More than two millennia ago General Zhuang Qiao (庄蹻) arrived in what is now Kunming and founded the Dian Kingdom. Part nomadic, part agrarian, the Dian Kingdom was the first major civilization in Yunnan Province. Women formed the backbone of Dian society – they were in charge of farming, trade, producing goods and meting out justice. The men were nomadic, left to concentrate on grazing cattle, hunting and warfare.
Dian civilization appears to have flourished for three centuries. Then, for reasons still unknown today, it disappeared.
Today the Yunnan Provincial Museum hosts the best collection of Dian bronzes in China, the only traces that remain from Yunnan's earliest known civilization. The museum displays around 20,000 artifacts, but nearly 210,000 more are stored in its warehouse as there isn't enough room in the museum to display everything. In this warehouse museum staff study the artifacts in an attempt to garner more information about the unknown past.
Fan Zhou (范舟), associate professor at Yunnan Provincial Museum, has worked at the museum for 20 years and is in charge of evaluating antiques. He is one of only five such certified evaluators in Yunnan. We recently spoke with Fan about his job and his passion for the Dian Kingdom:
GoKunming: What does an antique evaluator do?
Fan Zhou: I look at the artifacts that come into the museum, particularly jade, porcelain and bronze and I research them. It's complicated because we don't know much and we don't have much to go on. Physically these people were just like us, they lived, they loved, but the cultural details of their lives are so different.
GK: What does "research" mean in this context?
Fan: There's a lot of examining the artifacts and then extrapolating from each detail to unearth a new factoid about the past. Every detail is important. For example, previously researchers thought that the Dian were purely agrarian. But we have Dian bronzes with pictures of horses.
Horses originated in Russia 5,000 years ago and slowly trickled to other parts of the world—but the Dian had many horses before horses were common in China. From that we can deduce that the Dian were nomadic. Add in the fact that modern Tibetans are nomadic, and you've got a case.
GK: What inspired you to become an antique evaluator?
Fan: I've always loved stories. Much of Chinese literature is rooted in history. I don't have an artistic touch, so I went for history instead of literature.
There was also a strong family influence. My parents studied ethnology and anthropology. My father used to work with minorities and come back from the field with tons of stories. I majored in history in college. At the time, a history major's studies encompassed anthropology and archeology as well.
After college, I had a choice between teaching and working at the museum. I wanted to work with the artifacts, so I chose the museum. At first, they had me in collections, where I had to move artifacts—sometimes I was literally carrying huge bronze drums.
GK: What's the hardest part of your job?
Fan: [Laughs.] That I live in the present.
Fan: The thing about living in the present, is that you use that for your baseline. So if you are studying an artifact you want to make comparisons based on what you know.
For example, there was a design of a boat on a bronze drum. Some researchers thought that these boats were fishing boats or pleasure boats because that's what we have now. But I think the boat refers to the afterlife because there's a picture of a dead king on it.
I try to compare the Dian to other ancient civilizations, but it's hard because I don't have that mentality.
GK: Given that details are so hard to come by, why is it important to learn about the Dian Kingdom?
Fan: There's a saying: history tells us where we came from, lets us know where we are now, and points us in the direction we need to go next. The more we learn about the Dian, the more we can understand about our society today. And the more we understand about society today, the more we can think about the direction we want to go in the future.
GK: How does this apply in terms of the Dian Kingdom and Kunming?
Fan: We've diverged from Dian culture in many ways. Our society doesn't have gender equality and we don't have a close relationship with nature. But at one point in time, we had that, we were capable of it, this gives us something to aspire to in the future. I'd love to see a society run by women, I think it'd be more humanitarian, more organized. There's a lot we can learn from the past.
GK: Given that so much is unknown, how do you know what is true and what is just speculation? What happens when two researchers have different ideas about the past?
Fan: As researchers we strive to come up with theories that encompass the entire social structure. A theory shouldn't be contradicted by any existing evidence. This means a theory can take years to develop.
GK: If there's a controversy, does the public find out about it?
Fan: In terms of the museum exhibits, we only display information that is widely accepted as factual. We tend to avoid controversial information because professional scholars will protest that it's irresponsible – the public doesn't have enough information to make an informed decision about controversial information.
It's a shame really, because these questions are questions about our shared ancestry, and I do think the public should have access to them so they can internalize them and perhaps come up with their own answers. That's important. We do disseminate this information during lectures though.
GK: How has the museum changed since you've been there?
Fan: [Laughs.] It hasn't really changed. It's a slow field. The reputable scholars are almost all old men. It can take 10 to 20 years to fully understand an artifact. Only people with lots of experience who have intimate relationships with the antiques can do this work. You have to know a lot.
You have to develop a real affection for each piece and be able to see it as something with its own life, a living thing that contributes to the body of knowledge that's out there.
GK: What's the future of antique evaluation?
Fan: Currently the field is really focused on artifacts. We need to think about the people who lived 2,000 years ago, not the bronzes. That's what's important, the culture and the people behind the artifacts. That's what's interesting. The culture is totally different, but despite that, fundamentally they were people, the same as we're people today. You know, I think if I met a Dian person, we could sit down and talk... probably.© Copyright 2005-2021 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.