hina’s Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, recently held a cultural relics exhibition titled “The Making of Zhongguo – Origins, Developments and Achievements of Chinese Civilization,” which brought together more than 130 national treasures from 30 museums nationwide. The artifacts on display, including bronzeware, ceramics, jades and paintings, span from the Neolithic Age to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
In 2017, China Central Television and several museums across the country came together to produce a documentary series called The Nation’s Greatest Treasures, which was broadcast for three seasons and was incredibly popular. The exhibition is a presentation of major national treasures featured on the program.
Many people wonder why the exhibition is called “The Making of Zhongguo.” The exhibition is aimed at explaining where Chinese civilization and culture came from through more than 100 antiques and when the name China – or Zhongguo, literally meaning Middle Kingdom – came into being. The keys to these questions are connected to one of the antiquities on display, which is also the most eye-catching and prominent example of bronzeware from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE) – a vessel called the He Zun.
“He” is the name of the maker and zun refers to wine vessels used in ancient China. It has 12 rows of 122 inscribed Chinese characters at the base, and the expression Zhongguo, meaning the hinterland of China, was used in an inscription – the first known use of the characters so far discovered in Chinese history. This is evidence that people were already referring to certain territory within the country as “China” more than 3,000 years ago, although the meaning and use of the word have greatly expanded since then.
In 1963, a farmer in the city of Baoji, Shaanxi Province, discovered the vessel at a cliff near his home on a rainy evening. The artifact, about one cubic meter in volume, was sticking out of the soil. Unaware of its value and importance, the farmer used it for storing food. Because the vessel was too heavy to carry, he left it to another farmer when he moved away. Two years later, the new owner sold it to a waste recycling station after encountering financial difficulties.
The vessel was later spotted by an employee at the Baoji Bronzeware Museum, who brought it for 30 yuan (US$4.5) when the average monthly salary of an urban worker was 36 yuan (US$5.4). Back then, salvage was an important channel to collect cultural relics in China, and many antiques were found in waste collection stations.
Although safe at the museum, the He Zun was considered an ordinary antique, because Baoji, 175 kilometers west of Xi’an, is an area where antique bronzes are often unearthed. While magnificent, it did not particularly stand out among the bronze artifacts of the same period.
The He Zun stands 38.8 centimeters tall, 28.8 centimeters in diameter and weighs 14.6 kilograms. The piece has a three-dimensional taotie design – an ancient Chinese mythological creature that manifests dignity and majesty. The taotie motif often appears on bronze artifacts of the time, and is a type of zoomorphic mask, although scholars disagree with what it actually represented to the people of the time.
In 1975, the He Zun was to be exhibited abroad, and experts had to appraise it. Ma Chengyuan, an expert on bronze and former curator of the Shanghai Museum, removed the rust and revealed the 122-character inscription on its base.
It told the story of a dynastic transfer of power: He’s father followed King Wen and King Wu of the Western Zhou Dynasty to conquer the Shang Dynasty. King Cheng, the son of King Wu, succeeded the throne and established a new capital at Luoyi, naming it Chengzhou. The new king held a grand ceremony to worship heaven and the late kings, and summoned He to commemorate the achievements of his ancestors. King Cheng gave He 30 strings of cowrie shells as his reward.
He had made a zun to remember the glorious achievements of the ancestors. After the discovery of the 122-word inscription, the He Zun turned from an ordinary bronzeware from the Western Zhou Dynasty to a national treasure overnight. Whether a bronze has inscriptions can determine its value, both monetary and historical. The more words in the inscription, the more significant the artifact. It is, though, highly unusual to find a bronze with 122 words dating back to more than 3,000 years ago.
In 1976, the He Zun was valued at US$30 million for insurance purposes. In 1982, the He Zun featured on a set of special issue stamps featuring antiques and became known worldwide. The National Cultural Heritage Administration listed it as one of the 64 designated artifacts that can never leave Chinese soil in January 2002. The flame cauldron of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022 also took the shape of the He Zun.
Unlike the landscape of today’s China, Zhongguo in the inscriptions referred to a city – Chengzhou, which is where today’s Luoyang, Central China’s Henan Province sits. After King Wu conquered the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), he considered establishing a new capital in order to better manage the Shang so it would be convenient for all states under his rule to pay tribute.
A capital should be close to the states it controls. The territory ruled to a greater or lesser degree by the Western Zhou stretched from Liaoning Province in the north, Gansu Province in the west, Shandong Province in the east and the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in the south. This meant that vassal states, even if not under direct control, would have no excuse not to pay their tribute because of a long journey. In ancient China, it was tantamount to a rebellion if dukes or princes refused to offer tributes. The capital was named Zhongguo, or the Middle Kingdom. To this day, Zhongguo still means “the central area of the world” and the city of Luoyang is broadly located in Central China.
After King Wu conquered the Shang Dynasty, he intended to move his capital, but died before he could do so. His son, King Cheng, was still young when he ascended the throne. Duke Zhou, King Wu’s younger brother and uncle of King Cheng, assisted with the administration.
According to Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (ca.145-86 BCE), King Wu was intending to build the new capital but he did not know whether the relocation was made.
The discovery of the inscriptions on the bottom of the He Zun confirmed that King Cheng did indeed move his capital. There is a sentence which translated literally reads “dwell in this central territory and from here govern the people.” It clearly shows the reasons for moving to the new capital.
The He Zun’s inscriptions also clearly explain the specific location of the capital Chengzhou and how the Zhou kings conquered the Shang. More importantly, it specified the exact date – April 23 during the fifth year of King Cheng’s reign.
In 1996, China started the Xia-ShangZhou Chronology Project, a multi-disciplinary program to provide a scientifically based chronology of the Xia, Shang, and Western Zhou, the three earliest dynasties in Chinese history. In 2004, the Chinese Civilization Exploration Project was launched to study the origins of Chinese history and ancient culture through a multidisciplinary perspective.
The research team, led by Li Xueqin, the famed late historian, archaeologist, and paleographer, and composed of experts from the fields of astronomy, geography, archaeology and biology, concluded that King Wu conquered the Shang Dynasty in 1046 BCE. The finding was widely accepted among historians both in China and abroad. The result infers that the fifth year of King Cheng’s rule, the year when the He Zun was produced, was 1038 BCE.
Today, when you look at this invaluable treasure and carefully read the words on the inscription rubbings, you can feel the palpable depth of Chinese history and culture. We still can read it clearly 3,000 years later and experience the historical passing of time for which King Cheng awarded He his 30 strings of cowrie shells.