History is simple because there is only one truth, one story. Artifacts, on the other hand, are not so simple because people can view each object through infinitely different lenses. “Curios,” not surprisingly, is a synonym that people have given to artifacts. Artifacts contain historical evidence that when pieced together proves the history we know. Therefore, history is only one angle by which we can examine artifacts.
Xi’an was the capital of 13 different dynasties of Ancient China. It had witnessed the construction and death of the first empire in China in 221 BC. It was also the sight of the altar where people drank for the promise of a hereditary ruler in 202 BC. Then, in 618 AC, it became the capital of the most famous and prosperous dynasty in the World — Tang. Chang An was its name then, reaching every corner of the Earth with its influence through the Silk Road. Chang An was one of the most prominent and most influential cities in the world at that time! Xi’an’s incredible history lived through 2000 years of peace and war, and today, it is still alive in the city.
It is impossible not to mention the Shanxi History Museum when writing about Xi’an and its history. This museum is the heart of all the historical artifacts and ancient stories. From the existence of Lantian Man seven hundred thousand to 1.15 million years ago, to the Tang Dynasty and many years after, this museum houses more than 171,795 pieces of artifacts and memories. More than the simple purpose of revealing the truth of history, this museum also shows the progress and improvements humanity has made in the long river of history, as well as the incredible brilliance of ancient people.
Artifacts are not so simple; they are more than their looks. For example, this silver sachet is not just an ordinary sachet. There is another gold semi-sphere inside to hold the spice. It uses the same structure and principle as a modern gyroscope, so the spice will never spill. The sachet was produced about 1,200 years ago, way before the formation of the United States! The ancient intellectuals already understood a modern concept!
Even more astoundingly, these ancient intellectuals could carve out extremely thin shapes and lines on a delicate piece of silver. The outer sphere presents a scene with grapes, flowers, and birds. Everything appears as if they are alive. Just by looking at the scene, we can feel the breeze carrying the smell of blossoms to our noses. Just by looking at it, we can almost hear the birds singing and celebrating between the twigs. There need not be a spice burning inside this sachet to fill the room with an aromatic smell. The luxury of the silver combined with the fragrance of the art and spice creates everything a woman needs. Its owner must cherish this item like a treasure because it is.
Our ancestors perfectly integrated technology and fine art in this single masterpiece.
An artifact could also have had a practical and vital use in ancient times. For example, Tiger Tally. It is the earliest method of authorization and proof for identity among the known artifacts in the world. The tally has two parts, and the two parts either have a cylinder or a hold so that they can fit seamlessly together. More than 2,300 years ago, in ancient China, the right half was in the king’s hand, the left half belonged to the general. When the general was fighting on the borders, in order to move more than 50 soldiers, he needed to have the right half of the tally to fit with the left half that he had. Therefore, the king and the general controlled the army together, neither of them had full power. Secondly, when the herald of the king came to the camp, he had to show his right half from the king to prove his identity before the order he brought could be carried out. This little piece of artifact, less than the size of my palm, held the power to command tens of thousands of soldiers. Nevertheless, it never let them down. There is not much to say to these brilliant inventors except, “Wow!”
When we look at this tiny object, our first impression might classify it as a toy or a piece of art. However, historians learned its use from the golden words inscribed on the surface. It describes the rule to command the army in detail. Even thousands of years later, we can learn about the structure of control in the ancient army.
Artifacts are also stories. Stories of the creator, receiver, owner… Sometimes, the story is as straightforward as it could ever be. Many artifacts have words carved into them that record their story and make sure the piece of history stays until the last moment of its life. Wei ding I, an artifact from the Zhou dynasty, held the record of its story for more than 3,000 years. The story says: a man (Qiu) is suing his neighbor (Bang) over a land dispute. After the judgment from the court, the Judge sentenced Bang to pay Qiu a certain amount of money, and the court decided on the new division of land between Qiu and Bang. The case was settled between them hence.
It might seem to be an ordinary dispute between neighbors. However, the 3,000 years of history made this story special. The story became essential evidence to describe the land ownership and economy in ancient China 3,000 years ago.
Artifacts are the heart of how we study history. Every single facet and detail of the artifacts are impressive and essential for us to study. These artifacts are what made Xi’an so unique.
From Xia to the People’s Republic of China, we usually like to call ourselves:
Up and down, 5,000 years.