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Three Gorges Archaeology: Mysteries of the Ancient Ba People

The Ba people, an ethnic group living in eastern Sichuan and western Hubei provinces in ancient China, were well known for their boldness and gallantry. Records about them can be found in historical documents from the Shang (c.1600– c.1100 BC) and Zhou (c. 1100–771 BC) dynasties. For a time, the Ba Kingdom was even more powerful than the Zhou who conquered the Central Plains, but it suddenly declined during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and was eradicated in 316 by the Qin State.

In more than 2,000 years, the Ba people made significant contributions to the development of the vast area from the Daba, Wushan, Wuling mountains to the Qingjiang, Yuanshui, Lishui, Wujiang and Jialingjiang rivers. Its sudden disappearance in the long river of time left later generations numerous mysteries: How did the Ba people come into being? Where on earth are the mausoleums of the Ba kings? Were the Ba people aboriginals of the Three Gorges or immigrants from other places? Where are the Ba people's descendants?


The ongoing Three Gorges Project provides a rare chance, or maybe the last chance, for us to solve these riddles.


Tomb Group of the Ba Aristocrats


It is hard to believe that Xiaotianxi Village in Fuling, Chongqing, was the final rest place of the ancient Ba aristocrats of about 2,000 years ago.


In this small village built on a mound near the Wujiang River, with dozens of households, however, a large amount of bronzes and jade wares typical of Ba culture were unearthed. The findings are unparalleled in the Three Gorges Reservoir area, either in quality, diversity or amount.


According to Fang Gang, an archeologist with the Chongqing Cultural Relics Institute who was working at the site, the Xiaotianxi Village Ruins were found by accident in 1972. The village became famous overnight because of the bronzes found here. It was the first time that such abundant bronzes of the Ba people were found in the Three Gorges area. It coincided with the depiction in Records of the States South of Mt. Hua: "Most of the mausoleums of its (Ba's) former kings were in Zhi." Zhi refers to Fuling.


Between 1972 and 1993, four salvage excavations were conducted on the Xiaotianxi Ruins and cultural relics from nine of the tombs were collected and studied. In 1994, the Sino-Japanese Archaeological Physical Exploration Experimental Research Team employed the CT technology in exploring underground relics and received abnormal signals, so they guessed they might have found the mausoleums of the Ba kings. Meanwhile, numerous bronzes were unearthed. The most important of those, a set of 14-piece chime bells, is now preserved in the Fuling Museum.


Fang said that the current excavation has cleaned up 11 shaft tombs, ranging from the early Warring States Period to the early Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). From these tombs, large quantity of bronze and jade articles were dug out. There were also two skeletons, including a complete one, and two Chu-style jade swords which were found for the first time in Ba tombs. From Tomb No. 12, archeologists unearthed the most diversified high-class bronzes. On the surfaces of kettles and vehicles, handicraft with inlaid silver filigree was witnessed; while on chunyu (a kind of ancient bronze musical instrument), dagger-axes, bells, Ba-style swords and spears, archaeologists found patterns such as hair bun, hand palm, clouds, tiger, boat and fish.


In a small tomb measuring no more than four meters long and two meters wide, a strange bird-shaped vessel was found one meter underneath the ground. The vessel has duck-web feet, cock's nib and bird's wings. Though many feathers have fallen off, the excellent workmanship stands out clearly. The remaining feathers show traces of finely polished nail-sized turquoises which were stuck on the bird's body.


Were these mausoleums belonging to the former Ba kings?


Though among the findings from these tombs are chunyu and zheng, two musical instruments used by ancient rulers to call on their troops, and other high-class belongings, such as chime bells and jade swords, they were not items exclusively possessed by Ba kings. What's more, the bird-shaped vessel in some way features the Central Plains culture. All the tombs are not in a very large scale, and most of them are of the middle and late Warring States Period. From these facts, Sun Hua, professor from the School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University, concluded that the tombs should have belonged to the aristocrats who remained on the land after the Ba Kingdom was conquered by the Qin State, who later united China.


Then, where are the true mausoleums of the ancient Ba kings?


Lijiaba Ruins, Tombs of Common Ba People


Unlike the Xiaotianxi Ruins, which are thought to be occupied by the ancient Ba aristocrats, the Lijiaba Ruins in Yunyang, where a total of 30,000 square meters of land have been unearthed, seem to be tombs of common Ba people.


Bai Bin and Huang Wei, both associate professors with the Archaeology Department of Sichuan University, said that Lijiaba might have been a community center of the Ba people because they found not only tombs but also houses of the ancient tribe, though there is no such record in any historical book. The ruins dated from the Shang Dynasty to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The discovery provides unique reference to the studies on the Ba people.


Also, for the first time in history, archaeologists found human sacrifices in Ba tombs, which verified the record that after Lin Jun died, his soul turned into a white tiger. The later generations of the Ba people watered it with human blood and offered human bodies as sacrifices.


According to Huang Wei, spears and dagger-axes were usually placed at the head of tomb occupants; while tomahawks and swords were put at their waist side. At the feet position of these tombs, they found potteries and human skeleton, which, obviously, are signs of the use of human sacrifices during that period. Men used as sacrifices were usually of a different race or war prisoners.


In addition to human sacrifices, there were also accompanying buries. Among the latter, some of the dead were buried outside the master coffin, while others had coffins and tombs of their own. Since no trace of struggle was found, these people should have been killed before they were buried. They were probably relatives or clan members of each tomb occupant.


Huang said that both human sacrifice and accompanying buries show the influence of cannibalism, which had been abolished in the Central Plains during the Warring States Period.


Were the Ba People Aboriginals of the Three Gorges?


Through years of salvaging excavation, great progress has been made in archaeological research of the Ba people, but it is still not decided whether the Ba people were natives of the Three Gorges or immigrated from other places.


Historical materials show that the Ba people originated from Hubei.


According to History of Eastern Han, Wuxiang, chieftain of the Ba tribe, "was born in the Wuluo Zhongli Mountains (near Changyang, Hubei Province)." He became the leader of the Ba people because of his bravery and wisdom. He was the legendary “Linjun”. In 1989, about 10,000 Ba relics, including tortoise and oracle bones, were unearthed in an area of 400 square meters in Xianglushi, not far from the Wuluo Zhongli Mountains.


Another saying holds that the Ba people came from Yunmeng area of the Jianghan Plain. Ren Naiqiang, a famous archaeologist and Tibetologist, wrote in his book Huayang Guozhi Jiaobu Tuzhu [Records of the States South of Mt. Hua Collated, Supplemented with Illustrations and Annotations]: "The capital (of the Ba) is Baqiu, which is located north of today's Yueyang, Hunan Province."


However, archaeological findings in recent years could not rule out the possibility that the Ba people were original inhabitants of the Three Gorges area. According to Wang Fengzhu, deputy director of Three Gorges Office of Hubei Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, some kettles and round-bottom pots have been dug out in dozens of Xia and Shang ruins in the Xiling Gorge (one of the Three Gorges), and they are from the same time and of the same size with that unearthed in Xianglushi. Most of them feature local Ba flavors. If these ruins are proved to belong to the Ba people, archaeologists can conclude that they were aboriginals living in the area between the Qingjiang River and the Three Gorges.


Deng Hui, deputy director of the Wuhan Cultural Relics Research Institute, believes that the small area of Xianglushi might have been the center of the Ba community, but their activities should have extended to a wider area. Deng said the legendary story about the war between Linjun and the Goddess of Salt probably reflects the transition of the Ba society from matrilineal to patriarchal.


Ba Symbols: Hard to Decipher


Did the Ba people have their own written language?


On the weapons and bronzes unearthed in Xiaotianxi, the most frequently spotted design was tiger, proving the Ba people's worship for tiger. There were also designs of combined patterns. For instance, on top of a chunyu, six combinations were found around a tiger-shaped button. Of these, some look like boats, dotted with several branches; some resemble hand palm and snake head; some seem to be a fish jumping out of water; while others are patterns hard to define. Archaeologists call them "Ba and Shu graphics," but haven't decided yet whether they are characters or symbols for the memory.


What's more, eight square-shaped characters have been found on a bronze dagger-axe excavated from Lijiaba, but not yet deciphered. Huang Wei, associate professor with the Archaeology Department of Sichuan University, assumed that the Ba people might have had a set of characters of their own but did not pass them down.


Pointing to a newly unearthed one-ear bronze helmet with round bottom, Huang said this typical Ba item was actually dug out from a Chu tomb. At the same time, a large number of Chu utensils were also found in Ba tombs. It shows that the Ba and Chu cultures co-existed and merged with each other at that time.


Reason of Declination: Lack of a Powerful Army


The Ba people were known for their gallantry. This can be seen from the unearthed daggers, which were often used in short-distance fighting. However, the Ba Kingdom declined sharply after a short period of prosperity. What's the reason?


Deng Hui, deputy director of the Wuhan Cultural Relics Research Institute, believes that the Ba Kingdom was not a state in real sense, but rather an early form of state. It seemed to be a state in geographical location, but didn’t possess complete state agencies and political entity. Therefore, the Ba people could win only partial victories. Without a powerful army, it was unable to contend with the Chu and Qin, which boasted great military forces. Consequently, the kingdom ended with declination. However, the Ba people later became pioneers and valiant soldiers fighting for the Qin and Han dynasties.


As to the tombs of the Ba people in the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period, Huang said that the Lijiaba Ruins were obviously a public cemetery for a Ba clan. Generally speaking, the tomb occupants varied little in status. Huang then concludes that the Ba people did not have a strict hierarchy system. Of the many ethnic groups in that area, the Ba people took the lead in forming a kingdom. But at the same time, it showed the weakness in the culture.


Though the Ba Kingdom was later conquered by the Qin, its culture did not disappear immediately but continued through to the Han Dynasty. That is why Ba-style round-bottom pots were found in later Han tombs.


An interesting phenomenon is that no Qin tombs has ever been found in the Ba area. According to Huang, this is closely related to the special ruling strategy of the Qin featuring the centralization of state power. As the Ba people were extremely bold and their characters and culture differed greatly from that of Qin, the Qin rulers used Ba personnel to rule the Ba people. This gave a chance to the Ba culture for further development and expanding to the Central Plains. Emperor Gaozu, or Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty, carried on this policy in his reign. By the time of Emperor Wu, all branches of Chinese civilization have joined to form a great torrent, with the Ba, Shu and Chu cultures becoming part of the mainstream.


As we tried to sew together these patches of ancient civilization, we are actually examining our present and future. While some former mysteries disappear along with the construction of the Three Gorges project, new attractions will appear for human beings to continue their journey of discovery.


(Beijing Youth Daily translated by Li Jinhui for China.org.cn, August 14, 2003)

The Three Gorges: Salt and History
Three Gorges Civilization in the Neolithic Age
Culture of the Three Gorges Area in Paleolithic Era
Hanging Coffins a Clue to Ba Mystery
Songs, Instruments and Homes of Ancient Ba People
Mysterious Tiger of Ancient Ba People
The Enigma of Ba �Salt
The Brave and Elusive Ba
Mysteries About Boat of Ancient Ba People
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