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Solving the mystery of a lost civilization
By Yao Minji

THE road (in and out of) Shu is more difficult than going to Heaven." Giant of Chinese poetry, Li Bai (AD 701-762), wrote these lines on leaving Sichuan Province, where he had lived since he was five.

Shu is the ancient name for the state featuring the Chengdu Plain in Sichuan Province. Nowadays, Sichuan is sometimes referred to as Shu.

The Chengdu Plain is surrounded by mountains and in the past could only be reached by zhan dao, narrow roads across the cliffs. These were mostly constructed by soldiers from the Qin State around 316 BC, when the king decided to conquer the area to expand his kingdom and to pave the way for further conflict with other states in the area.

Before that time, little was known about the Chengdu Plain. It was considered mysterious, with cultures and customs quite distinct from those beyond the mountains. The earliest written records of its origins and ancient history date to around 50 BC, although the kingdom's history is thought to go back 4,800 years.

That account contains legends about early kings of the state that came from oral history.

For thousands of years, people took them as nothing more than myth, without any solid evidence to back up the tales.

Jinsha Archeological Site in Chengdu, discovered in 2001, helped to turn legend into history.

Findings include remains of houses, graves, religious ceremony sites with thousands of artifacts made from bronze, stone, jade, gold and ivory. The sites confirmed that a civilization existed thousands of years earlier than the written history, helping to fill substantial blanks on the region's history.

Some objects found in the site share strong similarities with findings in archeological sites dated to around the same period in Henan Province, suggesting early communications between local Shu culture and other states.

Archeologists deduced the social structure and customs at the time according to the ruins and artifacts, and found them to concur with local oral legends.

Jinsha Site Museum, built on the archeological site, opened in 2007, allowing the public to appreciate the delicate artifacts from more than 4,500 years ago and match legend with archaeology.

Legends say ancient kings of the area had particularly large square-shaped eyes with protruding eyeballs, protruding ears and big mouths - almost like extraterrestrial creatures.

Statues found in the site seem to confirm these strange descriptions, depicting figures with these features.

Big eyes are also symbolic and are often found to be carved on bronze statues, bronze masks and other objects from the site. Experts say ancient Shu people considered eyes symbolic of the sun and worshiped their power.

Evidence of bird and sun worship can be seen in one of the museum's most precious artifacts - the sunbird foil, upon which logos of the museum and Chengdu City are based.

The gold foil is inscribed with four birds flying counter-clockwise, circling the central spiral sun symbol that's clockwise, The exterior diameter is only 12.5 centimeters, and that of the interior sun is 5.29 centimeters. The foil is only 0.2 millimeters thick and weighs just 20 grams - evidence of amazingly delicate craftsmanship from more than 4,500 years ago.

Similar thin gold foil objects were found in Jinsha, and many contain at least 80 percent of gold.

The sunbird foil has more than 94 percent gold content, a testament to ancient Shu craftsmanship.

Archeologists also discovered large amount of ivory pieces, which were arranged into certain patterns, suggesting that they were most probably used as part of religious ceremonies.

Historians say ancient Chinese people believed that ivory artifacts were key to killing monsters they thought lived in the water.

No city wall was found in Jinsha, but the city was well laid out, carefully divided according to social function. There were areas for living, praying, burials and the royal site, showing a sophisticated social structure at the time, between 1200 and 650 BC.

The museum also contains a theater which stages "JinSha," a musical created for, and named after, the site in 2005. Performances are at 8pm, every day, except for Mondays.

The musical features distinct elements of Jinsha culture that tell a metaphoric love story between ancient Shu princess Jin and modern-day archeologist Sha. Costume and set designers make extensive references to objects and artistic styles from the Jinsha site.

The archeologist Sha is the reincarnation of Jin's lover from 3,000 years ago and a connection to the site reestablished when he explores Jinsha and finds himself holding half of a gold sunbird foil.

Sha's jester from 3,000 years ago is awakened by the foil and is determined to take the modern-day archeologist back to the ancient times to retrieve his memory.

Jinsha Site Museum

Address: 2 Jinshayizhi Road

Hours: Daily, 8am-5:30pm

Tickets: 80 yuan

Musical JinSha

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 8pm

Tickets: 180-580 yuan

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164