scholars believed the Sanxingdui culture was independent of other cultures before this update. But this time, they discover new connections between these cultures.

This could be the most exciting discovery for Chinese archaeologists. Through newly unearthed relics, they see more similarities between the Sangxingdui culture and the cultures discovered near it. Although this evidence is not enough to explain why civilisation would disappear, maybe it can explain if the people from the Shu kingdom moved away after the extinction of civilisation.

The Sanxingdui culture also provides the possibility to prove the existence of the Xia Dynasty. The Xia Dynasty is a controversial period in ancient Chinese history. It mainly appears in ancient folklore and novels. Scholars describe it as an “Age of mythology”, which is hard to confirm its authenticity. The Xia Dynasty in ancient Chinese history, for example, is the story of “God created the world” in western culture. Thus, academia argues a lot about the authenticity of whether the Xia Dynasty existed before the Shang Dynasty. If the Xia Dynasty did exist, the Chinese civilisation would become the longest civilisation that has not discontinued yet for almost 5000 years.


In conclusion, the discovery of the Sanxingdui Ruins proves that ancient Chinese culture was multi-cored. The latest update from the Institute of Chinese Archaeology tells us that the Sanxingdui relics were from 4000-4800 years ago, which could prove the Xia Dynasty existed before the Shang Dynasty. Also, studies show the connections between relics from different archaeological sites. This might answer why the Sanxingdui culture vanished 3000 years ago. We just need to wait for the upcoming announcements from the scholars.

If you are interested in the Sanxingdui culture and you would like to see it with your own eyes, you can either go visit the Sanxingdui Museum located in Guanghan city, Sichuan province, China, or keep an eye on the information about travelling exhibition of the Sanxingdui relics.

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