Yawning Bread. April 2007

Digging into foundations is mischief




The bronzes pictured on this page [1] had been lost to humankind for about 3,200 years. They were found in 1986 in an archeological dig at Sanxingdui, ( "three star mound") about 40 kilometres from Chengdu. Some 4,000 items were discovered in two burial pits -- bronzes, jade, cowrie shells and even elephant tusks. They have been dated to 1200 BCE.

We hardly know anything about the culture that produced these objects, for they left no written records -- the people that made them had probably not developed writing -- nor have other Chinese records mentioned them. So who were they?

It is believed that they were the Shu () people, who established a kingdom in the Chengdu area around 2800 BCE and which lasted a legendary 4000 years.

1200 BCE is very long ago [2]. That would be roughly contemporaneous with the apogee of the Shang kingdom (ca 1600 BCE 1046 BCE) that was flourishing in the Huang He and Wei He valleys about 500 km to the northeast of Sanxingdui. What we know of the Shang themselves come from oracle bones and archeological finds, as well as histories compiled centuries later by the subsequent Zhou dynasty.

I'm no expert on Chinese history, but these Sanxingdui bronzes look to me to be as advanced as bronzes from the Shang kingdom. The pieces are large, yet with fine detail, indicating a high level of technical sophistication. It suggests that the Sanxingdui culture could have been as advanced as the Shang.

This Sanxingdui bronze head with a sort of turban is nearly life-sized. It was probably meant to be mounted on a stake, perhaps as part of a ritual.


This bronze mask is rather big, being about 1 metre in width from the tip of one ear to the other (not visible). There are even bigger ones, too wide for my widest-angle lens. It is speculated that the big ears and protruding eyes represented a creature or someone with unusually acute sight and hearing, perhaps not in the physical sense, but in the mystical sense. 



Sanxingdui's discovery challenges the linear narrative that is commonly used to tell the story of Chinese civilisation. That story usually starts with farming and civilisation developing in the middle reaches of the Huang He, then the setting up of the quasi-legendary Xia kingdom, followed by the Shang and the Zhou, each phase representing an advance over the previous.

But what was this culture developing on the Chengdu plain? Did it flow into and merge with the Chinese world of the Huang He? When Han political authority (202 BCE 220 CE) expanded to include Sichuan, where the Chengdu plain is located, was the culture eradicated? Or was it gradually integrated into Chinese culture? If so, how has Chinese culture been influenced by its Sanxingdui roots?

These are the destabilising questions that the discovery of Sanxingdui poses to the traditional, authoritative story of Chinese civilisation.

* * * * *

Moving from the continent-sized canvas of China to the postage stamp that is Singapore, we too are in danger of relying too much on the linear narrative promoted by our government. That's the one that says, out of chaos, the People's Action Party (PAP), led by a certain you-know-who, created order and prosperity. From the fissiparous 1950s and 1960s, when racial and religious riots broke out every few years, when communists were hiding under every bed, and poverty and disease bestrode the land, the great leader imposed discipline and inspired multitudes to build a bright new future.

To a considerable extent, we cannot deny this, just as there is no denying that the Huang He valley culture was the founding culture for China.

But surely even Singapore's short history is a thicker skein than that. Surely there are independent actors, or even counter-players, who have contributed to making us the society and polity that we are today. Yet, because the only mass media we have is one that sees its role as one of "nation-building", there aren't many opportunities for pointing out the ways in which the dominant narrative neglects the slip streams.

It takes guts and dedication to excavate stories that do not fit into the "Singapore story". One such "archeologist" is filmmaker Martyn See. His now-banned film, Zahari's 17 years, gives someone shut out of the official narrative a voice. We don't have to entirely believe Said Zahari's version of events, just as we don't have to take the archeologists' initial interpretation of the Sanxingdui finds as the final word on the subject, but it seems absurd to not want history unearthed and assayed.

Yet for See's pains, he is being treated as a mischief-maker.

Take, for example, the demon in Singapore's nativity play -- the communists and assorted leftists. In the early 1960s, when the PAP proposed merger with Malaya to form Malaysia, the leftists opposed the scheme. Why?

The official narrative would tell you that it was because they secretly wanted to impose communism on us, and it would have been easier to do that if Singapore stood alone, rather than be a part of bigger country. This narrative requires that all nearly all opponents of the PAP's plan for merger be tarred as communists.

But that distorts the issue. The opposition didn't go around telling Singaporeans that they wanted communism. They had their reasons for opposing merger, reasons that convinced about 1 in 3 voters in the September 1962 referendum.

My understanding -- please correct me if I am mistaken -- was that they felt the Malayan government in Kuala Lumpur ("the KL government"), which would become the federal government of Malaysia, was a reactionary government. Specifically, the Malayan political model was set up to defend privileged classes and sectors against more democratic, popular impulses -- that's how the term "reactionary" was used. I don't know to what extent the privileged classes and sectors were enunciated, but most Singaporeans would have understood that the leftists were referring to the protected status of Islam, the sultans and other elite Malays. Under such a system, the proletariat, particularly those who were not Malay or Muslim, would not get a fair shake. There would never be a true popular democracy -- though we have to bear in mind that leftists often conceived of "popular democracy" in ways that are less than gentle with their opponents.


The head of a bird, about 50 cm tall.

Dagger and scabbard

Head with gilt face, life size. If you look closely at the reflection you'd see that he is wearing a helmet.



Snake from Sanxingdui


More specifically, the initial proposal for Malaysia left the citizenship status of Singaporeans in the new Malaysia in some doubt. The KL government was probably afraid that Chinese voters from Singapore would undercut the Malay majority in Malaya. Under assault by the leftists, Lee had to go back to the negotiating table to ensure that the new constitution guaranteed equal citizenship for Singaporeans within the new federation [3]. He succeeded, but in the end, it made little difference.

Within 2 years of being in Malaysia, the PAP found out the hard way that the leftists were right. Singapore's egalitarian, multi-racial ideals had no place within the hierarchical Malaysian model.

Among the leftists, of course, there would have been some communists or communist-sympathizers. They would no doubt have used the "popular democracy", when achieved, to impose "democratic centralism" -- another term for dictatorship in the name of the proletariat. I am not so nave as to think they did not have their own hidden agenda.

Nonetheless, the story does ask: who had the better foresight?

* * * * *

More recently, we have issues like the income gap and what the role of government should be in bridging them. From the 1997 Asian financial crisis to 2006, the income gap widened steadily and the poorer sections of Singapore's population saw a reduction in living standards.

There is a danger that the future official narrative will focus on what the Singapore government did from 2005 onwards to help close the gap, such as Workfare and various wealth transfers. It will be told as yet another example of benevolence and foresight. Was it? Or was their hand forced?

The story will never be complete without including the non-government actors who kept up the drumbeat of complaints about this problem from 1997 on. Who were they? I hope someone, perhaps a student doing his research paper one day, will unearth this story.

* * * * *

Lee Kuan Yew last weekend said, more or less, that he subscribed to the idea that homosexual orientation is innate. "Is it an aberration?" he asked rhetorically, and answered himself: "It is a genetic variation."

From this starting point, he conceded that the law must eventually be changed.

What were the events that led to his change of mind? Who were the actors? Tip: consider the foreign journalists who kept badgering Singapore ministers with questions about how they treated gays and lesbians, questions which local journalists were too deferential to ask.

That's another story that one day will need to be excavated.

Yawning Bread 


This Sanxingdui bronze head has an unusually naturalistic nose and jaw.



  1. The pictures were taken at the Asian Civilisations Museum when they had the exhibition "China's Mystery Men".
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  2. For some perspective, consider this: these bronzes were made 700 years before Confucius, 1,000 years before Qin Shi Huang supposedly united China.
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  3. Lee Kuan Yew admitted as much in his own autobiography, "The Singapore Story", albeit that it was cast as a clever move by him to blunt the leftists' attack.
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