Zhongshan: The Lost State of the Warring States Period
The Lost State of the Warring States Period
The State of Zhongshan, a vassal state established by the nomadic Xianyu people, existed from 414 BC to 296 BC, during which time it strove for domination alongside the most powerful states of the time. After having been submerged in slumber for over 2000 years, the capital of Zhongshan once again resurfaced, at long last bringing to light the true face of this mysterious state.
Zhaoyutu is a plan design of the Zhongshan Royal Tombs unearthed in the ruins of its capital Lingshou City. Combining the bronze etching and related historical documents, our illustrator created this reproduction that depicts the spectacle of a sacrificial ceremony held before the“worship Hall”in the Zhongshan Royal Tombs. Illustration/ Liu Fan
The State of Zhongshan, a vassal state established by the nomadic Xianyu people, existed from 414 BC to 296 BC, during which time it strove for domination alongside the most powerful states of the time. For many years, all we knew about Zhongshan was what we had learned from scattered unofficial historical records. Then, after having been submerged in slumber for over 2000 years, the capital of Zhongshan once again resurfaced, at long last bringing to light the true face of this mysterious state.
The Warring States Period (475–221 BC), an age of endless contention among schools of thought and the turmoil of warfare, had a great influence on the administrative division and regional culture of China today. For example, present-day Hebei Province encompasses the historical territories of Yan and Zhao states, thus Hebei is known as “the great land of Yan and Zhao”. But in fact, in between these two powerful states there was also a smaller and lesser known one: Zhongshan.
In 296 BC, Zhongshan was obliterated by King Wuling of Zhao’s armored cavalry, and, as living memory of it faded, it became only an anecdote in the history of the era. But unlike the similarly fated State of Chu, due to its lack of accurate records, later knowledge of Zhongshan was shrouded in mystery.
In hope of finding out more about Zhongshan, I travelled to the site where it previously stood. My journey took me to the Lingshou City Ruins, which was said to be what remained of Zhongshan’s capital in the mid-late Warring States Period. The ruins were located among vast farming fields in Sanji Township, Pingshan County, Hebei Province, with a circumference of more than 10 kilometers. Upon arriving, at the foot of a hill in the distance, I spotted an uneven wall jutting from the earth, which had once served as the defensive city wall of Lingshou.
Outside the northwestern corner of the wall there was a royal tomb that had already been excavated, and which was protected by the Lingshou Ruins Management Office established there by the cultural authorities. The office was overseen by a man named Huang Junhu, who had immersed himself in research regarding the culture of Zhongshan, even going so far as to say that he was “an indigenous descendant of Zhongshan”. Thanks to accounts from Mr. Huang and other scholars, I was able to form a very clear idea of what Zhongshan may have been like, and what remains of it today.
The First Clue to Unravelling the Secrets of Zhongshan: A Roof Tile
Any location of which little is known must first undergo a thorough archaeological discovery to shed light on its past, so as to supplement the lack of historical records. Eminent Chinese author and historian Guo Moruo once traced the clues left behind by the State of Zhongshan, but by the time he passed away he had yet to make any substantial progress in uncovering its secrets.
In the winter of 1974, when local farmers of Sanji
Township, were collecting soil from some nearby hills, they came across a pile of roof tiles buried in the ground. Actually, prior to this, the hills of the surrounding area, with a total circumference of over 10 kilometers, had been determined to contain ancient tombs, but even though several of the largest mounds had been given dig numbers, none had yet to be excavated. Archaeologists rushed to the scene where the tiles were found, and not only did they discover that the tiles were from the distant Warring States Period, the researchers also confirmed that, based on the tiles’ dimensions, they must have been from a royal palace according to construction code at that time (flat tile length 92 centimeters, width 55 centimeters; curved tile length 90 centimeters, width 23 centimeters).
As field investigations and excavations progressed, throughout the surrounding area the archaeologists discovered the ruins of ceramics,
bronze and jade workshops, and not far away they also found the foundation of what had been a city wall base made of packed earth. Through several years of continued surveying the span of the wall increased, and its original appearance became clearer. The city included all that within the wall, as well as the cemetery and residential zone outside the wall, 4 kilometers in length and 4.5 in width, for a total area of40 square kilometers.
Leader of the Zhongshan ruins archaeological team at the time Chen Yingqi and other archaeologists made thorough observations of the unearthed relics, and after combining these observations with written records, they gave an initial judgement: beneath these 2000-year-old ruins was likely to be a part of the long-lost State of Zhongshan, and it was possibly the capital from its golden age, Lingshou!
The next step for the archaeologists and philologists was to locate the royal tombs as soon as possible, and if within them texts could be found, they could use these to unravel the secrets of Zhongshan one by one. After further investigation, they numbered the six royal tombs and divided them into two areas: the first area contained the two largest tombs, numbered as Tomb 1 and 2, located at high altitudes on the southern slope of Xiling Mountain, two kilometers to the west of the Lingshou ruins; while the second area included four tombs, numbered 3, 4, 5 and 6, situated within the northwestern limits of the city wall.
Tomb 1 was the largest of all; despite having undergone over 2000 years of weathering, the mound was 15 meters in height, the base 92 meters in length from east to west, and 110 meters from north to south. The structure atop the mound was preliminarily believed to be the “Worship Hall” ( which served as the venue where sacrificial ceremonies were held for the tomb’s owner) mentioned in historical records. In the burial etiquette of ancient China, this structure was an important component of feudal king- and lord-level tombs. Although the “Worship Hall” had long since collapsed, based on the ruins it could be surmised that the tomb-mound-top structure consisted of a one-story hall with two stories of galleries above. Such an elaborate design revealed the incredibly high status of the tomb’s owner.
In autumn of 1975, excavation work on Tomb 6 officially began. The moment the main tomb cham- ber was opened, those present were extremely disappointed to find that the tomb had been plundered and was completely empty. However, while walking on the ground aside the chamber roof, an excavation worker suddenly fell down through a gap in the floor, much to the surprise of the others present. Chen Yingqi, who was personally directing the excavation, recalls: “All we heard was ‘whoosh’, and he fell right down into a deep pit. Due to the temperature difference between the levels, a cloud of steam rose from below.” With this misstep, a tomb layout never previously seen before had emerged: on either side of the main burial chamber, there were a pair of independent funerary depositories.
This unconventional tomb structure was later determined to be unique to the royal tombs of the State of Zhongshan. Within the small chambers, hundreds of exquisite burial artefacts had remained hidden for 2000 years, allowing them to escape the detection of the previous tomb raiders. Among these articles the most captivating was a set of “山” (lit. mountain) character-shaped bronze sacrificial implement, the tallest 143 centimeters in height, and over 50 kilograms in weight. This type of sacrificial object, featuring an uncommon design, was placed in front of a military camp or a city gate, to represent the authority of a state and its ruler. It was also the first time such objects were found, and it was concluded that they were unique to Zhongshan, the symbol later referred to as its “national emblem”.
Tomb 6 contained two depositories, and Tomb 1 contained three. Unfortunately, among all first four depositories no written texts were found, but the final depository did not disappoint the research team: aside from a stunning collection of treasures, archaeologists finally found Zhongshan’s first written words! On an enormous cauldron 63 centimeters tall and 28 kilograms in weight, a text of 450 characters was engraved. The text revealed that buried within the tomb was one of the most accomplished rulers of Zhongshan, King Cuo. The cauldron was adorned with patterns featuring a legendary creature of Han folklore called the kuilong.
Also recounted within the text inscribed on the cauldron was a war that took place in 314 BC when the State of Zhongshan invaded the State of Yan. Historical records regarding this war are sparse and
vague, but the cauldron inscription described it in detail. In fact, the cauldron itself was cast and engraved in commemoration of the Zhongshan people’s victory. From the inscription it was also learned that before King Cuo, there had been four previous rulers of Zhongshan. With this information the researchers extrapolated that within Tomb 6 was King Cheng, the fourth ruler of Zhongshan, with the fifth ruler King Cuo being buried in Tomb 1. Ancient historical records also told of a later king named Zici, as well as King Shang, a puppet ruler controlled by the State of Zhao. Thus it can be concluded that Zhongshan had a total of seven generations of rulers, four or whom never appeared in any extant historical records.
The discovery of the city ruins and unearthing of the 19,000 relics within have filled the blank in the history of this state, finally bringing its civilization to light.
A “Hub State” Established by a Nomadic Tribe
In pre- Qin times (c. 21th century–221 BC), all nomadic tribes in the northern region of China were collectively known as the “Di” people. Through many centuries of campaigning and social interaction, the nomadic culture of the Di and the agricultural people of the Huaxia (referring to all people residing in the mid-lower reaches of the Yellow River at the time, namely the Central Plains) were gradually fused and integrated together. The Di eventually learned how to speak Han Chinese, and accepted a portion of Central Plains customs.
The ancestors of the State of Zhongshan, the Xianyu people, were a branch of the Baidi, or White Di, a branch of the Di people. The Xianyu first began
Surrounded by powerful states like Yan, Zhao and Qi, Zhongshan resorted to its strategic location as counterweight to rivalries with its formidable enemy states.
Situated on the plain east of Taihang and the upper area of the Hutuo River, the ruins of Lingshou City luckily survived between the two reservoirs along the river.
A Map of Zhongshan State during the Warring States Period
This gold-and-silver-plated bronze square table base was unearthed in one of Zhongshan’s royal tombs. The wooden board of this table was decayed, which left only the bronze frame supported by lifelike animal decorations — four dragons, four phoenixes, and four sika deer.