The Ancient Civilisations in Henan Province

Ge (dagger-axe) with Jade blade and bronze handle, Laste Shang dynasty
White pottery elephant-shaped zun (wine vessel), Last Shang dynasty
Bronze lei (wine vessel)
Pottery he (wine vessel) with string pattern, Xia dynasty
Jade face cover, Western Zhou
A Boar head-shaped lid of a pottery vessel, Xia dynasty
Bronze pan and bronze yi (water vessels), Western Zhou
Oracle bones with divination inscriptions, Late Shang dynasty
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The history of China is showcased in a feature exhibition titled The Ancient Civilisation of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties in Henan Province at the Hong Kong Museum of History.

This display of artefacts includes relics classified as grade-one national treasures on loan from prestigious cultural institutions in Henan province. These invaluable treasures provide a chronological narrative of the development of the three oldest dynasties that flourished near the Yellow and Luo rivers.

The artefacts on display illustrate the progress in each ancient civilisation’s social, political and cultural development. Employing a chronological narrative, the nuances emanating from these three dynasties are deciphered in this curated show.

Recent excavations and archaeological discoveries provide ample evidence to bolster China’s origin story. Fabulous examples of ancient pottery, bronzes and jades unearthed from sites throughout China in the last century… verify the birth of Chinese society and its development through diverse and successive dynasties.

Xia dynasty 2070-1600 BCE

Obscure proof of the existence of the Xia dynasty was first found in ancient text on bamboo manuscripts, stone carvings and inscriptions on bronze artefacts produced in later periods. This evidence shows that the Xia dynasty was known and memorialised through the oral stories handed down from generation to generation.

Many fine artefacts unearthed from the Erlitou site are on display. A jade qi-bi is one of these. With serrated edges on both sides, this jade item gave its owner status and power. The shape combines the jade qi, an axe and ceremonial weapon and the jade bi, a disc object used in sacrificial rituals.

Jade has been highly desirable in China since pre-history. Its continuous production in all shapes and for many purposes showed the importance it played in the lives of its people for many millennia. For the wealthy elites, jade was used decoratively and as an emblem of their social standing, signifying their status.

A marvellous example is a green and lustrous beaded necklace of eighty-eight turquoise tube beads strung together. Turquoise was regarded as a type of jade in traditional culture and has long been used in China. This necklace’s delicate craftsmanship and detail showed immense technical prowess, with the smallest bead only 4 mm long and the largest 2.8 cm.

Shang dynasty 1600–1046 BCE

In 1600, the Shang, a regional power, overthrew the Xia dynasty to give rise to a period of over 500 years, with thirty-one kings ruling over seventeen generations. During this era, tremendous innovation was seen in metalwork, particularly in producing bronze items for the elite, with many purposefully created for a ritual context. Sophisticated bronze objects became a highly codified art and were an expression of power and authority.

A bone dagger with a cicada pattern indicates that bone was used as a material for other purposes. Bone daggers were made by splitting and grinding the ribs of animals. Usually flat and long, these bones were also likely used as a shuttle for weaving.

Other Shang dynasty artefacts show a fascination with animals, especially fantastic beasts and hybrid creatures. A white pottery elephant-shaped zun, used as a vessel for wine, shows a delicately crafted elephant’s body elaborately adorned with patterns.

Zhou dynasty 1046–256 BCE

The Zhou was a regional power during the Shang dynasty. In 1046, they gained power and conquered the ruling Shang, marking the beginning of the Zhou dynasty, which lasted almost 800 years – the longest reign in Chinese history. Extensive cultural achievements and advancements in agriculture, literature, arts and warfare marked its lengthy legacy.

As the Zhou dynasty declined, the loss of central authority was reflected in the arts as the hierarchy and limitations established during the Shang dynasty weakened. Bronze objects and luxurious goods were no longer reserved for rituals or a select populace. This led to a flourishing production and the designs of more everyday items, like wine vessels and musical instruments, such as the bianzhongs, fashioned in the shape of a bell.

A Jade face cover is another fine example of a Zhou dynasty burial object. Also known as Mi Mu, this was a common burial jade artefact found in ancient noble tombs. The face cover is composed of fifty-eight jade pieces, arranged based on a person’s facial structure, for sewing onto silk fabrics and placing over the face of the deceased. Ancient people believed jade could seal the spirit and soul and prevent the body from decaying. Those with the wealth to do so would adorn their deceased with fabulous treasures in elaborate and heavily laden tombs.

This exhibition is the first part of the General History of China series, launched by the Hong Kong Museum of History in collaboration with the newly established Chinese Culture Promotion Office, set up to enhance awareness and interest in Chinese history and culture.

Text & photos by Cammy Yiu