Colored Neolithic Pottery Pot Depicting a Stork with a Fish, and a Stone Axe

Is the painting of a stork with a fish and a stone axe really about totem? We should start from the nature and feature of totem. The word “totem” is derived from the language of the Native American people, meaning “his kinship group” and “his family mark”. Totem worship is the most primitive religious form. According to the primitive belief, people from a clan believed that they were evolved from a certain species and had kinship with it. In many legends of totems, some hold that their own ancestor was evolved from a certain kind of animal or plant, or had kinship with a certain kind of animal or plant. “Totem” also means “symbol” and “emblem”. The totemic symbol played an important role in primitive society. As the earliest symbol and emblem of a social organization, it helped to consolidate the group, bring the blood relationship closer, maintain and distinguish social organizations. Meanwhile, people wanted to win recognition and protection from the totem.

Therefore, the nature of totem was actually ancestral worship, and it serves as an emblem of a group of people. Based on these two standards, it seems that the painting of a stork with a fish and a stone axe has no relationship with totem.

First of all, if the white stork in the painting is regarded as the totem of a clan and the fish, the totem of the enemy clan, the kinship between the totem and the clan where it was revered shall be proved respectively. However, there is no convincing evidence for such relationship. Moreover, only one example of the white stork image has been discovered at Yancun site, and it is not enough to embody the symbolic role of the white stork as the totem of a clan because more examples are needed to prove the existence of a totem.

Secondly, if the stone axe in the painting is regarded as a totem of a clan, it seems that it has symbolic significance to some degree. As some experts have pointed out, the stone axe in the painting was exquisitely made and might be used by the chieftain when he was alive, hence can be regarded as a symbol of power. In my opinion, though the stone axe symbolizes the chieftain’s power, it might not be the totem of his clan. It is hard for us to imagine the kinship between the stone axe and the clan. Generally, no primitive clan would regard a stone axe as their ancestor.

In this regard, it is not proper to regard the painting of a stork with a fish and a stone axe as a totemic painting of the primitive clan. The discovery of more archaeological materials, in particular, the large funeral urn tomb in Hongshanmiao of Ruzhou, provided new materials for us to interpret the meaning of the painting showing a stork with a fish and a stone axe.

Both Hongshanmiao and Yancun sites belong to Ruzhou City, and the former is about 20 kilometers northwest of the latter. In 1989, a large joint tomb of funeral urns (M1), in the shape of a rectangular pit and dating back to the period of Yangshao culture, was excavated, and 136 funeral urns have been unearthed. Plus those damaged in previous construction, the total number reached 200. These funeral urns are arranged in 13 rows in order, each containing about 16 urns and mainly two-time burial for adults. Like what was found in the Yancun site, Yichuan urns were mainly adopted here. What’s more important, among funeral urns unearthed from Hongshanmiao, nearly 50 pieces have been restored in good state, and 40 of them have painted patterns, mostly in black, white, brown and red. These patterns fall into different varieties and feature extensive subjects including human figures, animals, plants, production tools, daily utensils, astronomical images and geometrical patterns. Some human figures are running, and some are naked. Some only have parts of the body depicted, for example, one hand, a group of human faces, and penis that is ashamed to mention. (Fig. 2) The animal patterns include birds, tortoise, fish, frog, deer, lizard, shell, etc. (Fig. 3) Plant patterns include branches, leaves and roots. Production tools include wooden spade (Fig. 4) and wooden plough, etc.

Fig. 2 Patterns of human figures and parts of human body of Hongshanmiao
Fig. 3 Animal patterns painted on potteries of Hongshanmiao
Fig. 4 Wooden spade

The Hongshanmiao site and the Yancun site are close to each other, date from the same period, and feature the same cultural style. Some experts categorize them into Yancun Type of Miaodigou Phase of Yangshao culture. Among the numerous painted patterns at Hongshanmiao site, it seems hard for us to point out which one is about totem. The painted patterns of Hongshanmiao represent a great wealth of subjects, and it is difficult to decide which one was related to the ancestor of the clan and hence became a totem. Moreover, among so many patterns of human figures, animals, plants or production tools, basically there are no repeated ones except for the penis image. As a result, the symbolic role of totem is hard to be embodied. In light of this, the Western experts’ idea of totem is not suitable to interpret the painted patterns of Hongshanmiao site, which further proves that the painting showing a stork with a fish and a stone axe found at Yancun site is not about totem.

Fig. 5 Pottery vase painted with a waterfowl holding a fish in its mouth
Fig. 6 Painting of a waterfowl holding a fish in its mouth

How should we interpret the numerous painted patterns found at Yancun and Hongshanmiao sites? The test of the penis image discovered at Hongshanmiao site reveals that it was painted on the funeral urn of a female adult. In my opinion, this marks a kind of primitive reproduction worship, and the objective is to pray for multiplying descendants, which can be categorized into primitive witchcraft. The painting of a group of human faces found at Hongshanmiao site possibly refers to the mask that the wizard wore when he practiced magic. Based on that, we will find that the painting of a stork with a fish and a stone axe is actually about witchcraft. It is inferred that when primitive people found that the white stork could freely fly into the sky and easily capture a fish in water with its long peak, they admired such ability and hoped to gain such divine power through witchcraft so as to catch more fish. The stone axe in the painting was also a main production tool at the time, the same as the plough found at Hongshanmiao. Including images of these agricultural tools into the painting is to pray to the witchcraft for a bumper harvest.

Fig. 7 Ivory carving of double phoenixes facing the sun and pottery bowl with pig design, Hemudu

In summary, the painting of a stork with a fish and a stone axe on a pottery urn unearthed from Yancun site boasts a large scale, exquisite techniques, rich and profound meanings, and is unrivaled by other paintings of the same age. It shows pre-historic people’s wish expressed through witchcraft, and embodies the concept of combining realism and romanticism applied to China’s pre-historic painting art.

1. What is the status of the owner of the pottery urn showing a stork with a fish and a stone axe?

2. What kind of emotion did primitive people want to express through the painting showing a stork with a fish and a stone axe, is it about totem?

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What is two-time burial? Why did people choose two-time burial?

Depending on how many times the deceased was interred, there are generally two forms of burial: one-time burial and two-time burial.

One-time burial: burying the corpse of the dead after one-time processing; the main burial form during the pre-historic period in China; widely adopted in south, north, northeast and northwest of China.

Two-time burial: burying the corpse or remains of the dead after twice or more times of processing; mainly adopted in the Yellow River Basin and discovered in some regions of northeast and south of China; including two-time burial of one person, twice joint burial of several persons, twice joint burial of a collective according to the number of people interred.

Deputy director of the Collects Administration Dept. of Henan Museum, and member of the Henan Provincial Artifact Authentication Commission, holding an academic title of Associate Museological Researcher.

Cao Han-gang: Graduated from the History Dept. of Zhejiang University, with a bachelor's degree. Deputy director of the Research Dept. of Henan Museum, holding an academic title of Associate Museological Researcher, Mr Cao dedicated himself to the research on the pre-Qin bronze and jade artifact

Mr. Yan Wenming, a renowned archaeologist, has conducted in-depth research on the painting of a stork with a fish and a stone axe. According to him, the vertically-placed stone axe was painted on the funerary urn of a prestigious chieftain. It is by no means an ordinary instrument of labor for common people as it was painted in an eye-catching location, marked and wrapped with fine cloth and leather. It must be something suitable for the status of the chieftain, for practical use and as a symbol of power. It should be a depiction of an article used by the chieftain when he was alive. The funeral urn of the chieftain was painted with a white stork holding a fish in its mouth, and they should be totems of some clans. The white stork was the totem of the clan from which the dead came, and also the totem of clans of the same lineage in a tribal alliance, while the chub fish was the totem of the dominant clan from the hostile alliance. This chieftain was very likely to be a valiant leader who had, holding high the stone axe, the symbol of authority, led his own clansmen and those from the alliance to fight against the chub-fish clan and won the decisive victory. After he died, people made the largest and best pottery urn to commemorate his meritorious achievements. Moreover, they broke the tradition that the funerary urn should not be decorated with painting, and recorded the chieftain’s merits by way of painting on the urn. The painter at the time tried his best to paint in the largest scale and chose colors in the sharpest contrast. The white stork was depicted mighty and high-spirited to extol the victory of chieftain’s clan, and the fish, dying and surrendering, to show the enemy’s defeat. To underline the role of the organizer and leader in the battle, the artist highlighted the large stone axe which was the best to symbolize the chieftain’s status and authority, hence leaving us such a painting of great historical significance.

However, Mr. Niu Jipu holds a different view, though also from the perspective of totem. According to him, the stork in the painting faces a stone axe depicted in its entirety. The stone axe is important and meticulously depicted. And they form the totem of a primitive clan living in Linru. In the primitive age, the stone axe, either used as a production tool or as a weapon for battle, had a close relationship with the survival of people at the time. Without it, people couldn’t survive. Therefore, it was regarded as a sacred object with certain spirit by primitive people. Yangshao culture belonged to the Neolithic Age, and such belief had been continued and developed. The auspicious image of the white stork holding a fish in its mouth faces the stone axe and offers sacrifices to the axe, and primitive people used this image to please the deity of the stone axe and pray for good luck, bumper harvests and peace.

In 2003, the pottery pot showing a stork with a fish and a stone axe (also known as painted pottery pot) was listed by the State Council as one of the 64 precious artifacts that is forbidden to be exhibited abroad, which indicates its great value and preciousness.

The painted pottery pot, made of red pottery mixed with sand, features a high body, a flared mouth, a round rim, a deep belly, and a flat bottom with holes. In places near the mouth rim there are four eagle peak-shaped nipples arranged in symmetry for tying the rope. On one side of the belly there is a painting measuring 37 centimeters in length and 44 centimeters in width. The painting contains two parts: a stork holds a fish in its mouth, while to the right is a stone axe. (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1 Illustration of a stork with a fish and a stone axe

The stone axe, outlined in black and filled with white paint, is oblong and has an arc-shaped blade. It seems that the stone axe is bound to a wooden handle straightly, and the horizontal lines and round dots painted at the joint between the axe and the handle indicate that the two are fixed together. The handle end is shaped like a square bulge, similar to the sword pommel of later times. The grip of the handle is densely painted with crisscross oblique lines, indicating the anti-slip sheath. The stork is painted white all over the body, but its eye is depicted with black outline and a round dot, making it particularly eye-catching. Holding a large fish in its mouth, the stork stands upright and features a fat and firm body, a thin neck, a long peak, a short tail and high feet. The fish is also depicted with black outlines and filled with white paint, with its eye, gill, and fins on the tail, back and belly painted in black. To indicate the weight of the fish, the artist purposefully created a slightly backward-inclining body and a straightly-held head for the stork to keep balance and produced an effect of dynamic balance. From this we also see the artist’s careful and keen observation. In artistic merit alone, it is a rare work in Chinese painting thanks to its vivid representation of image and variation in the form of painting.

Based on comparison with other shapes of artifacts and the Carbon-14 dating result, we can assure that the painted pottery pot was made in the period of Yangshao culture in the primitive society, which has had a history of nearly 6,000 years ago. Over the past 30 years since the painting of a stork with a fish and a stone axe was discovered, experts have attached great importance to it and held it in high regard. For example, the pot is hailed as “China’s earliest pottery painting”, “the earliest Chinese painting”, “forerunner of the traditional Chinese painting”, etc.

The Colored Neolithic Pottery Pot Depicting a Stork with a Fish, and a Stone Axe, date from the Yangshao culture period, measures 47 centimeters in height, 32.7 centimeters in mouth diameter, and 19.5 centimeters in bottom diameter. It was unearthed from Yancun Village in Linru County (present-day Ruzhou City), Henan Province, in 1978, and is now in the collection of the National Museum of China.