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The Enigma of Ba -- Salt
In the later part of the Warring States Period (475 BC- 221 BC), internal rebellions occurred throughout China. Man Zi, general of the Ba Kingdom, borrowed troops from the Chu kingdom, and mortgaged them with three Ba cities. After putting down the rebellions, and protecting the mortgaged cities, Man Zi drew his sword and cut his own throat, sacrificing his life in exchange for the Chu king's assistance.

The Ba kingdom at that time was already beset with difficulties due to slow social and economic reform. Not long before the internal rebellions of the Ba, a senior court minister of the Chu kingdom was shot to death by arrow. His name was Wu Qi, and ideas of reform led to his death. After his death, however, the Chu got stronger because of reforms he had carried out while alive. Qin laid the foundation for national unification at that time. In consequence the Chu became the strongest enemy of the Qin.

In the latter part of the Warring States Period, there were great changes in all states. The balance of Chinese power fell then to the Qin in this period and the Ba and Chu remained alternate friends and enemies in the Three Gorges area as evidenced by written record.

In 1998, archaeologists found irregular-shaped pottery in the Zhongba Site in Zhongxian County just beside the Yangtze River. Archaeologists called it "huandiguan" or round-bottomed pot. In later excavations, these pots emerged in an endless stream -- a small mountain of some 100 million pieces. Archaeologists were also shocked at the number.

Nowadays, the Zhongba Site lies between two rivers and looks like an island. On this site archaeologists have already excavated more than 40 layers of culture habitation, with the earliest pottery identified with the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1100BC- 221BC). The relics show that it is a rare site and once also the settlement of Ba tribes who were cultivating farming methods at that time.

Archaeology shows that pottery was born from cultivated civilizations, but the pottery at the Zhongba Site is yet another mystery unveiled. The river around the Zhong Site is called "Ganjinggou" (dried well ditch). For archaeologists, place names always indicate something significant about a place. The character "jing" (well) was, according to the experts, worth a closer look.

Perhaps it's a coincidence that the shape of the round-bottomed pots is similar to the ancient Chinese character "lu" meaning salt which was carved on tortoise shells and animal bones. Had these abundant round-bottom pots symbolic meaning? A lot of history books record that the ancient Three Gorges area had a rich reservoir of salt. And the mark of salt can be seen near the Zhongba Site now

In the first century BC, soldiers in the army of the invincible Roman Empire wore great helmets and ignored all obstacles in their conquest. Short swords, javelins and shields accompanied them all over the world. At that time, they carried leather pokes, in which they carried their salt, money and provisions delivered by the Roman Empire. In an age before firearms, salt gave them enough energy to throw the javelin, brandish a short sword and keep the shadow of death at bay.

In contemporary English, "salt" and "salary" still have the same latin root (salarium, originally, "salt money", the money given to the Roman soldiers for salt, which was part of their pay). Much earlier than the Roman Empire, a developed salt industry had appeared in the Three Gorges area. From then on, and for a long period, salt became the economic rule of the people, and brought prosperity and war to the area.

Almost all places in the Three Gorges overflowed with salt at that time. Actually the Ba people lived on salt water at the beginning, and did so for generations. Until the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the people living there made salt their currency in exchange for consumer goods.

In the mausoleum site, on the opposite bank of the Zhongba Site, archaeologists found many special mausoleums, in which layers of different cultural characteristics of Ba and Chu were found. According to archeological reasoning, the Ba and Chu kingdoms fought over salt reservoirs at Ganjinggou Valley for a long time.

In the Warring States Period, the Qin Kingdom was called "the Kingdom of tigers and wolves". As the overlord kingdom, the Qin still believed in gods. When they held sacrificial ceremonies, sacrifices were made to "Wuwei" or the god of salt. The original meaning of "Wuwei" was workers who extract salt. Because of the importance of salt, they assumed rich, almost-religious, color and held mysterious power.

Wuxia Gorge meets the Daning River in Wushan County of Chongqing. The Wuxian Kingdom (almost the same meaning as Wuwei) according to ancient legend was in the upper reaches of the Daning River.

It is not in doubt that the Wuxian Kingdom in The Classic of Mountains and Seas was located there. This is an ancient county, which was prosperous because of salt and whose name today is Ningchang. Clear salty streams are still flowing into the ancient Daning River. The old people that live in Ningchang still tell of the scenes of extracting salt a century ago, because extracting salt was their whole lives in the nineteenth century.

Many pipes were inserted in the salty stream -- perhaps the earliest joint-stock system. Huge salt drying yards have been left intact as well boilers, huge pails and large pots that occupied generations of workers' lives. At that time the workers who extracted salt were called "Zhaoding" -- they didn't understand farming but had skills in extracting salt, perhaps those who were the "Wuxian" or "Wuwei" from ancient legend. Their wives weaved at home and made exchanges in the market, and their children played in the river and saw the boats come and go.

But one day, their peaceful lives were broken by war. The war stopped soon after, and the survivors continued to work in the salt-drying yard. According to history books, Ningchang belonged to the Ba Kingdom in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC), to the Chu Kingdom in the Warring States Period and the Qin Kingdom there after.

Jixinling Mountain, to the east of Ningchang, borders on Hubei and Shaanxi provinces. People in boundary areas still speak the Ba dialect now, and on the ancient post road leading to Hubei and Shaanxi, it is still possible to pass horse teams. In the Hongchiba Grassland, west of Ningchang, archaeologists excavated the chime bells of Chu.

In the ancient town of Dachang, in the middle reaches of Ningchang, is an exception to the local landform -- a level comparing to range upon range of mountains. On the sheer precipice beside the road from Dachang to Ningchang, a lot of "squared" holes surprise the people that pass. These marks were left on the ancient post road, which stretches for hundreds of kilometers. There use is not known but perhaps they were used to support pipelines and transfer salt water. The possible industry pipeline suggests early prosperity of the area.

It used to be a bigger salt base than Ningchang. And it addresses a more important mystery -- who exploited the salt reservoir there? Archaeologists uncovered the story gradually. On the bank of the Dachang ancient town, there is a Shuangyantang Site, which is not smaller than the Zhongba Site. And there the early Ba people found the salt stream.

Centuries ago, endless war occurred in the Three Gorges area between the Ba, Chu and Qin people and all because of salt. These wars objectively promoted merging cultures, especially that of the culture of the Ba and Chu, and also including the Qin, Shu and Central Plains cultures.

Mr. Zhang Lianggao, a famous archaeology tutor, has a bold imagination. In his reasoning, the shape of the Chinese character "dong" (or east) also means rice bag; "xi" (or west) means the shape of round-bottomed pot; "nan" (or south) is like a kind of ancient bronze musical instrument of the Ba; "bei" (or north) also means two people sitting back-to-back. This is perhaps the outline of a world in ancient Ba people's mind -- rice from Chu, salt of Ba, music and the people.

Archaeologists keep finding written characters of the Ba, but still can't find much else. Did the Ba people make inscriptions on tortoise shells and animal bones, or were they the true inventors of inscriptions on tortoise shells and animal bones? The Ba are still an enigma.

(CCTV.com translated by Chen Lin for China.org.cn, June 17, 2003)

The Brave and Elusive Ba
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