Jinsha Museum: a tasteful look into the past

Culture | by James Weir
Posted: April 5th, 2012 | Updated: April 6th, 2012 | Comments
What to do in Chengdu Ancient history is fascinating. Much of this fascination comes from the urge to understand the unknown, and from the way our minds have a tendency to run wild; if we were to discover, for example, that Atlantis was actually a lot like modern day Tallahassee, you'd stop seeing Atlantis-themed tropical resorts and (generally awesome) movies about the ancient civilization pretty dang quick. So there is an inherent risk in discovering the past: What if it was boring as hell back then? What if that civilization literally imploded from boredom, and not from some fiery blaze of warfare or an alien invasion?

Luckily, the relics that remain from 3,000 years ago that were found at the Jinsha (Jīnshā, 金沙) site in western Chengdu are pretty nifty, so we can go ahead and cross the ancient peoples of that region off our list of potentially boring cultures (we'll have to hold out on Stonehenge, for now). This past week I took a Jinsha Museum and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

The Jinsha archaeological site dates back to the Shang Dynasty, when the ancient Shu Kingdom reigned over the region that now makes up much of Sichuan. The remains of this specific city were discovered a mere eleven years ago, in 2001, when the excavation of a sewer network on what is now the museum grounds yielded more than your average dirt and rocks. The site has much in common with Sanxingdui, 50 km (31 mi) from Jinsha, and offers urban tourists an easy alternative to leaving the city. More on the Jinsha Museum after the jump.... I arrived at the museum expecting hordes and hordes of crowds. It was, after all, the week of the Qingming holiday, and in the week leading up to my vacation every person I talked to told me that traveling during Chinese holidays can be a bit, how do I put this delicately... crowded. Of course, Chunyun this was not, but I nonetheless steeled my nerves and filled my patience-tank in preparation for the worst. But at the entrance to the museum grounds I found no such thing; I might even go so far as to say that it was peaceful. There was no line for tickets, and the gate itself, where bottleneck is generally the name of the game at tourist attractions in China, was emptier than a nine-to-five office at 7pm on a Friday. The other thing I prepared for was kitsch everything. Anyone who has been to any major tourist destination in China can attest that the most beautiful ancient and natural relics are often shrouded in poorly made, tacky accoutrements. This can be a bit distracting and requires a certain kind of managed-expectations to avoid disappointment. I came well armed to battle these forces: a keen eye with which to ascertain the most interesting parts of the site amidst the riff-raff; a well of patience, fueled by the reminder that vacation should not be stressful; and a wealth of good cheer and determined-positivity. I was pleased to find that I had brought a gun to a knife fight. As I walked through the massive concrete entrance, I was greeted with tasteful walkways, gravel paths and rolling fields of trees and thick grass amidst understated stone, plant and glass installations. The landscape was dotted with tourists ambling about the grounds. Groundskeepers tended to the greenery. I took a deep breath and felt good about things. Jade from Jinsha site The museum is made up of two main parts: the actual excavation site and a building where the majority of the artifacts are displayed. The excavation site is a large, glass-ceilinged structure with a wooden walkway around the perimeter. The walkway surrounds cross-hatched excavation sites, through which another walkway winds, and is accompanied by signs that detail what was found where. In the middle of the site there is evidence of the foundation of a structure, and the two-story building is believed to have been part of sacrificial rituals. In one corner of the excavation site, the wooden walkway transitions to glass, and underfoot you can see the roots of an ancient tree, its roots stretching dozens of meters across the dirt. The museum is housed inside a large building with an elegant, sloping roof dotted with skylights. Inside the air is cool and the lighting dim. Here, the most glamorous remnants of the ancient Shu society are on full display. The museum starts things off slow, with a mostly unexciting life-size diorama and some old bones, but things quickly pick up pace and before you know it you're inundated with spectacular jade, bronze and gold. My favorite part of the displays were, no doubt, the jade daggers. Though the accompanying text repeatedly reminded me that they were only ceremonial (ancient bling, I suppose), I couldn't help but imagine a blood-stained warrior charging into battle wielding one of the many fierce-looking blades. I figured that would help explain how they got so much gold. The Jinsha Museum was tasteful, interesting and relaxing. All the information was written in Chinese and startlingly clear, concise and well-written English, adding a layer of history and depth to the visually engaging exhibition. There is now evidence to prove that the civilization was not entirely boring, but there are also enough remaining questions to pique the interest of generations of history-seekers. May we continue to enjoy unearthing the past for years to come! Photos courtesy of J. O. Jou and ylgx12
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