In a book entitled Mysterious 30 Degrees North Latitude, the author has made a mystery of this special area by depicting a series of dangerous and supernatural phenomena such as the disappearance of planes and ships in Bermuda and the magical curses from Pharaoh in the Pyramids. These occurrences happened at 30 degrees north latitude, turning this area into a black hole in human knowledge.
Thirty degrees north latitude crosses the Wuling Mountains of China, which span several provinces and autonomous regions and are the habitat to many people from the Tujia ethnic group. The area, with dense forest and roaring water, is believed to be the last home of the ancient Ba people. It is evident that the present Tujia people still share many customs from their Ba ancestors.
Tao Yuanming, a famous poet of the Jin Dynasty (265-420), wrote an article entitled, “Peach Blossom Shangri-la” about a group of extraordinary people who lived in spectacular mountains and rivers.
Tao would be surprised to know the area he once described still remains as mystical as if he lived there today. The people he represented had long since disappeared by the time he wrote about them.
In 221 BC, General Sima Cuo of the Qin State led his army to conquer the Shu State in western Sichuan Province. He advanced his troops onward to Jianmenguan, attempting to take the Ba State in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. Several months later, the Ba State came to an end under the converging attack of Qin and Chu.
Many folk customs of the Tujia people in the Wuling mountainous area are rarely known by people. “Climbing the tree laddered with knife” is one of them. Even though performers of the act themselves can’t tell how the activity originated, they regard it as a form of entertainment today, and believe the ceremony’s significance is of interest to anthropology.
On an unearthed artifact of significance from the Ba people, graphics have been found. Most of them hard to decipher. The item found is an ancient form of a bronze musical instrument.
The boat is often found on these unearthed articles, with different boats possessing different meanings. For example, a graphic in the shape of the Chinese character “zhong” (meaning middle) in a boat’s stem may mean “sacrifice”, which might be a combination of sacrifices and sacred trees. While the symbol “+” is generally considered to represent the sun.
The sacred tree was an intermediate between human and celestials or gods. Historical documents show that the ancient Ba people offered sacrifices to both gods and spirits. For them, sacrificial activities had the same importance as war. And they believed burning sacred articles would narrow the distance between themselves and heaven.
A sacred tree excavated from the Sanxingdui Ruins and belonging to an ancient Shu State contains similar graphics to that from the Ba people. Both show a thick tree trunk, and on top, a flower design. A bird stands on the tree and the branches are stooped. According to historical records, Ba and Shu cultures had completely blended by the time of the last Shu king. In this sense, can we believe the “sacred tree” was the origin of the “knife tree” activity of today?
Ancient Egyptians thought that, “the soul of the departed could avoid ghosts if it stepped onto the big sun boat, thereby finally reaching paradise.” However, ancient Ba people endowed greater meaning to the boat’s significance.
In the 1950s, archaeologists found dozens of boat-shaped coffins in both Dongsunba of Baxian County and Baolunsi of Zhaohua in Chongqing. Wang Jiayou, who participated in the excavation, can still vividly remember the scene,
“When the boat coffins were unearthed, all the bones had disintegrated, except for the teeth. However, the burial articles enabled us to imagine the lives of the ancient Ba people. Weapons, wooden combs, pottery, remains of various fruit and dozens of lacquerware and wooden plates, all seemed to be displayed in the order of a common house.”
The ancient Ba people made boat coffins in the way they built canoes. The boat coffins were to be their home after death. They were a typical riverside people that lived with water and died in their boats. These boats therefore were to compose an important part of the history of the ancient Ba people.
Dragon boats are a symbol between the past and present and originate from the ancient ceremonies of searching for a lost soul. Today the dragon boat race can be seen everywhere in the Three Gorges area.
The designs on unearthed Ba and Shu bronze ware show large-scale boat troops of the ancient Ba people. They used ships to carry many soldiers rather than the former canoe made from one log. Today, on the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, we can still see canoes which look similar to boat coffins or are like the “sacred boat” graphics unearthed. The canoe owners live on their boats rather than farming. On cliffs on both sides of the river, many hanging coffins and boat coffins can be found. We know that the canoe owners are guarding the souls of their ancestors there.
History has recorded: “In the 7th year of Emperor Zhou He, Sima Cuo led 100,000 people of Ba and Shu states on 10,000 ships, taking with them 6 million hu’s of rice (hu is an ancient dry measure), crossing the river to attack the Chu. They took Shangyu and renamed it Qianzhong Prefecture.”
By then, the Ba State had turned to Ba Prefecture of the Qin Dynasty. Depending on its strong boat troop and rich resources, Ba and Shu helped Qin conquer its greatest enemy: the Chu State. The Ba culture gradually disappeared in history.
A team of the ancient Ba people, on their magic canoes, entered the Wuling Mountains and brought the spirit of their ancestors there. They left, to later generations, many endless mysteries about themselves.
(CCTV.com translated by Li Jinhui for China.org.cn, May 30, 2003)