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Elizabeth Childs-Johnson. Who is that Human at Shimao? China’s Ancient Belief in Metamorphic Power

The carved block in Figure 1, which features a massive image of what appears to be a primarily human form with extended arms in displayed position to left and right of a frontal face and abbreviated body, is one of a number of sandstone relief sculptures recently excavated from architectural edifices at the late Neolithic citadel site of Shimao in Shenmu county, Shaanxi province, China. The site dates to 2200–1800 BCE, the very end of the late Longshan cultural phase (also called Longshan tradition or Longshan Age/era; c. 3000–1900 BCE) and beginning of the dynastic phase known in later histories as Xia (c. 2070–1600 BCE). The finds are exciting corroborative evidence that early belief in metamorphic imagery was not limited to a scale of art that includes only ritual paraphernalia such as bronzes, lacquers, ceramics, ivories or jades, but rather is found on a massive scale decorating panels of wall structures within, in this case, a palatial hilltop fortress in the far northwest part of the East Asian Heartland (in other words, ‘China’ before it became ‘China’ in the historical period; see Mair, 2006). 

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July/August 2020
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