On May 20th, 2016, after a packed schedule of Chinese language and China studies courses, 30 Yenching Academy faculty, staff and students embarked on a journey to Sichuan. This field study trip, led by Professor Wang Bangwei and Profesor Jia Yan, focused on the Shu Culture of China.
Archaeology and Ancient Shu Civilization
The Ancient Shu Civilization, located in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, is one of China’s three ancient civilizations, along with the Yangtze Valley Civilization and Yellow River Valley Civilization. Our first stop in Sichuan, Sanxindui Archaeological Site, is the biggest and most significant Ancient Shu site found in southwestern China. It was also one of the biggest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.
At the Sanxindui Museum, Yenching Scholars were astounded by artifacts such as a bronze statue reaching 2.62 meters high, a golden staff measuring 1.42 meters, bronze masks featuring vertical eyes and sacred bronze tree statues. These valuable discoveries took their visitors back more than 5,000 years into a mysterious past.
“Sanxindui Archaeological Site is very special for me. When I was at UCL, my first encounter with China was through learning about this place. If it weren’t for my interest in Sanxindui or the encouragement of Professor Vivienne Lo, perhaps I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come to Yenching Academy. I am amazed by all the Ancient Shu potteries, which reveal to us an ancient civilization rich in history and art,” said Yenching Scholar James Ashcroft.
After Sanxindui, the field study team drove to Jinsha Museum, an ancient Shu Civilization site similar to Sanxindui. Yenching Scholars explored ivory, animal bones and wood fossils buried with the dead in the site. Yenching Scholars also experienced a simulation of the flora and environment of Anicent Shu settlements and toured the bronze tools, jade tools, pottery, sacred sun bird and golden mask artifacts on display.
After dinner, Archaeology Professor Li Yongxian of Sichuan University gave a lecture on Sanxindui. As one of the original archaeologists who participated in the excavation of Sanxindui, Professor Li shared his personal anecdotes and research to describe the background of the site. “The evening lecture was fantastic! The guest professor had a lot of interesting things to say that complemented our trip during the day,” said Tobias Rocker.
On May 12th, 2008, as the clock struck 2:28 pm, a massive earthquake rocked Sichuan, destroying everything in its reach. To commemorate this somber event, Yenching students visited the Earthquake Memorial Site at Yingxiu and paid tribute to the thousands who died here.
Many questions followed: how did the earthquake hit here? What was the government’s response? How was reconstruction work conducted?
Yenching Scholar Naoya Matsumoto and Professor Tian bingwei from University of Sichuan and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology shared their research on earthquake reconstruction in Sichuan and answered questions from fellow students.
Naoya gave an engaging presentation on his senior thesis from Kyoto University. In 2014, Naoya stayed in various areas throughout Sichuan and even learned Chinese to access primary source for the earthquake. Naoya shared his research on the Chinese government reaction to the earthquake and the responses from different parts of Chinese society.
The Origin of Taoism
Sichuan is one of the birthplaces of Taoism. Two thousand years ago, from an outpost on Mount Qingcheng, Zhang Daoling used the philosophical teaching of Laozi to create Taoism. He then developed it into one of the most influential indigenous religions in China.
Yenching Scholars first visited Dujiangyan, an extensive irrigation system located on the foothills of Mount Qincheng. Two thousand years ago, Sichuan was a sparsely populated place, owing to the Yangtze River’s frequent floods, which wiped out entire settlements. Dujiangyan Irrigation System created an entire manmade canal to diverge waters from the Yangtze and create a relatively stable and fertile environment. Thanks to this, Sichuan has grown to become one of the most populated provinces in China today.
Anders Hjortshoj pointed out that “water occupies a very important place in China. The Chinese emphasis on water, especially for its philosophical qualities, is very significant in the development of its history. Dujiangyan Irrigation Site embodies this and is very important for the development of the Sichuan we see today.”
After visiting Dujiangyan, Yenching Scholars departed for the sacred site of Taoism: Mount Qingcheng. The 36th Head Master of Qingcheng Taoist Temple even greeted the students and taught Taichi to everyone.
On top of Mount Qingcheng, Yenching Scholars participated in lectures by Professor Wang Bangwei on Buddhism in China and by Professor Jia Yan on the importance of eyes in Ancient Eastern and Western Civilization artworks. The team even stayed in Shangqingguan Temple on top of Mount Qingcheng for a day.
Buddhism in Sichuan
Sichuan is not only the home of Taoism – the province it also played an important role in the development of Buddhism in China. Wenshu Temple, situated in Sichuan, was built more than 1,000 years ago and is the most important Buddhist site in the Yangtze River Valley.
Monks from the temple gave students a tour of the temple, including a glimpse of valuable artifacts from famous Chinese monks.
After the tour, Yenching Scholars participated in a Buddhist discussion hosted by Professor Wang Bangwei and the Head Master of Wenshu Temple. The Head Master introduced the relationship between Buddhism and Taoism, Buddhism’s development in Sichuan, and international activities sponsored by Wenshu Temple.
During the question and answer period, Yenching Scholar Yulia Leonovich asked the Head Master his reason for becoming a monk. The Headmaster explained how he wanted to search for the ultimate truth and an answer for his internal questions. Religion was a way to satisfy his curiosity and to continue to learn.
Edward Ngai commented on the trip: “The Head Master is someone with great wisdom and we all agreed with his thoughts a lot. Although we all come from different countries with different faith, many of the fundamental humanistic rules are the same. Today I learned a great lot from my exchange with the Head Master.”
During five days of field research, the students also visited the Panda Center in Dujiangyan and a local bazaar in Chengdu, and sampled the wide variety of food available in Sichuan. This multi-dimension discovery of Sichuan enhanced Yenching Academy’s understanding of the founding and development of the Shu Culture in China, and of the diversity and beauty of China today.