New findings unveil Qin-era ceremonial rites

Updated: Feb 20, 2023 By Wang Kaihao China Daily Print
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An aerial view of the newly excavated Sijiaoping site in Lixian county, Gansu province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

After Qinshihuang united the country and established his mighty empire, the founder of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), and the first emperor in Chinese history, might still have harbored nostalgia toward the land where his power originated.

In Lixian county, Gansu province, the top of a mountain was deliberately flattened, and a ceremonial structure was built. Many centuries later, this 28,000-square-meter terrace was dubbed by locals as Sijiaoping, which means "a quadrangle plain".

From 2020 to 2022, a joint archaeological team led by Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and Shanghai-based Fudan University, through excavations on Sijiaoping site, unveiled this exceptional chapter of the past that had previously been missing from historical documentation.

As Hou Hongwei, an associate researcher with the Gansu institute, briefed media at Wednesday's news conference, in association with the National Cultural Heritage Administration, he explained that outer walls made of rammed earth were found surrounding the terrace, and a large number of earthen architectural ruins were also excavated within the site.

"We found an earthen terrace in the center, which was surrounded by auxiliary structures in four corners," he said. "The basic layout of this complex is symmetrical.

"We can clarify that there was a three-tier structure within the compound," he explained. "That indicates the rigid ritual system."

A brick and a tile (pictured) with decorative patterns are among structural components discovered at the site. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Unearthed tiles helped archaeologists to confirm its age — around the time when the Qin state conquered other rival states and united China. Bricks, ceramic pipes, and other structural components were also discovered, enriching experts' understanding of the structure.

"An architectural complex of such a large scale and unique layout has rarely been seen in previous archaeological findings," Hou said. "It would have been a key ceremonial structure during the time of Qin empire. It marks a united country with a centralized power."

The area that is present-day Lixian county witnessed the rise of the Qin state as a ruling power amid chaotic conflicts among numerous vassal states during the Spring and Autumn (770-476 BC) and Warring States (475-221 BC) periods. Before the political center of the Qin state was moved eastward to present-day Shaanxi province, the eastern part of Gansu province was where generations of its rulers lived.

In the 1990s, the stunning discovery of Lixian's Dabuzishan site, a complex of Qin-state mausoleums, offered even greater insight into the history. The gold decorative fillets unearthed from the site became the signature artifacts that demonstrated the wealth and social prosperity of the Qin Dynasty.

A key, nationwide academic project was launched in 2004 to decode early-stage Qin culture and its relation with nomadic ethnic groups to the west through archaeological studies. Including Dabuzishan and Sijiaoping, the sites in Lixian have become pivotal to the project.

"The early national-level sacrificial ceremonies are a crucial part of our studies," Hou said.

A brick (pictured) and a tile with decorative patterns are among structural components discovered at the site. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In 2009, some local museum staff noticed scattered structural components in the area around the Sijiaoping site, and the ruins were first found in 2019, before further scientific excavations were carried out over the past few years.

According to Hou, studies of historical documents showed that Qinshihuang once traveled westward from the imperial capital city of Xianyang (in what is today's Shaanxi province) shortly after he united the country.

"Being where his ancestors had lived, Lixian was on his route," Hou explained. "So the new findings could probably indicate that it was a place for him to hold sacrificial ceremonies at that time."

"The architectural ruins show high-level building techniques and a rigid format," said Zhu Yanshi, deputy director of the Institute of Archaeology, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Its drainage system also tells us that, like other Qin royal constructions, the place was very well designed.

"Comparative studies with other sites may show how formats of largescale ceremonial structures evolved in the early years, when a centralized dynasty was first established."

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