Archaeologists in Sichuan Province, China announced this week they have uncovered evidence of ancient efforts to commune with fairies. A cache of bronze, jade, and gold artifacts as well as evidence of ancient sacrificial rituals were unearthed. Some of the artifacts, scientists said, are one-of-a-kind objects that hint at the “fairy world” of ancient Chinese religion and thought. But if you’re picturing folk religion and Tinkerbell, think again.
The discoveries were made at the famous Sanxingdui archeological site in the city of Guanghan in the southwest of Sichuan Province. The veritable treasure trove was excavated from sacrificial pits 7 and 8 by a collaborative team of academics from Peking University and Sichuan University. Among the items was a bronze and green jade box that was embellished with dragon head handles and was once kept wrapped in silk. Professor Li Haichao, of Sichuan University who directs pit 7, told Chinese news agencies that “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the vessel is one of its kind, given its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design.”
The collection of complex sculptures includes mythical creatures, human-snake hybrids, and bronze heads decorated with gold masks. The iconographic program of the sculptures, which were primarily located in pit 8, is “complex and imaginative.” Zhao Hao, as associate professor at Peking University, said that they reflect “the fairy world imagined by people at the that time, and they demonstrate the diversity and richness of Chinese civilization.”
The finds are getting a great deal of attention, not only because of the historic importance of the site, but also because the invocation of the word “fairy” in media statements. But “fairy” may be a misleading term here. The term is derived via Old English (Fae) from Old French (faie) and refers to women who were skilled in magic or to enchanted things and illusions. In pop culture, the word fairy is most commonly associated in English speaking countries with Tinkerbell or, if you like to think of yourself as cultured, Puck: winged often undersized magical creatures associated with woods, the bottom of gardens, and wishes. In Chinese mythology the entities described as “fairies” are often more powerful spirits associated with specific locations, in particular mountains, rivers, and oceans.
These “spirits” can be beneficent or malevolent and are sometimes related to former human beings or animals that were transfigured into local spirits guardians, ancestor spirits, and deities. The Spirit-Guardian (Jingwei) of Departing-Doves mountain, for example, was transformed into the bird Spirit-Guardian when she drowned in the Eastern Sea. A former mortal, Strassberg’s A Chinese Bestiary describes her as both a “goddess” and “spirit-guardian” and notes that the Daoists identify her as a “Transcendent [human]” and that in modern China she is a “symbol of someone refusing to accept defeat.” Jingwei’s story is about metamorphosis and that fluidity is only amplified by shifting interpretations of her status over time.
The invocation of the word “fairy” in news reports is illuminating, however, not only because of what it tells us about the discovery in question, but because of the ways that it exposes the exclusion of fairies from the Western supernatural consciousness. If you look up “fairy” in the Cambridge English Dictionary you will learn that fairies are “imaginary.” Look up the more Christian-friendly “angel” and you’ll find a complete dearth of existential judgments.
All of which is to say that communing with angels, spirits, and fairies aren’t different kinds of activities. If talking to the fairies sounds hokey but making sacrificial offerings to the spirits seems expected, then we are just being tripped up by the cultural biases of our own Christian-centered English language. In the irrevocably hierarchical patchwork pantheon of Anglo-American culture, fairies sit at the bottom of the pecking-order and have no possibility of promotion. But Chinese mythology doesn’t share our assumptions and distinctions. If the current interpretation is correct, then the people at Sanxingdui were in contact with entities that could as easily be described as spirits or gods. The language of “fairy” captures the ways in which Chinese spirits and deities were often animal-human hybrids but aesthetically, as the images from Sanxingdui reveal, they are quite different. You will find no pixie cuts here.
Though scientists have not released precise dates for the most recent finds, the Sanxingdui ruins are 3500-4800 years old, and experts have said that the artifacts are roughly 3000-4500 years old. They are of huge importance for what they reveal about the Shu civilization, which flourished in the region until 316 BCE (when the region was conquered by the Qin dynasty). Archeological research is the primary way to reconstruct this otherwise mysterious civilization as literary references to the Shu state are largely mythological and derive from the fourth century BCE Chronicles of Huayang.
Previous studies of finds from Sanxingdui have noted that the culture that flourished there in the Bronze Age was contemporaneous with that of the Shang dynasty and shares certain elements in common with its mythology and religion. Not least of these is the utilization of bronze sacrificial offerings as a means of communicating with spirits. (This interpretation of the pits is contested: Chen Shen argued in a 2002 book that the pits might have been burial pits rather than sacrificial sites. There are no human remains in the pits).
In a report on a bronze statue found in sacrificial pit 1, Shen Zhongchang and Robert Jones write that during this period “spirits were specifically venerated” in this way in Shang religion. At the same time, as Robert Bagley has written, “There is nothing in Shang archaeology that prepares us for bronze sculpture of the size and sophistication” found at pit 1. Bagley argues that “The sacrificial ritual which produced the two [Sanxingdui] pits [1 and 2 ] has no exact parallel elsewhere in Chinese archaeology and can be related only in the most general way” to the rituals archaeologists unearthed at other Shang sites. Ran Honglin, from the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, said of the recent finds that some elements of the sculpture were similar to items from the Zhou dynasty.
In other words, the finds from Sanxingdui are critically important for what they can tell us about contact between different kingdoms in ancient China, the development of metallurgic technologies, and ancient Chinese religious rituals. Discovery of these more complicated and ornate sacrificial offerings help color in our rough sketch of both Shu cosmology and culture and of what Honglin calls “early exchange and the integration of Chinese civilization.” When Professor Hao spoke of the “fairy world” the focus of his statement was actually on the “diversity and richness of Chinese civilization.” The reports on ancient Chinese fairies, as eye-catching as they are, sell both the ancient deity-spirits and the significance of the discoveries a little short.