A new archaeological discovery in Hubei province provides clues to a vassal state, Wang Kaihao reports.
More than 50 tombs have been excavated in Suizhou, Hubei province, since October with a bountiful discovery of bronze ware from the mid-Spring and Autumn Period. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
The tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in Suizhou, Hubei province, is one of the most important archaeological discoveries since New China was founded seven decades ago.
More than 15,000 cultural relics have been unearthed at the site, among which is a set of bronze chime bells found in 1978 from the tomb of this vassal ruler of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Yi's state, Zeng, is frequently mentioned on inscriptions of the unearthed bronze ware, but is missing from history books.
According to historical records, the area was ruled by the vassal state of Sui. It lasted for over seven centuries, from the early Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-771 BC) through the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) to the mid-Warring States Period. The confusion continued for long: Was the name Zeng or Sui or was it the same state?
Now new findings at the tomb complex in the Zaoshulin heritage site in Suizhou have given an answer.
An excavation organized by the Hubei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Peking University and the Suizhou Museum that started in October has unearthed the tombs of Marquis Bao and his wife Mijia, who were among Zeng rulers from the mid-Spring and Autumn Period.
On a bronze musical instrument called fou, there is an inscription that reads: "Daughter of Chu (a nearby powerful vassal state) king marries into Sui."
The article is considered to be Mijia's dowry.
"The name Sui appears in this tomb of a Zeng marquise," Guo Changjiang, an archaeologist with the Hubei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, told media last week in Beijing.
"That explains they are one family. A stop can be put on the debate over Sui and Zeng," he said.
Archaeologists at the excavation site in Zaoshulin. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Chime bells are the "stars" of the new archaeological discovery - 19 such items were found in Mijia's tomb with long paragraphs of inscriptions.
"They tell the history of the Zeng state from Mijia's point of view," Guo says. "They are also about her marriage and how she took the responsibility of ruling the state and safeguarding it after her husband's death."
This could be another legend to compete with Fu Hao, a Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC) queen and wartime heroine, Guo adds.
The unearthed inscriptions also offer clues to some big mysteries in early Chinese history.
For example, some scholars doubt that the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century-16th century BC) was China's first united central kingdom with vast lands due to the lack of supporting archaeological evidence such as written characters. And Yu the Great, or Dayu, even before Xia Dynasty was also widely considered as a legendary person rather than a real ruler.
Sun Qingwei, a professor at Peking University, says the inscriptions show that people from the Zeng state recognized Xia and Yu as real history, shedding new light on the origins of the Chinese civilization.
"We can see that Xia and Yu become a symbol indicating the identity of Chinese culture at the time of the Zeng state," Sun says.
Chime bells unearthed from tomb of Marquise Mijia from Zeng state. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
At the Zaoshulin site, as many as 54 tombs of Zeng state rulers and three pits of funeral horses and chariots were excavated. More than 1,000 sets of cultural relics have been unearthed, according to Guo, and numerous more bronze musical instruments, ritual objects are being cleaned up for further studies.
According to Fang Qin, director of the Hubei Provincial Museum, the findings fill a void in archaeological evidence of the Zeng state from the mid-Spring and Autumn Period.
Since Marquis Yi first got known in 1978, 13 Zeng rulers' tombs have been found, but the second peak of discoveries only came in the last decade. Archaeological evidence since 2009 have unveiled a brilliant bronze civilization with a complex system using ritual musical instruments and found where the original material for metallurgy came from.
"We've gradually built up a continuous chain of how the Zeng state formed and developed," Fang says. "It's like putting puzzles together. The forgotten state will lead us to a much bigger picture of how vassal states worked then."
In 2018, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage launched a program called Archaeology China for a comprehensive study of early Chinese history through well-planned excavations.
"Chinese archaeology has a tradition of attaching great importance to historical files," says Song Xinchao, deputy director of the administration. "It's a good thing to prove what is recorded through excavations."
But there are still many questions that the records fail to answer.
"That requires us to unveil a panorama of early-stage China through original work. Studies on the Zeng state can set an example for other projects to follow."
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