Jade carvings echo through history

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A national comprehensive research program, launched in 2002, to trace the origins of Chinese civilization, has led to the excavations and studies of key sites that are about 3,500 to 5,500 years old. It has revealed a host of secrets about ancient China, including how early civilizations were formed and how they merged to create unity in diversity. China Daily speaks to experts working at these sites to decode their recent discoveries.

A mystic aura, lost temples and obscure belief systems. Many unknowns remain sleeping underground in this archaeological site in Northeast China, but scholars' efforts in past decades may provide the key to decode a puzzle from the earliest days of Chinese civilization.

In 1983, the groundbreaking discovery of a life-size head sculpture of a goddess at the Niuheliang archaeological site, which dates back 5,000 to 5,500 years, in Chaoyang city, Liaoning province, stunned people both at home and abroad.

Despite some missing parts, the sculpture, found in the ruins of a temple, is beguiling: She has a straight fringe and sideburns, high cheekbones, a wide mouth and round ears. The corners of her eyes are raised upward, and her sparkling eyes-her most impressive feature-are made from round stones as lucent as jade. The face had originally been painted red, though it has faded over time.

It presents the image of a fit, trim, gentle, though strong-minded, figure and the late archaeologist Su Bingqi (1909-97), an iconic figure in the field, described her as nothing less than "the foremother of the Chinese nation".

The discovery at the Niuheliang site shook a long-standing, widely held idea that Chinese civilization developed in the Central China Plains, along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River.

Starting with Niuheliang, later archaeological findings across the country seemed to gradually support Su's argument that Chinese civilization was inclusive and cohesive when it was formed, like numerous tributaries merging into one great river.

"Something worth noting about Niuheliang was its high level of social stratification and the hierarchal system embodied in both the architectural layout of ritual sites and the use of jade," says Guo Dashun, the honorary director of Liaoning Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

"In later generations, both found their inheritance in the core Confucian concept of li (ritual), which lasted throughout ancient Chinese history."

The sacrificial altar and rubble mound tombs are located in the south of the site, and the goddess temple is at its northern end. The temple is rectangular, and the altar is round and three-tiered. The whole layout is symmetrical with a central axis.

In the graveyard, major tombs were located at the center of the northern area, with smaller ones distributed to the south, suggesting the concentration of power, according to Guo, who led excavations in Niuheliang in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, such structures highlighting rituals were common later in Chinese history. Guo notes that similar practices were also seen in the city planning of ancient capitals like Chang'an of the Tang Dynasty (618-907)-now Xi'an of Shaanxi province-and Beijing's Temple of Heaven and Imperial Ancestral Temple, both built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

"It indicates the continuity of culture," Guo says. "The altar, the temple and the tombs altogether formed a comprehensive belief system of the heaven, the earth and our ancestors." Niuheliang, apparently, was a center of belief.

High-level tombs were buried with only jade items-no painted pottery-that were specifically designed for pursuing a spiritual life. In the eyes of archaeologists, the quality and quantity of these accessories revealed the high social status of the owners.

With diversified shapes, what fascinates modern people most about the jadeware is those items in the shape of dragons, the representative totem of traditional Chinese culture, conveying a sign of power and auspice. Its chubby shape was believed to be based on the figures of the swine or the bear.

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