Venture Subterranean Labyrinth of the Ancient Mines in Dexing
-- The Anicent Mines of Dexing
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
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