Bronze Civilization Uncovered in Fujian, changing the narrative that Fujian has no history prior to the pre-Qin Dynasty

2020-03-09 16:35:17

Bronze Civilization Uncovered in Fujian, changing the narrative that Fujian has no history prior to the pre-Qin Dynasty 

  Unearthed bronze sword

Bronze Civilization Uncovered in Fujian, changing the narrative that Fujian has no history prior to the pre-Qin Dynasty

  Bronze cup ware

Bronze Civilization Uncovered in Fujian, changing the narrative that Fujian has no history prior to the pre-Qin Dynasty

  Primitive porcelain

Bronze Civilization Uncovered in Fujian, changing the narrative that Fujian has no history prior to the pre-Qin Dynasty

A pottery ware imprinted with pattern

Cultural Relics

Mound Tombs in Guanjiu Village

The Guanjiu Mound Tombs are located in Guanjiu Village of Xianyang Town. Except for the 33 mounds on the west side of Guanjiu Village that have been rescued and excavated, the rest of the tombs remain well preserved. Most of the mounds are bun-shaped, and a few are cover-shaped. In terms of their horizontal cross-sections, these mounds are either rectangular, square, round, oval, or irregularly shaped.

From January 2005 to December 2006, Fujian Museum, Fujian Minyue King City Museum and Pucheng County Museum jointly carried out rescue excavations of some tombs in the western part of Guanjiu Village, and excavated a total of 47 tombs from 33 mounds. Among them, there are six mounds that have two tombs, one mound that has multiple tombs, while the rest of the mounds all have one tomb each. These tombs can be divided into three types according to their shape and structure: “flat land” burial, rectangular shallow pit, and vertical-shaft soil (rock) tombs with passageways. More than 280 relics were unearthed, including 67 pieces of proto-porcelain, such as dou (stemmed cups), guan (jars), zun (beakers), weng (urns), gui (food pedestalled dish), yu (a type of cup), and die (plates); 146 pieces of pottery decorated with an impressed pattern, such as guan, gui, dou, zun and zhong (a sort of soup tureen); 55 pieces of bronzeware, which were mainly short swords and spears, but also included ge (halberds), ben (adzes), bishou (daggers), guadao (scrapers), zu (projectile points, similar to arrowheads), zun, pan (shallow dishes), and zhong-shaped artifacts. There were also seven pieces of yuguanqi (short hollow jade tubes used as jewelry) and seven pieces of stoneware.

Carbon-14 dating indicated that this batch of mound tombs can be divided into three periods. The oldest tombs were from the Xia and Shang dynasties, and researchers unearthed both black and white pottery. The second and third periods are respectively the Western Zhou Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn Period. Some of these tombs dated from a transitional period from the late Western Zhou Dynasty to the early Spring and Autumn Period. In 2013, the Guanjiu Mound Tombs were successfully included in the list of major monuments protected at the national level.

If the remains of the city site can be found somewhere in the northern and southern parts of Fujian in the future, then the noble tombs such as the city site and mound tombs will mutually verify that the dawn of Fujian’s civilization in the Bronze Age will truly reemerge. It will be a breakthrough in gaining a new understanding of the history of Fujian civilization.

A Prehistoric Legend

Stamped Hard Pottery, Proto-Porcelain and Bronze Ware

Narrator: Chen Zhaoshan (Researcher at the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology at Fujian Museum)

The Guanjiu Village Mound Tombs in Pucheng are the first mound tombs to be discovered in Fujian Province. The discovery filled a gap in the geographical distribution of mound tombs in Southeast China. Dated from sometime around the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties to the Spring and Autumn Period, these mound tombs also filled a missing link in the archaeological sequence of Fujian Province for this period. Hence, the discovery was crowned one of China’s Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries of 2006.

The excavation of the Guanjiu Village Mound Tombs once again amazed people. They are the first of their kind to be discovered in Fujian Province, filling a gap in the distribution of mound tombs in Fujian Province. Dating revealed that the oldest of these mound tombs had been built as early as in the Xia and Shang dynasties while the youngest was built as late as during the Spring and Autumn Period. The discovery was of huge academic significance as it filled a missing link in the archaeological sequence of Fujian Province for this period. Hence, the discovery was crowned one of China’s Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries of 2006.

Mound Tombs are a burial method unique to people living in South China. It was discovered in the 1950s but was not identified for a long time until the 1970s, when researchers of Nanjing Museum discovered that mound tombs were a special funeral tradition during an archaeological survey trip to southern Jiangsu. Its name “Southern Jiangsu Mound Tomb” was given according to the form and structure of the burial place, which is later generally referred to as mound tombs by scholars.

Since the 1980s, mound tombs have been found one after another in Anhui and Zhejiang among other places, forming an enormous cultural sphere with relics widely distributed in Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian and more. Some believe that similar relics have also been found in Guangdong and Guangxi, asserting that burial mounds in Japan and Korea are also part of this cultural sphere.

With more discoveries, there have been more heated discussion and debate. However, mound tombs are more prevalent in regions south of the Yangtze River. Such ancient tomb relics characterized by earthen mound burial above the ground and featured by stamped hard pottery and proto-porcelain as burial articles are generally believed to be no later than the early Warring States Period.

The occupants of some large mound tombs discovered in southern Jiangsu have been identified. Some graves have been clearly identified as the tombs of the kings of Wu (such as King Yumo of Wu), while the occupants of most other graves remain unknown. Judging from the structure and size of the graves, it is generally assumed that such graves belonged to the nobility, as the common people could not have enjoyed such privilege.

The source of this burial practice remains a mystery till now. However, the direction of the spread of mound tombs is relatively clear. There are two notable views in academia. One believes that they serve as special evidence for the origin of ancient Chinese burial mounds. The northward spread of these graves to the Central Plains had an influence on the emergence of large grave mounds of Han-dynasty nobility and vassal kings, breaking the burial tradition of “no mounds and no trees” in the Central Plains. The other is almost certain that these tombs had a direct influence on the burial form of the Yue civilization in Han dynasty, including that of Minyue tombs. For example, all Han-dynasty tombs found in Zhejiang and Fujian have coffin platforms laid at the bottom with cobblestones, inner and outer coffins within the tombs, grave mounds above the ground and stamped hard pottery and proto-porcelain in burial articles. These traditions are undoubtedly that of mound tombs, forming convincing evidence for the view. This Han-dynasty burial form may well be the origin of burial mounds in Korea.

There are abundant findings from the excavation of Pucheng’s mound tombs from 2005 to 2006, providing invaluable proof for the inheritance relations among pre-Qin archaeological cultures and reflecting the rich culture in northern Fujian during the pre-Qin period. These findings are of great value and significance, with rich contents for research.

For instance, pottery characterized by patted geometric patterns emerged in the late Neolithic period. Marked pottery in northern Fujian, which is relatively soft, originated from the Nubishan civilization. The Mid to Late Shang Dynasty period was the heyday of marked pottery, with diverse neatly patted patterns that show a clear evolution process. Round-bottomed and three-foot marked pottery was still prevalent, while round-foot and flat-bottomed ones were increasing in numbers. Decorative patterns were usually woven patterns, trellis patterns and diamond patterns, while patting style tended to be elegant and meticulous.

At the same time, proto-porcelain had become popular. The Yangshan Tombs in Guangze County, Huangkeshan Site in Jian’ou and Linzi Site in Jianyang Mountain discovered in previous archaeological surveys in northern Fujian unearthed the same or similar articles, indicating a common type of culture formed in these areas in northern Fujian. The common features in physical culture between these sites could be summarized as the presence of three major categories of stamped hard pottery, proto-porcelain and bronze ware, among which proto-porcelain and bronze ware articles are similar to those seen in mound tombs found in regions south of the Yangtze River.

The group of bronze ware articles discovered in Guanjiu Village Mound Tombs was the most numerous in any individual excavation completed in Fujian Province. Most of the articles are weapons with short swords and spears being the prevalent forms. The 10 elegantly shaped bronze swords in Yue style were the best of the kind in China. One of the bronze swords remains sharp to date, with ears rather than hand-guards casted on the two sides of the hilt and a hollow, concave shaped pommel. The sword is in the same form as bronze swords unearthed in Changxing County of Zhejiang, Yangfu Mountain of Ouhai District and Tunxi District of Anhui.

The form, structure and unearthed cultural relics of Pucheng’s mound tombs are largely identical with those seen in coeval civilizations in regions south of the Yangtze River. This is a true reflection of the increasing exchange and integration between civilizations in Fujian and those outside Fujian during the pre-Qin period. On a larger scale, such exchange and integration were an important step of Fujian towards the big family of the Chinese nation.

Some questions remain unsolved till now. For example, the earliest mound tombs of Pucheng were built before those in Jiangsu and Zhejiang. If they belonged to the same culture, were the latter introduced from here? Generally, in the Wu and Yue Area, only one grave is found in each mound. Why do Pucheng’s mound tombs have two or more graves in one mound? There is no answer.

The discovery of Pucheng’s mound tombs has brought major research topics for Fujian’s academic circles. In terms of bronze ware, there were not many pre-Qin bronze ware articles discovered in the whole of Fujian throughout history, but they were found in many places with a few each in Zhenghe, Guangze, Wuyishan, Jian’ou, Jianyang and other counties and cities in northern Fujian. The articles discovered here outnumber those in other areas of Fujian. The bronze cymbals and bronze bells found in Jian’ou, for instance, once again indicate that the northern Fujian civilizations were ahead of others in the province. Years ago, a tomb with cobblestones laid at the bottom was unearthed in Wuyi Mountain. The researchers who unearthed the tomb deem it a mount tomb, suggesting a possibility that mound tombs are distributed across a large area in northern Fujian.

The existence of mound tombs in great numbers means that there was a sizeable noble class at the time. The sheer size of mound tombs requires a tremendous amount of work which could not have been possible without considerable labor and capital. The occupants of these tombs, men of the upper class as they used to be, overlook the waters atop the hills. Who were they? Where did they live? How big are the relics of these people and what do the relics look like? Sadly, such relics have not been found by now.

From the records of “Seven Min Tribes” in the pre-Qin book Rites of Zhou, the city-state alliance of “Seven Min Tribes”, or even several alliances, might have been in existence by then, and the “Fubin Culture” sphere in southern Fujian was also well-developed. We could well make a bold conjecture that conditions were ripe for the establishment of kingdoms in northern and southern Fujian in the Bronze Age. If ancient city ruins are found somewhere in northern and southern Fujian in the future, such city ruins, coupled with mound tombs which are burial places for the nobility, would shed light on the true revelation of bronze civilizations in Fujian. It would be a breakthrough in the rediscovery of the history of Fujian’s civilizations.

Story of This Life: Plentiful Bronze Weapons Unearthed Fuel Speculation on Ancient Kingdoms in Northern Fujian

Text and photographs by staff reporters Zhao Jinfei and Zheng Yuxuan and correspondents Wang Shuyu and Xu Zhaopu

Nestling on the borders between Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces, Guanjiu Village has long enjoyed the reputation as a beautiful place with “4.5 of its five-kilometer street covered with flowers.” In 2006, the nondescript village won fame overnight for one of the “top 10 archeological findings in China.”

Its fame was attributed to the earth mound tombs standing atop a hill near the village. Overlooking the vast plain, the ancient tombs on the hilltop look a bit “condescending.” After remaining silent for a thousand years, the excavation of the tombs provided precious evidence to research the pre-Qin history in Fujian. 

Because archeologists concluded that “there were no earth mound tombs south of Mount Xianxialing,” few previously associated Guanjiu Village in the east of Mount Wuyi and to the south of Mount Xianxialing with mysterious, unique earth mound tombs in southern China. Experts pointed out that pre-Qin earth mound tombs are considered a prominent characteristic of Wuyue culture. Before that, no earth mound tombs had been discovered in Fujian. 

In 2002, the earth mound tombs in Guanjiu Village were brought to light during the Minyue Culture Survey in Fujian Province. From January 2005 to December 2006, for the construction of the Pucheng-Nanping section of the Beijing-Taipei Expressway, archeological teams at provincial, municipal and county levels were formed to conduct emergency excavation of the earth mound tombs along the Zhexi River. “Those earth mound tombs are scattered in a dotted or belt manner, covering a total area of about 130,000 square meters,” said Yang Jun, deputy curator of the Museum of Pucheng County. The 33 earth mounds and 47 tombs that have been excavated date back 2,500 to 4,500 years. 

Before that, historians concluded that “Fujian had no written history and was an uncivilized region prior to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).” This archeological discovery aroused a sensation in the academic circle. It has not only filled in the blank of Xia (2100-1600 BC) and Shang (1600-1046 BC) history in the archeological timeline of Fujian, but also pushed back the age of the history of Fujian civilization by more than 1,000 years. 

Of cultural relics unearthed in those tombs is a bronze sword with two ears on both sides of its hilt (which is now housed in Fujian Museum). The sword is 35 centimeters long, and its body and hilt are decorated with exquisite cloud patterns, cloud thunder patterns and zigzag patterns. It features superb hollow-out and openwork carving techniques. Compared to a spear unearthed simultaneously, the techniques and raw materials of the bronze sword are obviously better. When excavated, the spear was already eroded and rusted, but the bronze sword remained intact, with its patterns being clearly visible. This is because the bronze sword employed lost-wax casting technique. Its edge remains sharp even after having been buried underground for more than 3,000 years. 

Northern Fujian serves as a natural shelter of the whole province. The military importance of the large number of bronze weapons unearthed from those earth mound tombs is self-evident. From the shapes of bronze wares unearthed afterwards and the primitive technique and style of celadon porcelain, experts sensed the influence of the Central Plain Culture. They conjectured that since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), the influence of Wuyue permeated southwards, which first arrived in the northern part of Fujian. At that time, there might be many local kingdoms in Fujian, and northern Fujian was the core area of Minyue kingdoms. 

“Sacrificial rituals and defense were of paramount importance for a state.” By that time, advanced culture of the Central Plain had influenced and stimulated the development of primary civilization in tribal kingdoms in Minyue area. Of unearthed bronze wares, cups, plates and zun (a kind of wine vessel) were not only utensils for banquets in daily life, but also ceremonial instruments in sacrificial rituals. Among unearthed bronze weapons, swords, dagger-axes and spears were popular combinations at that time, which were typically used by military officers in ancient Minyue kingdoms. This indicates that those tribal kingdoms attached great importance to sacrificial rituals and military affairs. 

Besides bronze objects, archeologists also discovered an earth mound tomb with stone chambers at Dawangbang (in Guanjiu Village) in 2003, which is dubbed the “First Tomb in Southern China.” This indicates that social hierarchy already existed in ancient local kingdoms of northern Fujian at that time. “The tomb dating back 2,400 years to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) has a very high standard. Located at the water mouth of the basin, it occupies a relatively high location and appears magnificent,” said Yang. 

The earth mound tomb with a coffin and stone chambers is similar to the tomb of King of Yue Yunchang dating back to the late Spring and Autumn Period, discovered in Mount Yin of Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province in 1996. Although its size and structure cannot compare to that of the mausoleum of the King of Yue, it still proves the dignity of the tomb owner. Of excavated earth mound tombs in Guanjiu Village, one can recognize the different social statuses of tomb owners according to the numbers of burial objects and the sizes of their tombs. Perhaps the high earth mounds were an important indicator for the emergence of social classes and the dawn of civilization. 

Due to its enormous system and time span, it remains a mystery about the exact identities of owners of the earth mound tombs in Guanjiu Village. “Except for tombs unearthed during the emergency excavation for the construction of the Pucheng-Nanping expressway, all remain well-preserved,” stated Yang. At present, early archeological investigation and geological mapping have been completed. All we can do is to keep the land safe and wait for authoritative experts to conduct excavation and research.