In brief: “Gazing at Sanxingdui” at Hong Kong’s Palace Museum

Sanxingdui gold mask (photo: Palace Museum) Sanxingdui gold mask (photo: Palace Museum)

Coming to the end of its run, this exhibition of Bronze Age artifacts is well-named: “gaze” is about all one can do at objects for which there are few if any visual or artistic touch-points. No culture is entirely unique, but second-millennium BCE Sanxingdui comes as close as any. And without any written records, very little is known about the culture, the people of the Kingdom of Shu, the political entity to which these archaeological sites in Sichuan are believed to have belonged; “mysterious” is, for once, an apt description. There’s a lot of gazing; quite a lot of information; rather less understanding.

Although Sanxingdui had been showcased  in Hong Kong before—at the Heritage Museum in 2007—this most recent exhibition contains a great many pieces (about half) that have come to light only since 2020; this is the first time a number of them have been displayed outside Sichuan.

Sanxingdui bronze mask (photo: Palace Museum
Sanxingdui bronze mask (photo: Palace Museum)

The exhibition contains everything from ceramics to jade blades, but it is the masks, from almost life-sized to huge, mostly in bronze, but with gold also much in evidence, that are the most striking, almost modern in their angularity and abstraction, and, at some personal level, the most engaging.

Although is is possible to discern Chinese (and in particular Shang) elements in many pieces, what dominates are the differences. The organizers have coined the term “diversity in unity” as an umbrella for fitting Sanxingdui into a broader concept of Chinese civilization.

“Gazing at Sanxingdui” fortuitously overlaps for a few weeks with the more recent “Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from The National Gallery, London” exhibition; the Palace Museum is beginning to show its potential.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.