Wanshouyan Cave

2020-05-25 17:50:37

By staff reporters Jiang Shengyang and Yan Ke

The People's Daily (May 17, 2020, Edition 01)

The great secret is slowly unveiled at the cave entrance.

Chen Ziwen, a grey-haired retired staff member of the Fujian Museum, points his finger forward, "Just below that exploration area in the upper left corner, we first found stone pavement."

The stone pavement can be traced back to 40,000 years ago. Ancient settlers who lived in the caves moved in gravel and paved the ground to keep out moisture. The remains of such “interior decoration” are rarely seen today. An even more ancient human settlement was found in the same mountain, proving that there already were human activities in Fujian about 185,000 years ago.

The archaeological discovery in 1999 at Yanqian Village, Yanqian Town, Sanyuan District, Sanming City, Fujian Province, unveiled the secret of Wanshouyan and received much attention.

But at the same time, Wanshouyan was then the limestone mining base of Sanming Steel Factory (hereinafter referred to as “Sangang”). They used explosives for mining, which kept undermining the mountain. The archaeological excavations led by Chen Ziwen were always accompanied by the piercing sound of explosions.

"No individual or unit can seek immediate or local benefits at the expense of the interests of society as a whole and future generation," the then acting governor of Fujian Province Comrade Xi Jinping instructed in January 2000. Wanshouyan was saved from the mining explosives and was protected as a whole. Twenty years later, it has become the only national archaeological park in Fujian Province. Experts compliment that the rebirth of Wanshouyan has become one of the classic cases for striking a balance between economic development and heritage protection.


Sanming is a mountainous city, but the basin in front of the mountain is unusually flat. That is why the lone Wanshouyan stands out particularly tall. This limestone mountain represents different values in the eyes of different groups of people.

In the eyes of Sangang, this was a rare open-pit limestone mine in the area. Limestone is an important raw material used as a furnace agent in steel-making, and the limestone reserves in Wanshouyan, the above-ground part alone, amount to 60 million tons and are of excellent quality. The mining began in the 1970s when the company acquired the mining rights to the surrounding land in Wanshouyan and built a special road of more than 30 kilometers leading to the factory.

In the eyes of the villagers of Yanqian Village, Wanshouyan stood for a distant and mysterious past, and its presence was inviolable In the Lingfeng Cave still remains the ancient temple of Goddess of Mercy, dating back to about the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

In the eyes of Yu Shengfu, the director of the office of the Sanming Cultural Relics Management Committee, who was then working at the city museum, Wanshouyan was mysterious in another way. In 1989, Sanming conducted a cave survey, and Yu was a member of the survey team. “In the caves of Wanshouyan, we found some animal fossils that are more than 10,000 years old”, said Yu.

Year by year, Wanshouyan was chipped away by blasts from mining. Halfway up the mountain, two-thirds of the opening of Lingfeng Cave had been blown away. Concerned villagers ran around to ask for help and confronted the mining factory. They also went into Wanshouyan and managed to salvage some porcelain pieces from the late Song Dynasty. At the end of 1998, local villagers wrote an appeal on the grounds of protecting cultural relics, which was submitted to many relevant parties.

In 1999, the aggregate economic volume of Sanming was only 21.7 billion yuan, and if the mining of Wanshouyan were shut down, it would cause economic losses of more than 60 million yuan to Sangang.

The then vice mayor of Sanming, Yan Fengying, who was in charge of cultural heritage protection made a clear stand: “If there are cultural relics, then they must be protected under the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics. If there are no cultural relics, then no one should stop the legal mining practice of Sangang.”

In September 1999, with the approval of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, an archaeological team consisting of members from the Fujian Museum, the office of the Sanming Cultural Relics Management Committee, and the Sanming Museum started an archaeological excavation with the aim to save Wanshouyan Paleolithic site. Chen Ziwen led the team, while Sangang provided funding for team, and the two parties agreed on a one-month archaeological period.

“That really felt like a deadline for us to crack a case.” Said Chen Ziwen with a smile.

They first started from the Lingfeng Cave, and after a few days, they found almost nothing. The team then turned to the Chuanfan Cave under the mountain. They dug down more than a meter to the subsoil layer, but still nothing came up. Feelings of uncertainty were rising among the team. "No sign of human activity can be found in the subsoil layer," Chen Ziwen recalls, "For archaeological field sites, excavation is generally over when we reach the subsoil layer. But excavation in the cave is different because anything can happen here, and fortunately, we did not give up." The excavation continued, and the stone-paved floor was revealed 1.7 meters down the subsoil layer.

The paved area was approximately 120 square meters, with distinct traces of gravel processing. Toward the opening of the cave lay a water channel, which also showed clear signs of human processing for drainage. Many mammalian fossils were also found, covering more than ten species, including the Megatapirus, all extinct 10,000 years ago. Preliminary analysis showed that the stone-paved floor was likely to be the remains of the ancient "interior decoration" designed to block out moisture.

“It was like finding the holy grail,” said Chen Ziwen about his feelings at the time, “there must be a Paleolithic site in the cave!”


It appeared that Wanshouyan finally ushered in a historic turnaround.

The archaeologists were so excited about the significance of their discovery - Paleolithic findings in Fujian had been a void waiting to be filled. The major discovery in the Chuanfan Cave would likely be the first breakthrough in Fujian archaeology.

Yan Fengying was yet unusually cautious.

She felt it was a heavy responsibility on her shoulders. "Should I fail to protect such important cultural relics, I could hardly absolve myself from the blame," She insisted: "We must find the most authoritative experts in the country to come up with the most persuasive arguments."

It was a good idea to go north and "borrow brains"! Several groups of leading experts including those from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, were invited to Wanshouyan to identify the site and have repeated discussions.

To increase the possibility for the relics to be protected, Chen Ziwen selected a group of stone artifacts and brought them to Beijing. There she paid a visit to Mr. Jia Lanpo, a master archaeologist in China. Mr. Jia, in his nineties, identified each and every piece and wrote down his personal opinion: “This site is so important that it must be protected!”

Encouraged by the experts, the archaeologists returned to the Lingfeng Cave and unearthed over 70 more ancient stone artifacts - all of them were about 185,000 years old according to the uranium method.

The values of Wanshouyan became clearer with each passing day.

The relics in Lingfeng Cave showed that there were ancient human activities in the cave 180,000 to 200,000 years ago in the early Paleolithic period. The discovery set human activities in Fujian province much earlier in history, and also made up for what was missing in Paleolithic archaeology in Fujian province over the years. The 40,000-year-old artificial stone-paved floor in the Chuanfan Cave showed the efforts of ancient humans to improve their living environment.

“It was extremely rare in China that multi-period Paleolithic cultural sites had been found in the same mountain,” Zheng Guozhen, former director of the Fujian Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage, called the site of Wanshouyan “a common home of humanity spanning 200,000 years”.

However, the big problem remained unsolved.

“Sanming is short on iron and coal. The biggest reason for Sangang to choose this place is limestone. If the mining stops, where can they find another limestone mine? What about the loss of tens of millions yuan in previous investments?”

“Could we just keep the Chuanfan Cave and the Lingfeng Cave and allow mining to continue in other parts of the mountain?”

The deadline agreed between the archaeological team and Sangang had passed. The explosive mining continued. Amidst the loud roar of the explosives, the future of Wanshouyan still hung in the balance.

In January 2000, Comrade Xi Jinping, then acting governor of Fujian Province, gave a four-point instruction for the overall protection of Wanshouyan, and he stressed: “Wanshouyan is a non-renewable cultural heritage, precious not only to us but also to the future generations. No individual or unit can undermine the interests of society as a whole and future generation for the sake of immediate or local benefits.”

The instruction was as final as it was effective.

Sangang, the local steel factory, immediately shut down all mining operations and looked for another mining site with the help of the provincial government. Li Lizhang, Party Secretary and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sangang, said frankly: "At the time, some comrades did not understand. Finding an alternative mine would not only increase transportation costs but also make it difficult to guarantee the quality. But when we read into the instruction and consider between the immediate and long-term interests and between the local and global interests, we chose to follow the order."

Wanshouyan was then awarded as one of the "National Top Ten New Archaeological Discoveries in 2000", and quickly became one of the major monuments protected at the national level. Zhang Senshui, a former researcher at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, commented that the effective protection of Wanshouyan was "a perfect example of how to deal with the contradiction between conservation and production".


Yu Shengfu participated in the excavation twenty years ago, and his work has been closely intertwined with Wanshouyan ever since. He witnessed the rebirth of Wanshouyan.

Standing at the entrance of Lingfeng Cave and looking far away, Yu tried to recall what Wanshouyan looked like when it was first saved. Although the mining was stopped, operations were still going on in the limestone crushing workshop at the foot of the mountain, and the place was full of dust.

The situation was no better inside the caves. Years of mining had led to the cracking of the rock formations, and when the rainy season came, the Chuanfan Cave would be flooded. The artificial rock pavement was at risk of erosion from water.

Where should we start to protect the relics?

“In accordance with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s instruction, we decided to start with the preparation of protection plans.” According to Yu Shengfu, Sanming commissioned the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage in 2002 to prepare the “Overall Conservation Plan for Wanshouyan Paleolithic Site in Sanming, Fujian Province”. Such plan specifically targeting the protection of a Paleolithic site was rare in the country at that time.

This high-level conservation plan became the blueprint for Wanshouyan to be reborn.

Regulations and conservation institutions were established. Protection projects and environmental restoration work were initiated. Wanshouyan found its peace and has been carefully protected ever since. For example, Yu Shengfu has hardly been worried about funds since then - Sanming was not a financially strong city, but the preservation projects in Wanshouyan have always been funded by governments at all levels.

Protecting cultural relics with regulations has been a guiding principle ever since. In 2001, Sanming enacted government regulations to protect Wanshouyan. In 2017, the Standing Committee of the Municipal People's Congress issued the “Regulations on the Protection of Wanshouyan in Sanming City” in the form of local legislation. “It was the second local statute to be enacted after Sanming was granted local legislative authority,” said Yu Shengfu.

But it was not all plain sailing.

In carrying out the third phase preservation project, Yu Shengfu was questioned by local villagers: “What is in it for us to protect Wanshouyan?” The words, though simple, touched him in no small way. “Protection of cultural relics should not be isolated from the people. How can we share the results with the masses?”

Taking advantage of China’s initiative to build national archaeological parks, preservation project workers filed an application for Wanshouyan and made it the first national archaeological park in Fujian Province at the end of 2017. “An archaeological park is about making the information and values of the site palpable and shareable, based on the science of archaeology.” In Zheng Guozhen’s view, Wanshouyan needs to play a more important role in delivering the results of heritage conservation to the people.

In June 2019, Wanshouyan National Archaeological Park officially opened. The park is covered in lush greenery. Visitors can recreate scenes of ancient human life and work in front of the artificial stone pavement, and experience the natural ecology of the past through films at the museum. Zhu Yanfang, a teacher at Sanming Comprehensive Practice School, now brings her students to Wanshouyan every week for field study. "Why was the floor of the Chuanfan Cave paved with stones?" "What were the stone artifacts used for?" Field exploration offers a chance for students to ask questions about things that happened ages ago.

Ecological beauty and popularity have brought economic benefits as villagers in the vicinity offer agritainment and other leisure activities. Wang Yuanhe, the old village branch secretary of Yanqian Village, and the local villagers are rejoicing in the promising future brought by Wanshouyan.

There will be a variety of new experiences. “With conservation and protection as the bottom line, we would highlight the prehistoric cultural features so that more people can get to know Wanshouyan,” said Liao Ronghua, director of the Sanming Municipal Culture and Tourism Bureau.

"Reviewing the General Secretary's instruction, we feel inspired and very committed. How to do a better job in sharing the results of heritage conservation while continuing to protect the site, and how to make our decisions truly stand the test of history and the masses are the questions that need to be considered over and over again in the future," the comrade of the Sanming Municipal Committee in charge of this work noted.