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Yue, ceremonial axe from the Xia

YUE is an axe-shaped weapon used in China more than 3,000 years ago. It has a threatening larger-than-necessary blade, heavy but unwieldy. The Yue axe on display at the Shanghai Museum is 35.6 centimeters by 33.2 centimeters and weighs 5.16 kilograms. It has two small holes near the ridge for binding to a shaft, but the big hole in the middle circled by 18 inlaid turquoise crosses betrays its ceremonial role.

A certain number of Yue axes have been discovered in the ruins of what was once the capital of the Xia (c. 21st century - 16th century BC) and Shang (c. 16th century - 11th century BC) dynasties in today's Henan Province.

These axes, cast in bronze and ornate in design, may never have been used in battle, except, perhaps, for beheading a human sacrifice in rituals because bronze, 3,000 years ago, was still rare, affordable only by the elite in society whose ranks were indicated by their bronze possessions.

For a long time, the turquoise-inlaid Yue was believed to be a late Shang relic until a similar turquoise-inlaid axe was unearthed in 1975 from the stratum of cultural deposits related to Xia in a village called Erlitou. Many experts now accept the revised dating.

According to the history of Zhou (c. 11th century - 770 BC), a dynasty after Shang, Yue was held upright by a warrior on the right side of the throne in the Zhou court. Its role as a symbol of power, not a weapon, was further revealed by the fact that the cutting edge of this Yue axe was not sharpened.

This ritual weapon displays superb craftsmanship, incredible for a time when bronze metallurgy was still relatively new. The axe was cast with an engraved design pattern and turquoise crosses were inlaid into the pattern, sealed with a certain kind of glue or resin.

The crosses, some historians suggest, represent the earliest form of 甲, a Chinese character meaning No. 1 or first. They are three in a group and the six groups ought to symbolize something, perhaps the Xia calendar, as a historian assumed. The Chinese lunar calendar was based on the Xia calendar developed 3,000 years ago. Much has to be learned about the history of Xia as archaeologists continue to dig in the ruins in Erlitou, which overlaps the ruins of the Shang Dynasty.


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