A grimacing figure wearing an elaborate feathered headdress is riding on the back of a frightening monster. He must be powerful, perhaps even supernatural, because he effortlessly subdues this sharp-clawed beast with bulging eyes. But who, exactly, is he? A shaman? A god? And why is he forcing historians to tear up the conventionally accepted timeline of Chinese history?
Earlier this year, while filming China’s Greatest Treasures, a new six-part television documentary series for BBC World News, I encountered this mysterious character incised on a spectacular ancient jade carving that now belongs to the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in the city of Hangzhou. Known as a ‘cong’ (pronounced ‘ts-ong’) – essentially, a jade cylinder, squared on the outside, with a circular tube within – this squat column was recovered by archaeologists from a cemetery for elite members of a complex late Neolithic society that flourished at the site of Liangzhu, around 100 miles (160km) southwest of Shanghai, in the 3rd millennium BC. Traditionally, historians have taught that China’s earliest recorded dynasty was the Shang, who ruled during the Bronze Age, in the 2nd millennium BC.
Intricate bronze artefacts – ritual food and wine vessels; ceremonial axes embellished with bloodcurdling, grinning faces – have been excavated from Shang cities in modern-day Henan province, along the Yellow River. Many are decorated with the mask-like face of a monster with bulging eyes and curling horns known as a ‘taotie’, the precise meaning of which is still debated.
Recent discoveries at Liangzhu, however, which is situated in the lower Yangtze River Basin, more than 600 miles (965km) southeast of the last Shang capital of Anyang, have upended the standard chronology of Chinese history. This is because, according to archaeologists, the impressive ancient settlement at Liangzhu was home to a sophisticated civilisation that was already prospering 1,700 years before the establishment of the Shang. Contemporaneous with the ancient Cycladic civilisation of the Aegean Sea in the West, it was possibly the earliest state society in East Asia.