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New Light on Chinese Civilization
A week ago a farmer in northwestern China's Shaanxi Province swung his hoe onto the ground and opened up another world -- a cave appeared.

Well laid-out were 27 inscribed bronze artifacts.

The more than 2,000 characters inscribed on them are expected to shed light on the history of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), which has puzzled historians for two millenniums.

Zhou Kuiying, archaeologist with the Shaanxi Administration of Cultural Heritage, said formal archaeological excavation has kicked off in the area around the cave in Yangjia Village, Meixian County, in the city of Baoji.

The accidental uncovering of the 2,700-year-old bronze ware, which surprised the archaeological world, occurred on January 19 when five farmers were scooping up soil on a cliff in the afternoon sunshine to make bricks.

About 4 pm, a lump of soil rolled off the cliff as the hoe of Wang Latian hit the ground. The cave appeared before Wang.

He knelt down, peeped into the cave and saw a dim, green light.

"Come on, there is something in the cave," he shouted.

Wang Ningxian, the eldest of the five, ordered the others to get back for fear of the ground collapsing and gasped as he looked in.

He saw the bronze items arranged in order.

The farmers called the local cultural heritage administration.

At 8 pm Zhang Runtang, head of the Baoji Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, arrived with archaeologists.

The cave was found to be a cellar, 1.8 meters long, 1.4 meters wide and one meter high.

"Since the cellar was hidden more than 10 meters deep, we put a ladder into it and had 18 villagers along the ladder, passing the bronze ware from inside the cellar to the surface," said Zhang.

"It was so breathtaking. There were 27 of them, each with inscriptions engraved on their bodies."

An inscribed bronze piece is considered a national treasure since bronze ware inscriptions, along with bamboo slips, which were used as paper to write on, and the pictographs carved into the tortoise shells and animals bones, are the only documents of Chinese history before the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC).

Yingzheng, the first emperor of Qin who reunited the country, burned numerous historical files written on bamboo slips and buried alive intellectuals he considered potentially harmful to his administration.

The priceless bronze arrived in the warehouse of the county's relic administration at about midnight. The next morning heads and leading archaeologists of the provincial cultural heritage administration rushed to the spot.

The 27 bronze pieces were large in size, graceful in shape and decorated with complex patterns, said Zhou Kuiying.

They included a ding (an ancient cooking vessel), pan, pot, calyx, yu (a broad-mouthed receptacle for holding liquid) and gui (a kind of container for grain).

The greatest find was the pan with more than 350 characters inscribed on it.

Before its finding, the Shi Qiang pan (water container), which was unearthed in Shaanxi Province in 1976, was believed to bear the most characters among the bronze artifacts unearthed after 1949.

The 284 characters inscribed on the bottom of the pan recorded important events in the reigns of six kings of the Western Zhou Dynasty and told about the family of the inscriber as well, who happened to be an official in charge of noting down the court history. It was considered by historians to be the most important Western Zhou bronze item ever discovered.

Inscriptions on the newly unearthed pan documented all the 11 emperors of the dynasty before Emperor Youwang who, as legend goes, led to the destruction of the dynasty in his extravagant pursuit of luxury and women.

The list of emperors was perfectly compatible with the Shi Ji (Historical Records), written by Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) historian Sima Qian.

It includes Emperor Xiaowang, who had never appeared in any other documents except Sima's book.

The most authoritative Chinese historians and archaeologists on the period, including Li Xueqin with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Li Boqian with the Peking University, went to Shaanxi early this week to read the inscriptions, said Zhou.

The inscriptions are expected to help solve the numerous mysteries in the history of the Western Zhou Dynasty, which was a most important period for the Chinese nation to rise to prosperity.

A large part of history in and before the dynasty remains ambiguous and the earliest date documented in written Chinese historical files was 841 BC.

For decades, historians have been debating in which year the Western Zhou Dynasty started, when each of the Western Zhou emperors started ruling the country and what were the big events that happened before 841 BC.

A few years ago, Chinese historians and researchers made breakthroughs in deciphering the earlier history of China by pinpointing the year 1046 BC as the start of the Western Zhou Dynasty.

However, they still feel that much more remains obscure. Even the year 841 BC was a mystery. In that year the people overthrew the cruel Emperor Liwang and Gonghe started, according to historical files.

Although gonghe means "republic" in today's Chinese, it remains unclear that whether the word meant at that time a political system, a calendar or simply an emperor's name.

Sources with the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Heritage Research Institute said the local experts have agreed the bronze artifacts were made at the end of the Western Zhou Dynasty, probably after 841 BC.

Important clues to the ancient history are expected to be digested from the new bronze ware, also because the inscriptions on some of the pieces bear the "four elements" in the Chinese traditional way of documenting the eras -- the year, month, Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (two sets of signs designating years, formerly also months and days) -- and the description of the moon.

At present archaeologists are still sorting out the relics and the inscriptions, which are in archaic Chinese, and have not been translated.

Numerous valuable bronze items have been unearthed since 54 BC in Baoji, which has been known as the "land of bronze ware" over the past 2,000 years.

The area, where the Qinling and Yanshan mountains meet, has been the link of the Central Plains and western China since ancient times.

This was the fifth time that important bronze artifacts had been unearthed in the small Yangjia Village since 1949, said Zhou.

(China Daily January 28, 2003)

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