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Mythical History Under Review
An important bronze artifact will be on display at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing tomorrow. Simple as it is, the container may reveal precious evidence about a part of history still in hot dispute.

Connoisseurs from the museum spotted a bronze rectangular round-cornered vessel at an antique market in Hong Kong in spring. With its lid missing, the rusty bronze container, which is 24.8 centimeters in length, 13.6 centimeters in width, 11.8 centimeters in height and weighs 2.5 kilograms, was used for cooking cereals in ancient times.

Despite its poor condition, the connoisseurs were drawn to the ancient Chinese characters inscribed on the vessel's body.

With permission from its owner, they brought the container back to Beijing and later purchased it for the Poly Art Museum.

Leading Chinese historians and archaeologists, including Li Xueqin, Ma Chengyuan, Chen Peifen, Qiu Xigui, Zhu Fenghan and Li Ling, were invited to examine and evaluate the ancient vessel.

Experts from the College of Archaeology and Museum Studies at Peking University and the Shanghai Museum also conducted scientific tests and took measures to repair and preserve the vessel.

According to the experts, it belonged to the Duke of Sui, the head of the Sui State, who lived about 2,900 years ago in the middle period of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC).

The ceremonial container has simple but elegant engravings in bird-and-phoenix or tile patterns on its faces, with a pair of side ears in the shape of an animal's head.

On its bottom are inscribed 98 ancient Chinese characters in graceful handwriting.

After careful studies the scholars came to one surprising conclusion, that the ancient vessel, called xu in Chinese archaeological terminology, is an important and precious artifact.

The vessel, because of the inscriptions on its body, is a significant historical document about Yu, which has been known to every household in China.

The vessel is the first ever found in the history of modern archaeology that should provide a vital and solid testimony to help clear up the mystery of Yu and the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century-16th century BC).

Legendary stories of Yu, also known as Da (Great) Yu, successfully controlling floods and unifying the land have been passed down from generation to generation.

One of the most popular tales about Yu is how he led battles against the floods for 13 years and how he passed by his home three times without going in to see his family.

With all his achievements and virtues, Yu became one of the great rulers and saints and the founding father of the first dynasty -- the Xia Dynasty -- in Chinese history.

However, there are very few written accounts of Yu and the Xia Dynasty in existing ancient literature.

Most of the accounts appear in history books written in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), which also contain a lot of myth.

Inscriptions on ancient bronze vessels dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), a few centuries earlier than the Warring States Period and the Han Dynasty, also mention Yu but the words and sentences are scattered.

As a result, despite new archaeological findings and other progressions in the study of the Xia Dynasty, quite a number of scholars both in China and overseas had cast doubt on the existence of Yu and the Xia Dynasty.

The discovery of the xu and its inscriptions have pushed the historical record of Yu and the Xia Dynasty further back to between 2,800 and 2,900 years ago, about six to seven centuries earlier than previous findings.

What is more, the inscriptions describe in detail how Yu conquered the floods by cutting down the mountains and building ditches and channels to regulate water courses.

Above all, the inscriptions, repeating six times the character de, meaning "virtue" in Chinese, illustrate how Great Yu established a series of codes of virtue for his administration to ensure that the people lived and worked in peace and in contentment, said Li Xueqin, leading historian with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The inscriptions show that the ancient Chinese had already talked about Great Yu's achievements more than 2,800 years ago.

Yu could not have been a god created by literati in the Warring States Period or the Han Dynasty, Li said.

All in all, the discovery and the return of the xu, with its valuable inscriptions, should help push forward the study of early Chinese history and rewrite the country's ancient history.

(China Daily October 21, 2002)

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