Does this major archeological find mean fairies should be taken seriously?

Archaeologists in Sichuan province, China, announced this week that they have uncovered evidence of ancient efforts to communicate with fairies. A cache of bronze, jade and gold artifacts and evidence of ancient sacrificial rituals has been unearthed. Some of the artifacts are unique objects that indicate the “fairy world” of ancient Chinese religion and thought, according to scientists. But when you picture folk religion and Tinkerbell, think again.

The discoveries were made at the famous Sanxingdui archaeological site in the city of Guanghan in southwestern Sichuan province. The real treasure trove was excavated in sacrificial pits 7 and 8 by a team of scientists from Peking University and Sichuan University. Among the items was a bronze and green jade casket decorated with dragon head handles that was once kept wrapped in silk. Professor Li Haichao of Sichuan University, who directs Well 7, told Chinese news agencies, “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the ship is unique due to its distinctive shape, fine craftsmanship and ingenious design.”

The collection of intricate sculptures includes mythical creatures, human-snake hybrids, and bronze heads adorned with gold masks. The iconographic program of the sculptures, which were mainly in Shaft 8, is “complex and imaginative”. Zhao Hao, an associate professor at Peking University, said they “reflect the fairy world that people imagined at the time and demonstrate the diversity and richness of Chinese civilization.”

The finds are attracting a lot of attention not only because of the historical significance of the site, but also because of the invocation of the word “fairy” in media reports. But “fairy” is perhaps a misleading term here. The term derives from Old English (fairies) from Old French (faie) and refers to magically gifted women or to enchanted things and illusions. In pop culture, the word fairy is most commonly associated in English-speaking countries with Tinkerbell, or if you like to call yourself sophisticated, Puck: winged, often undersized, magical creatures associated with forests, garden grounds, and desires to be brought. In Chinese mythology, the beings referred to as “fairies” are often more powerful spirits associated with specific locations, particularly mountains, rivers, and oceans.

These “spirits” can be benevolent or malevolent, and are sometimes related to former humans or animals that have been transformed into local spirit guardians, ancestral spirits, and deities. For example, the Guardian Spirit (Jingwei) of the Mountain of Departing Doves was transformed into the Bird Guardian Spirit when it was drowned in the East Sea. A former mortal, Strassbergs A Chinese Bestiary describes her as both a “goddess” and a “spirit guardian” and notes that the Daoists refer to her as “transcendents”. [human]’ and that in modern China she is ‘a symbol of one who refuses to accept defeat’. Jingwei’s story is about metamorphosis, and this fluidity is only enhanced by shifting interpretations of her status over time.

However, the incantation of the word “fairy” in news reports is revealing, not only for what it tells us about the discovery in question, but for the way it reveals the exclusion of fairies from Western supernatural consciousness. If you look up ‘fairy’ in the Cambridge English Dictionary, you’ll learn that fairies are ‘imaginary’. Look up the more Christian-friendly “angel” and you’ll find a complete lack of existential judgment.

All of this means that communicating with angels, spirits and fairies are not different types of activities. If talking to the fairies sounds trite but offerings to the spirits seem to be expected, then we are simply being tripped up by the cultural biases of our own Christian-leaning English language. In the irrevocably hierarchical patchwork pantheon of Anglo-American culture, fairies are at the bottom of the pecking order with no opportunity for advancement. But Chinese mythology does not share our assumptions and distinctions. If the current interpretation is correct, then the people of Sanxingdui were in contact with entities that could just as easily be described as spirits or gods. The language of the “fairy” captures the way in which Chinese spirits and deities were often animal-human hybrids, but aesthetically, as Sanxingdui’s paintings show, they are quite different. You will not find any pixie cuts here.


China news service

Although scientists have not released exact dates for the latest finds, the ruins at Sanxingdui are 3,500 to 4,800 years old, and experts have said the artifacts are approximately 3,000 to 4,500 years old. They are of tremendous importance for what they reveal about the Shu civilization, which lived in the region until 316 BC. (when the region was conquered by the Qin dynasty). Archaeological research is the primary way to reconstruct this otherwise mysterious civilization, as literary references to the Shu state are mostly mythological and date to the fourth century BC Chronicles of Huayang.

Previous studies of finds from Sanxingdui have found that the culture that flourished there in the Bronze Age was contemporaneous with that of the Shang Dynasty and shared certain elements with their mythology and religion. Not least the use of bronze offerings as a means of communicating with spirits. (This interpretation of the pits is disputed: Chen Shen argued in a 2002 book that the pits may have been burial pits rather than sacrificial sites. There are no human remains in the pits).

In an account of a bronze statue found in sacrificial pit 1, Shen Zhongchang and Robert Jones write that during this period in the Shang religion, “spirits were especially worshiped” in this way. At the same time, Robert Bagley has written, “There is nothing in Shang archeology that prepares us for bronze sculptures of the size and sophistication” found in Pit 1. Bagley argues that “the sacrificial ritual that produced the two [Sanxingdui] pits [1 and 2 ] has no exact parallel elsewhere in Chinese archeology and can only be related in the most general way to the ritual archaeologists excavated at other Shang sites. Ran Honglin of the Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology of Sichuan Province said of the recent finds that some elements of the sculpture resemble items from the Zhou Dynasty.

In other words, the finds from Sanxingdui are crucial for what they can tell us about contact between different kingdoms in ancient China, the development of metallurgical technologies, and ancient Chinese religious rituals. The discovery of these more intricate and elaborate offerings helps color our rough sketch of both Shu cosmology and culture, and what Honglin calls “the early exchange and integration of Chinese civilization.” When Professor Hao spoke of the “fairy world,” his emphasis was actually on the “diversity and richness of Chinese civilization.” The accounts of ancient Chinese fairies, striking as they are, undersell both the ancient deity spirits and the significance of the discoveries a bit. Does this major archeological find mean fairies should be taken seriously?


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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