Ven­ture Subter­ranean Labyrinth of the An­cient Mines in Dex­ing

-- The Ani­cent Mines of Dex­ing

China Scenic - - Lens - By Tang Huiyu Pho­to­graphs by Li Jin, and as cred­ited

Dex­ing in north­east­ern Jiangxi Prov­ince is known for its abun­dance of metal ore mines. Large-scale ex­trac­tion of gold and sil­ver started here as early as the be­gin­ning of the Tang Dy­nasty ( 618- 907AD), and when the ore beds be­came ex­hausted, the mine shafts and caves were left aban­doned, un­til two teams of cavers ar­rived to ex­plore an aban­doned an­cient sil­ver mine. In the im­pen­e­tra­ble dark­ness be­low, the an­cient min­ers cre­ated a labyrinth of shafts and tun­nels.

The only things I could hear in the pitch-black dark­ness were my own foot­steps. There was no other sound what­so­ever. Head­lamp on, I was walk­ing down the mid­dle of a nar­row wind­ing pas­sage cut through the rock. Not far, in the scars left in the rock by the strikes of a miner’s pick-axe, I could see the glis­ten­ing of sil­ver, and a de­com­posed wooden scaf­fold. It was like a scene from a phan­tasy film, ex­cept that it was all real.

In Novem­ber 2016, on an over­cast af­ter­noon, two Chi­nese teams of elite cavers — one from Chongqing, led by Yang Zhi, the other one from Guangxi, led by Li Jin, joined forces and en­tered the Dex­ing caves, deep in the moun­tain wilder­ness of Jiangxi. Hav­ing de­scended down a mine shaft, dozens of me­ters deep down the team dis­cov­ered that they were in no or­di­nary cave — an in­tri­cate sys­tem of tun­nels led to a large subter­ranean cham­ber, where, if you lift your head, you could see metal ore shining in dif­fer­ent col­ors from the rock.

Li Jin and Yang Zhi and the mem­bers of their teams all rank amongst China’s cav­ing elite, but they usu­ally ex­plore caves in the re­gions tra­di­tion­ally known to abound in nat­u­ral lime­stone karst caves — Chongqing, Guangxi and Guizhou. The caves in Jiangxi do not have nearly as many nat­u­ral ge­o­log­i­cal fea­tures as the karst caves, so what at­tracted those elite cavers to ex­plore these caves here in Jiangxi?

Un­like the caves that Li Jin had pre­vi­ously ex­plored, the ones in Jiangxi are dif­fer­ent from the karst caves he is so fa­mil­iar with, they are man–made, a prod­uct of min­ing ac­tiv­ity. Ac­cord­ing to the in­forma- tion we have, these mines have been ex­ploited from the Tang Dy­nasty (618–907AD) un­til mod­ern times. It is a well-known fact that Dex­ing is rich in metal ore, but no­body knows that this re­gion, about 2,000 square kilo­me­ters in area, is packed with hun­dreds of mine shafts and caves, a her­itage of gen­er­a­tions of min­ers, from dif­fer­ent dy­nas­ties.

Li Jin is not only an ex­pert caver, but also an out­stand­ing pho­tog­ra­pher. In his own words, man-made caves are no less in­ter­est­ing than the in­tri­cately beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral ones, as they carry great cul­tural value. In the old times, the pre­cious gold and sil­ver, sym­bols of wealth, and the com­monly used cop­per, iron, lead and zinc were all mined here, but no­body thought of the hum­ble min­ers who toiled in pitch dark­ness un­der­ground to bring those me­tals to the sur­face. For this rea­son, the his­tory of an­cient min­ing is still hid­den, un­known and un­de­scribed, aban­doned in the im­pen­e­tra­ble dark­ness of the cen­turies-old min­ing tun­nels.

The For­mer Glory of Dex­ing

I am in Dex­ing, stand­ing on the top of a moun­tain, en­joy­ing the view un­fold­ing in front of me. It is early Novem­ber, the rain had been go­ing non-stop, and my breath rises up as a cloud of mist. The small town is sur­rounded by a sea of un­du­lat­ing hills cov­ered by thick for­est, and streams are busily and pur­pose­fully find­ing their way through the ver­dant hills. All in all, this is a land­scape com­mon in the mid­dle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, but, amongst all those

A Town Born of Min­ing

One day in Oc­to­ber 2016, cavers from Guangxi and Chongqing gath­ered at the an­cient min­ing area of Dex­ing's Jin­shan Area, look­ing for the scat­tered en­trances of the long-de­serted mine. Cov­ered by weeds and fallen leaves, step­ping into the one-me­ter wide en­trance of an an­cient shaft could be life-threat­en­ing. Dex­ing is a small town in north­east­ern Jiangxi that has a long his­tory of min­ing and an abun­dant stor­age of gold, sil­ver and cop­per ores. Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, it was also the birth­place of an­cient China’s hy­dromet­al­lurgy. Even to­day, Dex­ing is hailed with ti­tles such as“gold Moun­tain ,”“sil­ver Town” or“cop­per Cap­i­tal ,” and many of its mines are still op­er­a­tional.

Af­ter they fin­ished ex­plor­ing the an­cient mines, Li Jin, the leader of the Guangxi Fly­ing Cat Cav­ing Team, drew a sketch map of the in­ner struc­ture of the“eigh­teen Heav­enly Caves.” as the map shows, the tun­nels in­side, an­cient and mod­ern, are in­ter­con­nected.

un­du­lat­ing hil­locks, count­less mi­ne­shafts are hid­den. The di­am­e­ter of the small­est ones is only a few dozen cen­time­ters, but the large ones are me­ters wide. Their ap­pear­ance against the back drop of the trees and grass cre­ated con­trast that left me star­tled.

Dex­ing is a city that was born of min­ing and made pros­per­ous by it. Through­out its en­tire ex­is­tence, metal min­ing has been its blood. Dex­ing­county An­nals tell us that cop­per min­ing here started no later than the Tang Dy­nasty (618–907). For over 500 years from the Tang to the Ming (1368–1644) the city kept pro­duc­ing cop­per. Sil­ver min­ing in Dex­ing can be traced back to the 6th cen­tury AD. Through ev­ery dy­nasty there­after, Dex­ing sil­ver mines have been un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol, peak­ing dur­ing the Tang, when “hun­dred thou­sand ‘ liang’ (weighed around 40 grams) of sil­ver per year was mined”. The first records of gold ex­trac­tion here are from the North­ern Song Dy­nasty (960–1127), and out of the 1800 years of his­tory of Dex­ing, min­ing is present for 1300. The gold and cop­per mines of Dex­ing are still op­er­a­tional even to­day.

Dex­ing is sit­u­ated in the frac­ture zone of the north­east­ern Jiangxi. Dur­ing the move­ment of the Earth’s crust, the min­eral el­e­ments are car­ried up­wards along the frac­tures by the magma, and may be ejected out as a vol­canic erup­tion and ac­cu­mu­lated on the sur­face to­gether with vol­canic ash. If there is no vol­canic ac­tiv­ity, the ris­ing magma forms gran­ite and por­phyritic beds, which are then ex­posed by ero­sion, re­sult­ing in a local abun­dance of ores.

The local ge­ol­ogy cre­ated ideal, unique con­di­tions al­low­ing Dex­ing to be­come a kind of gold and sil­ver min­ing utopia. One Septem­ber day in 2010, Old Qiu, who lived in Zhaolin Vil­lage in Dex­ing, was knock­ing down his old an­ces­tral house to make way for a more mod­ern build­ing, when sud­denly a me­chan­i­cal dig­ger’s claw un­earthed an old cel­lar stuffed full with an­cient coins. There were sev­eral hun­dred ki­los of these coins, from the reign of ev­ery Song em­peror. Dur­ing the Song, all the gold and sil­ver mined in Dex­ing was trans­ported by river boats to the largest mine in South­ern China — Yong­ping jian (present day Poyang County in Jiangsu) where the pre­cious me­tals were turned into coins and or­na­men­tal items be­fore be­ing sur­ren­dered to the Impe­rial Court. For this rea­son, Dex­ing, who at that time con­trolled the life line of coin pro­duc­tion, en­joyed un­prece­dented sta­tus and power.

The mines, small and large, still re­main sym­bols of the for­mer glory of gold and sil­ver min­ing in­dus­try. The ini­tial sur­veys show that there are over 400 such

min­ing tun­nels and shafts in the area, more than any­where else in China. The most com­pli­cated large scale sil­ver mine ru­ins ever dis­cov­ered in China are also here — a sil­ver min­ing com­plex in the vicin­ity of Yin­shan (Sil­ver Moun­tain) alone con­tains 194 min­ing shafts and caves.

Door to An­other World

Win­ters in Jiangxi are of course nowhere near as bad as those in North­ern China, where it is bit­terly cold. The moun­tains are still green, but the chill of the mois­ture in the air and the in­ces­sant driz­zle caught us un­pre­pared. This, how­ever did not dampen the en­thu­si­asm of the cavers in the slight­est. Yang Zhi, Li Jin and oth­ers would shut­tle from one mine well to

an­other, knock­ing on the rocks, and wav­ing around all kinds of tools and in­stru­ments. A local goat herder called Zhang Chaoxin, hav­ing seen what these bizarre out­siders where up to, rushed to warn us: “There are mine shafts ev­ery­where in these moun­tains, be care­ful walk­ing around here, it is easy to slip in the rain and fall into them.” Ac­cord­ing to Zhang, his own goats fell into mine shafts a few times while graz­ing, and ev­ery time he had to get a sev­eral peo­ple to help him get his an­i­mals out.

For most peo­ple, these aban­doned old mines hold no use­ful pur­pose apart from tip­ping trash into them. Ex­hausted of ev­ery­thing of value, these mine wells can also swal­low up man and beast alike — be­fore you go into the hills, you can, ev­ery­where, see the signs next to the trails, giv­ing out warn­ings along the lines of: “Dan­ger — Open Mine Shafts. Do not En­ter!” These signs, how­ever only whet­ted our ap­petite to get into these caves.

Li Jin, who is the leader of Guangxi Fly­ing Cat Cav­ing Team pointed out other rea­sons why no­body goes into these mine shafts — cav­ing is a high en­try pur­suit — very spe­cial­ized, tech­ni­cal and dan­ger­ous.

It has been a very long time since these aban­doned mines had a hu­man vis­i­tor — in the past even pro­fes­sional ar­chae­ol­o­gists had no means of get­ting into the mines, let alone the com­mon pub­lic. To the hard­core cavers like Li Jin, how­ever, these large, in­tri­cate man made caves are a great draw. Li Jin and his team wanted to be the first peo­ple to see where the an­cients were min­ing gold and sil­ver, and they wanted to be pioneers, the first Chi­nese cav­ing team to go in. The out­come was not that im­por­tant.

There were far too many mines scat­tered around in these moun­tains, and we wanted to find some that would be most worth the work of get­ting down them. As we were search­ing for such mines, we met Zhu Guo­qiang. He was a local, born and bred in Dex­ing. Since child­hood he took great in­ter­est of the en­vi­ron­ment where he was grow­ing up. He had in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity to­wards the ge­og­ra­phy and the min­ing her­itage of his na­tive re­gion and made ren­der­ings of the min­ing tun­nels and shafts. Made in pen­cil, these sketches re­sem­bled anatom­i­cal draw­ings of the in­ner or­gans of some kind of an­i­mals — on those draw­ings the tun­nels dis­sected the body of a moun­tain from one end to an­other, as­cend­ing and de­scend­ing, and

Sit­u­ated along the mid­dle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, the an­cient mines of Dex­ing have wooden frames and sup­ports to pro­tect min­ers from land­slides and col­lapses, and some of them are still func­tion­ing to­day. The frames were made above the ground piece by piece, and then trans­ferred to the subter­ranean tun­nels and as­sem­bled into one. Usu­ally, in­stalling the frames and sup­ports ran si­mul­ta­ne­ously with the min­ing.

the pas­sages link­ing the top of the moun­tain with its core looked like the veins and ar­ter­ies of a beast, or roots and branches of a gi­ant tree.

These tun­nels of dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes were all made as trans­porta­tion lines to take the prod­ucts out of the mine. Min­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy calls the hor­i­zon­tal ones “tun­nels” and ver­ti­cal ones “shafts”. Fur­ther­more, de­pend­ing on their an­gle, they are fur­ther sub­di­vided into smaller cat­e­gories.

We first made our way to Mr. Zhu’s Well No.1, which was an im­por­tant relic of Tang and Song sil­ver min­ing. The well it­self was over­grown with moss and weeds, and the path lead­ing to it was blocked by a waist-high safety con­crete wall. Hav­ing climbed over it, a group of cavers, my­self in­cluded, ap­proached the en­trance. It was pitch black in­side. Yang Zhi, the leader of the Chongqing team, switched on the search­light and went in. The out­line of the tun­nel emerged from the dark: the sides were not uni­form, the ceil­ing un­du­lated, and go­ing up and down sharply, shards of stone lit­tered the floor, clearly a prod­uct of hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Fur­ther in, some­thing shone like a pool of sil­ver, re­flect­ing the beam of our search­light. It was a wa­ter reser­voir.

The ques­tion was, where did the wa­ter in this reser­voir come from? The team leader shone the light up­wards, and there it was, a sky­light cut into the ceil­ing, lead­ing to the out­side at the top of the moun­tain. Once it rained, the rain­wa­ter would flow down this sky­light. This struc­ture, where a ver­ti­cal shaft led to a hor­i­zon­tal tun­nel, which it­self then led to an in­clined tun­nel, was typ­i­cal of an­cient mines.

How­ever, nei­ther in terms of depth, nor length, these mines were not that dis­sim­i­lar from the mines aban­doned in mod­ern times, which are typ­i­cally a me­ter wide and sev­eral dozen me­ters deep. So, would fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­veal any­thing sur­pris­ing?

The Yin­shan min­ing area is an ex­am­ple of Tang and Song sil­ver mine, with nearly 200 rem­nants of an­cient mines, and al­most the same num­ber of mine caves. The en­trances are ei­ther cir­cu­lar or oval­shaped, with di­am­e­ters be­tween 0.8 and 1.2 me­ters, and be­tween a me­ter and 21 me­ters in depth. What would hap­pen if you con­nected all these tun­nels and shafts, tail to end, what kind of labyrinth chis­eled into the rock, would it make?

“I can tell you straight” said Zhu Guo­qiang, who had spent years re­search­ing the Dex­ing mines “Yin­shan has around 200 mine caves, but no­body has, till now, both­ered to in­ves­ti­gate how many ex­actly, and what is in­side them.”

When they first started their mis­sion to ex­plore these mas­sive man-made caves, the Guangxi and

Il­lus­tra­tion/ Li Jin

The In­ner Struc­ture of Yin­shan Mines (An­cient and Mod­ern) in Dex­ing

Yang Zhi, leader of the cav­ing team from Chongqing, pro­vides an­other map of the“eigh­teen Heav­enly Caves.” Ev­ery tun­nel, shaft, branch, rail and rock is re­vealed to peo­ple who have never had a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence this subter­ranean labyrinth.

Wood frames in shaft

Wood frames be­tween hor­i­zon­tal tun­nels

Wood frames at the joint be­tween shaft and hor­i­zon­tal tun­nel

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