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  Field Notes From
China's Shang Culture

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China's Shang Culture On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Peter Hessler

China's Shang Culture On Assignment

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From Photographer

O. Louis Mazzatenta

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by O. Louis
Mazzatenta (top) and
Bronwyn L. Barnes


China's Shang Culture

Field Notes From Author
Peter Hessler
Best Worst Quirkiest
    This assignment was not the type of archaeological story I was used to. There were the bones and bronzes I had expected, but a lot of the fun came from seeing what turned up and going with it.
    I traveled to the village of Sanxingdui in southwest China to see some artifacts at a museum that gets very few visitors. The staff was excited just to see me. And when I told them I was from National Geographic, they wanted to be as accommodating as possible. Before I knew it someone had handed me a bronze mask, and I realized I was holding a 3,000-year-old piece of history. It was amazing!

    The Chinese consider Henan Province the cradle of civilization, but it's also one of the most problematic parts of the country. It's the most populous province in China, with more than 90 million people. And it's a chaotic place with a bad reputation in other parts of China. AIDS, poverty, and corruption are rampant, but nobody knows exactly why. When I first went to the northern city of Anyang during harvest season in the fall of 2000, the people were burning all the chaff, which is illegal in China. At times the smoke was so thick that you couldn't even see across the street. It was dangerous to be on the road.

    The peasants bring a sensibility to this subject that we often don't appreciate. An earth-shattering discovery was made in Sanxingdui in 1986 that revolutionized the view of Bronze Age China. I went to the village and met Xu Wenqiu, the woman who—with her neighbors—discovered a cache of carved jade pieces while digging clay to make bricks. I asked her if she thought there were more cultural treasures around the area, hoping to get her thoughts and insights on the Shang dynasty. Her response was: "If you want to dig, be my guest."
    The way she and her neighbors saw it, somebody made money off their discovery, but it wasn't them.

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