The Sunken Silver of Jiangkou
From June 26 to September 26, an exhibition held at the National Museum of China showcased archaeological discoveries from the site of the Jiangkou Battlefield in Pengshan, Sichuan Province from 1646.
Jiangkou Town in Chongqing has long been of great military importance due to its strategic and remote location. In 1646, Zhang Xianzhong (1606–1647), leader of the peasant uprising in the late-ming Dynasty (1368–1644), led 80,000 troops southwards down the river along with his belongings.
According to Yang Zhan zhuan (“Biography of Yang Zhan”), “Yang Zhan, a vice-commander in the Ming Dynasty, led an army to fight Zhang Xianzhong at Pengshan Mountain. Yang dispatched boats with firearms to attack Zhang's ships. Hundreds of fire arrows were launched simultaneously, burning down almost all the rebel ships and killing most of Zhang's soldiers. All of their looted gold, silver and jade treasures sank to the bottom of the water.”
From June 26 to September 26, 2018, “Sunken Silver—an Exhibition of Archaeological Discoveries from the Jiangkou Battlefield” is being held at the National Museum of China (NMC). The exhibition is co-hosted by the NMC along with government agencies and archaeological institutes, including the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage's Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. The exhibition displays more than 500 artefacts, including the gold tiger seal of the “Yongchang Grand Marshal” and silver ingots of the “Daxi State.”
Mystery of the Sunken Silver
The site of the ancient Jiangkou battlefield is located on the Minjiang River in Jiangkou Town, Pengshan County, Sichuan Province. The protected area of the site spans east to the highway, west to the river embankment, south 1,000 m to the Minjiang River Bridge, and north 500 m to the confluence of the Minjiang River and Fuhe River, covering an area of approximately one million sq.m.
According to the Shunan jishi (“Records of Misfortunes in the State of Shu”) from the early-qing Dynasty, when Zhang Xianzhong's troops left Sichuan by the river, there were too many silver ingots for the wooden ships to carry. Zhang therefore ordered his men to insert the silver ingots into wooden scabbards so that they could float down the river, planning to salvage them later in the narrower sections of the river. However, his army was later attacked and ships blocked his course, so most of the silver ingots sank.
According to the Pengshan xianzhi (“Journal of Pengshan County”), “In winter 1794, a fisherman discovered a scabbard in the Jiangkou River and reported it to Viceroy of Liangguang Sun Shiyi. He sent men to Jiangkou to salvage treasures for
many days, where they recovered tons of silver, jewellery and jade items.” Emperor Xianfeng (reign: 1850–1861) of the Qing Dynasty asked Chengdu General Yu Rui to try and excavate the river, but they returned empty-handed. During the Republic of China (1912–1949) period, the Sichuan army also conducted special salvage operations, but uncovered little.
Since the 1920s, many artefacts have been discovered in the Minjiang River at Jiangkou. Sure enough, by 2005 and 2011, round logs with silver ingots inside, inscribed gold tablets and a gold coin inscribed “The Daxi King's Award” as well as a few silver coins were discovered. A dozen experts from the Institute of Archaeology of the Palace Museum and the Department of Comprehensive Archaeology of the NMC studied and discussed the Sunken Silver site and artefacts, and finally issued a written comment: “Records describing the ‘Sunken Silver of Jiangkou' can be confirmed, and the ‘Jiangkou Sunken Silver Site' in Pengshan is one of the core areas of the historical records.” More than 42,000 artefacts have since been excavated from the site, which has not only solved the mystery of the “Sunken Silver of Jiangkou,” but also played a role in showing the political, military and social life during the mid- to late-ming Dynasty.
The Rise and Fall of the Daxi State
In 1644, Zhang Xianzhong, a leader as famous as Li Zicheng in the peasant uprisings during the late-ming Dynasty, declared himself emperor in Chengdu. He established the Daxi (“Great West”) State and changed the reign title to “Dashun.” The Daxi regime established institutions at all levels and implemented a series of measures to consolidate its political power. Thousands of artefacts directly related to the Daxi regime were discovered at the ancient Jiangkou battlefield site. These finds have provided a large amount of physical items to help understand the establishment of the regime, military system and economic activities during the peasant uprisings in the late-ming Dynasty.
At that time, generals were rewarded with coin-shaped medals which were cast after Zhang Xianzhong occupied Sichuan. These medals were made of gold, silver or copper, were round with a square hole in the centre, and inscribed with
“The Daxi King's Award” written in xieshu (regular script). Prior to the archaeological excavations of the ancient Jiangkou battlefield site, this kind of reward coin was extremely rare.
But how was the Daxi Army configured? The exhibition offers up some answers. The Daxi Army was divided into 102 battalions, each of which was named according to certain political or military connotations, such as the Zhenwu (“Reinforcing the Military”), Xiaoyou (“Valiant on the Right”), Yuanjiao (“Rescue Troops”) and Xiaoqi (“Valiant Calvary”) battalions. Each battalion was run by a commander and was issued with an official seal, which was numbered and titled and passed through the whole battalion.
What was life like in the military camps of the time? In the exhibition, there is a rubbing of a tablet which contains an injunction issued by the Daxi regime to the military and officials, “The Xiaoqi Battalion Commander Liu Injunction of the Daxi State,” which offers a partial answer. A closer look at the rubbing reveals that the inscription was made by Liu Jinzhong, commander of the Xiaoqi Battalion in the second year of the Dashun Reign. The tablet lists rules for officials and military personnel. Stating, for example, there shall be no unauthorised recruitment of soldiers that harasses local people; no relay stations, personnel or horses may be used without authorisation; and no stationed military officers shall handle civil lawsuits without authorisation.
After its establishment, the Daxi regime fought many battles with the local Ming Dynasty armed forces, such as the Battle of Jiangkou in 1646 against General Yang Zhan. The discovery of a large number of weapons, especially firearms, from the ancient Jiangkou Battlefield site is clear evidence that was the location of the ancient battle.
Another exhibit on display is a triplebarrelled huochong, or hand cannon. This kind of handheld cannon is shaped like a baseball bat and can hold two or three projectiles. When the enemy is thirty or forty paces away, soldiers would fire a volley of rounds to deliver a heavy blow to the enemy. Once the projectiles had been used up, the sturdy hand cannon could also still be used as a club to attack the enemy. The large amount of nails and rigging from the sunken ships provided future generations with clues to help them locate the various shipwrecks and understand the development of Shu boats.
Mountains of Gold and Silver
A considerable amount of gold and silver finds have been discovered at the Jiangkou battlefield site. Some of the silver ingots, gold and silver inscribed tablets and other artefacts are marked with their production time, location and other information— with the items spanning from the midto late-ming Dynasty. Geographically speaking, they were produced over an area that reaches north to Henan, south to Guangdong and Guangxi, west to Sichuan, and east to Jiangxi, covering the majority of China's territory during the Ming Dynasty. Each of those items had its own role to play.
The front of a gold tiger seal is engraved with the words “Yongchang Grand Marshal Seal” in nine-fold seal script cut in relief. The left side of its back is engraved with the words “Produced in Midwinter of the Year of Guiwei” in xieshu script in intaglio, whilst on the right side
is the seal's name in the same style. The seal's back is decorated with a tiger-shaped button. Its discovery played a crucial role in verifying the age and nature of the site.
The exhibition also displays the first ever archaeological discovery of a Ming Dynasty king's gold seal. According to Mingshi ( History of the Ming Dynasty), when a prince was given his title, he would receive a gold inscribed tablet and gold seal; when the prince's eldest son then inherited the title, he would be awarded a gold inscribed tablet and inherit this gold seal, therefore there was only one gold seal in each king's palace. The exhibited gold seal for the investiture of the King of Shu is the palace seal. The first generation of the King of Shu was Zhu Chun, the eleventh son of Taizu of Ming, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398, founding emperor of China's Ming Dynasty). In 1390, he was made King of Shu in Chengdu, Sichuan. Although only one corner of his gold seal remains, the Chinese character “蜀” (shu) is still clearly visible. A number of gold and silver inscribed tablets related to the Royal Palace of the Rongwang King in the Ming Dynasty were also found at the site of the ancient Jiangkou battlefield. These discoveries have verified many records in the history books.
A large amount of silver has been found at the ancient Jiangkou Battlefield site. In the exhibition, a number of silver pallets, silver plates, silver ingots and more are on display. One liang during the Ming Dynasty is equivalent to approximately 37 grams today. The silver ingots were made into “boat-shaped” ingots, and the largest silver bar weighs 500 liang (about 18.5 kilogrammes [kg]), which would have been stored in a township's reserves outof-circulation. The “Dushuisi Premium Silver Ingots” from Wugangzhou, each weighing 100 liang (3.7 kg), are extremely rare. An average-sized silver ingot weighed 50 liang, medium-sized ingots weighed about 12 liang and smaller-sized ones weighed 5 liang. One reason why the Sunken Silver of Jiangkou is so fascinating is related to people's ideas of wealth, as well as a desire to interpret the history behind it.
Some of the silver finds are tax payments from during the Ming Dynasty. A large number of the silver ingots are engraved with their date and location of production, purpose of use, and the names of officials and silversmiths. The taxes involved include “grain tax,” “soldier's pay,” “assistance tax,” “officials' pay,” “title deed tax” and “business tax,” and cover provinces such as Henan, Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Guangdong. However, the silver is not only an embodiment of the taxation system in the mid- to late-ming Dynasty, but also evidence of the main routes taken by Zhang Xianzhong's army.
An “Annual Tribute to the Royal Palace” gold ingot from Changsha Prefecture weighs 50 liang (1.85 kg), so you can imagine how heavy it feels to hold. The base of the ingot is engraved with the inscription: “In the first year of the Tianqi Reign, Changsha Prefecture offers its annual tribute of 50 liang in pure gold to the Royal Palace; Tribute by Yang Xu; Made by Zhao.” This is the annual tribute to the local king's palace from Changsha Prefecture, as well as the largest known Ming Dynasty gold ingot, making it an extremely rare item. In August 1643, Zhang Xianzhong conquered Changsha. So, it is possible that he obtained the ingot from King Jiwang's Palace. Having undergone specialist cleaning, the gold ingot dazzles visitors with the wealth it represents.
This mountain of gold and silver makes people wonder just how rich Zhang Xianzhong once was. According to Zhang Jianbin, a member of the National Leading Group Office for the Compiling of Qing History, compared to Zhang Xianzhong, even Emperor Chongzhen's wealth was small fry. Zhang Xianzhong once put his treasure on show in Chengdu to demonstrate his wealth—24 rooms filled with exotic treasures, and gold and silver ingots. Some historians have estimated that he must have owned at least 10 million liang of silver. Measured by the purchasing power of one liang of silver being equivalent to 300 yuan nowadays, he would have had a staggering wealth of 3 billion yuan.
Against a backdrop of continuous wars, life went on. A variety of items used in people's daily lives were discovered at the ancient Jiangkou battlefield site, including intricately-designed and well-crafted gold and silver ornaments from the Ming Dynasty. A large number of exquisite, ingenious gold and silver ornaments, hair accessories, headpieces, earrings, bracelets, finger jewellery, waist decorations and so on have also been discovered, reflecting the aesthetic taste and workmanship during the mid- to lateMing Dynasty, affording later generations the chance to glimpse into life at that time.
A gold plaque with a flower and bird pattern features carved plum blossoms and magpie decorations, with a bamboo-joint patterned frame. Another gold plaque, this one with a dragon design and on display in the exhibition is hollowed out, its material symbolising richness and honour while its decoration conveying good blessings. Although it has been severely misshapen over time, it is still a fine item and one can
imagine just how perfect it would have looked when it was completely circular.
The exhibition also features a sanshi’er (“three things”). Despite its confusing name, visitors will instantly know what it is at first sight. The sanshi’er is a type of pouch used during the Ming Dynasty to carry items for personal grooming. These pouches would often contain a toothpick, ear pick and tweezers. The “three” is only a reference, and people attached any number of different implements, or even different sizes of the same tool.
Gao Dalun, director of the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, said that these gold and silver objects were not discovered in isolation, but were grouped together with gold tablets, silver tablets and silver ingots which date almost certainly from the same period. These gold and silver objects are very simple, yet finely carved in places, conforming to the aesthetic style of the Ming Dynasty.
New Archaeology Technologies
The ancient Pengshan battlefield site in Sichuan Province had been buried beneath three layers of coarse sand and gravel. Below the layers of sediment lies the red sandstone river bed, which, having been eroded by centuries of flowing water, has formed multiple scour troughs. More than 42,000 artefacts were found hidden in these troughs, which had helped prevent them from drifting away.
There are significant differences between the artefacts unearthed from on land and those from the water. During the excavation of the ancient Jiangkou battlefield site, archaeologists applied new techniques and approaches, pioneering cofferdam archaeological excavations in inland waters within China, in what has become a new practice in underwater archaeological excavation. Using this method, the area is first excavated mechanically and manually using trial trenches, after which large machinery then excavates the mud, sand and pebbles from the site. After being cleaned, everything is filtered through a converted sieving machine to ensure nothing is missed. Key areas are excavated using “exploratory” and manual methods to clean up and collect the artefacts in layers.
Near the end of the exhibition, a series of equipment used during the excavation is also displayed alongside photos revealing how staff used these tools in their archaeological work. For example, in order to determine the area to be excavated, geophysical prospecting approaches such as metal detection, and magnetic, electronic and ground penetrating radar were used in the early stages. PTK technology was used during the excavation because accurately recording the location each object was taken out of the water required an archaeological data management system for the whole site. These experiences will act as important reference points for future mud flat excavations and in exploring sites in shallow-water. Besides the large number of precious artefacts on display, the exhibition includes high-tech exhibiting methods including immersive video projections and the innovative idea of showcasing the latest archaeological methods and techniques.
As the years and decades have flowed by, the scour troughs along the riverbed are no longer young. However, the Minjiang River continues to reveal new stories about the ancient Jiangkou battlefield through the finds it presents.
A gold ingot from Changsha Prefecture weighing 50 liang (1.85 kg)
A triple-barrelled huochong (a hand cannon)
A gold plaque with decorative patterns