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Marquis of Haihun cemetery gives new insights into history

Author  :  WANG ZIJIN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-10-10

The hoof-shaped gold ingots unearthed from the Marquis of Haihun cemetery, made by complicated craftsmanship, used to serve as an award to the rulers of vassal states and fiefs from the Western Han emperor Photo: CFP

During the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties, Chinese civilization changed significantly. The archaeological findings of this period have testified to the historical advancement. What archaeologists found from the cemetery of the Marquis of Haihun, whose name was Liu He (?–59 BCE), provides a good example of this historical progress.

Popularity of Confucianism

Since Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE) officially endorsed Confucianism as the state cult, Confucianism gradually became the state ideology and orthodoxy. This change profoundly affected China’s intellectual history.

Historical archives can’t tell much about the social influence of Confucianism during Liu’s time. Fortunately, more than 5,200 bamboo slips and nearly 100 wooden slips unearthed from the cemetery of the Marquis of Haihun provide very specific and detailed information about how Confucianism affected society during that period. Liu and his father were students of prominent Confucian scholars, so they both excelled in the Six Arts [part of the Confucian practical disciplines, including rites, music, archery, chariot racing, calligraphy, and mathematics] and the Five Classics [part of the traditional Confucian canon, including Book of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, Book of Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals]. The large quantity of Confucian classics unearthed from the cemetery of the Marquis of Haihun offer a new perception of the social influence of Confucianism in the Western Han Dynasty.

Archaeologists who sorted out the unearthed slips from the Marquis of Haihun cemetery noted that there is a collection of bamboo texts titled “Instructions on Etiquette,” which indicates that written rules of expected and accepted social behaviors existed at that time. This undoubtedly opened a new window for understanding social etiquette of the time. A dressing mirror with a Confucius portrait also attracts the attention of academics. Wang Renxiang, a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that the portraits of Confucius and his disciples, along with a brief biography of Confucius, indicate that Liu was deeply influenced by Confucius’s ideas, and there is even a hint of Liu’s self-examination after he was deposed from the throne—Liu may have examined and disciplined himself with Confucius’s words.

The archaeological discoveries at the Marquis of Haihun cemetery reveal that the profound influence of Confucianism on ideology was first manifested in the upper class of society: the aristocratic families.

Economic growth in Jiangnan

As a man who was exiled to a remote location and was banished from politics, Liu was relocated to Yuzhang Commandery [in present-day Jiangxi Province; Haihun was a county under Yuzhang]. In his masterpiece Records of the Grand Historian, the Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian wrote: “Southern Chu comprises Hengshan, Jiujiang, Jiangnan [literally meaning south of the Yangtze River], Yuzhang, and Changsha.” He noted that this area was “sparsely inhabited. The people eat rice and fish, prepare the land for ploughing by burning, cultivate paddy-fields, and have a sufficiency of fruit, gourds, and shellfish so that they need no resort to trade” (all translated by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang).

When the land fief at Yuzhang was granted to Liu, there were roughly 4,000 families at Yuzhang that paid taxes to him, a huge improvement over the 2,000 families within his previous fief in Changyi [in present-day Shandong Province]. The county of Haihun was renamed as Yisheng (“habitable,” literally) during the reign of Wang Mang, who usurped the throne of the Liu family and founded the Xin Dynasty (9–23). This implies that the living conditions in that region had been improved at that time.

Due to several reasons, people in north China migrated south on a large scale during the Han Dynasty. Statistics show that the number of households at Yuzhang Commandery increased by 502.56%, and the population increased by 374.17% between the year of 2 CE and the year of 140 CE, while the national number of households showed a negative growth trend during the same period. The growth rates at Yuzhang Commandery were second only to Lingling Commandery [covering part of present-day Hunan Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region] among all the nine commanderies in the Jiangnan area. At that time, Yuzhang Commandery accepted a large number of people migrating south from north China, in which the “habitable” ecological environment of Yuzhang played an important role. With 4,000 families in his fiefdom, Liu was probably the richest noble in the Jiangnan area at that time. His rule might have promoted the growth of the local labor force and the introduction of production experiences to the Haihun area.

The Chinese economic historian Fu Zhufu once said that the economic development in the Jiangnan area had been obviously faster than that of north China since the Han Dynasty: “From then on, the economic center of China began to shift southward, and the Jiangnan area as an economic zone [economically prominent area of China] became increasingly important. Meanwhile, the two old economic zones, Guanzhong [a historical region corresponding to present-day central Shaanxi Province] and the North China Plain, were declining. This is a significant change with a lasting influence in Chinese history, even though it does not seem to be very significant.”

A witness to the Silk Road

Ornamental metal plaques were quite popular among the nomads in north China, and those ornaments were often decorated with animal motifs. According to some scholars, the harnesses decorated with images of animals looking back are mostly unearthed from the tombs of the Xiongnu nobles in present-day Mongolia and Russia. The silver danglu [ancient ornamental plaques on the foreheads of horses] unearthed from the Marquis of Haihun cemetery may be the earliest harness with this pattern unearthed in the Chinese mainland. The origin of this motif style can be traced back to the north and northwest, and it is believed to be the continuation of Scythian art and the Ordos bronzes [nomadic-style bronzes characterized by animal motifs] in the Han Dynasty.

The camel-shaped gilt bronze hook unearthed from the Marquis of Haihun cemetery was a component of the frame in which the ancient chime bells were hung. This is an early cultural relic in the shape of a camel discovered in the Yangtze River basin. The camel bones unearthed from a burial pit in the Mausoleum of Emperor Zhao of Han (94–74 BCE) have attracted the attention of academics. The camel-shaped hook unearthed from the Marquis of Haihun cemetery dated even earlier, which is very valuable for the investigation of the history of the Silk Road.

Imperial power in its early days

When the Qin succeeded in unifying China in 221 BCE, its king claimed the title of Qin Shi Huang as the first Emperor of China, symbolizing the rise of imperial power in China, and as the emperor he held supreme autocratic authority. However, the emperor’s authority was occasionally shaken. The form of the imperial power might vary depending on the choice of the candidate to the throne.

The Western Han general Huo Guang played a decisive role in installing Liu He as an emperor. According to the Book of Han, Emperor Zhao died in 74 BCE without an heir. Even though many court officials recommended the Prince of Guangling for the throne, Huo considered him incompetent and settled on making Liu He, the Prince of Changyi, the new emperor. Once the Prince of Changyi was installed as the emperor, however, he began to act inappropriately during the period of mourning for Emperor Zhao. Therefore, Huo considered deposing the new emperor. In a report to Empress Dowager Shangguan, Prime Minister Yang Chang and other officials claimed that Liu didn’t pay a formal visit to the imperial ancestral temple, a ritual that bestowed the Mandate of Heaven on a just ruler of China. It meant that Liu didn’t have the Mandate of Heaven and he should be deposed.

The inscriptions on the round-shaped gold ingots unearthed from the cemetery of the Marquis of Haihun indicate that Liu ordered the production of a large number of zhuo jin [gold objects offered by the Han Dynasty rulers of vassal states and fiefs as part of the sacrificial rites in the imperial ancestral temple] in 63 BCE, the year when Liu was made Marquis of Haihun. Some scholars interpreted Liu’s behavior as expressing “his attitude of being loyal to the court and the determination to guard the country in the remote Haihun.”

The archaeological discoveries of the Marquis of Haihun cemetery provide unprecedented evidence of culture, economy, and communications with foreign countries in the middle and late Western Han Dynasty. The excavation is still underway, and the academics are full of expectations.

 

Wang Zijin is a professor from the School of Chinese Classics at Renmin University of China.

Editor: Yu Hui

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