The Shu: Not Just Valiant Warriors
During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods that followed, China was fragmented by a bevy of mutually bellicose states. While the Kaiming Dynasty may have been satisfied to rule the state of Shu, it could not easily enjoy peace. Among the excavated artifacts, weaponry dominated; female graves excepted, almost one half of the coffins were found to contain implements of war. There is a wide range of weapons such as swords, spears and halberds, the most distinctive being the “willow-leaf saber.” It was a rather unique bronze sword widely used by Sichuan’s Ba and Shu peoples during the Warring States Period. The sword nose was not cast, and holes were opened in the handle, which was fixed by strips of wood and then wrapped with hemp rope. The hemp rope on the hilt of the willow-leaf saber in Tomb M32 is still visible, and three sabers accompanied the occupant of Tomb M39 in his long slumber.
The lower portion of the sword near the handle features cast patterns such as the human palm, birds, tigers and cicadas. The body of the sword also has black or silver engraved ornamentation. Resembling the spots on a tiger’s coat, they are known as “tiger markings.” In the past, just how these markings were formed was a mystery. Thanks to several experiments carried out by Prof. Yao Zhihui of the History Department at Zhengzhou University, the ingredients of “tiger markings” were found to be a bronze alloy containing zinc, which suggests that they were the product of the hot-dip tin process. Having undergone this process, the willow-leaf saber was tougher and extremely resistant to corrosion. When unearthed, many were as shiny as new and incomparably sharp. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, swords used by the Yue and Chu peoples were famous, but who would imagine that the Shu—an an- cient people of southwest China who were active in the Sichuan Basin roughly from the Shang Dynasty to the Warring States Period—also had some fine sword-makers of their own?
While war chariots of the Qin and Chu heatedly engaged in pitched battle on the plains, over in the Sichuan Basin where waterways and towering peaks dotted the landscape, the Shu soldiers continued to rely upon their robust limbs to cross mountain and river. Unlike the bronze swords of the Central Plains, the willow-leaf saber was short and flexible like a lightly curved willow leaf, and thus the ultimate weapon for close, hand-to-hand combat.
Some other relics indicate that the Shu were not simply valiant warriors. They may even have possessed their own script. Bronze seals were excavated from many of the coffins. Tomb M2 had two, both the size of today’s quarter coin. To the left of one was the Chinese character for “king” (“王”), while the right side is a pattern consisting of flames and a pair of hearts. The other seal places the Chinese character for the digit “ten” (“十”) on the right and left, a flame and a tree in the middle, and the likeness of a bronze xue (a sharp tool for deleting a scribe’s errors on a bamboo slip) at the bottom. Among the Shu, such seals were generally considered the emblem of a family or an official, and are known as Bashu seals. The script or designs on the seal are referred to as Bashu hieroglyphs.
Feng Guanghong, an esteemed scholar at the Sichuan Provincial Institute of Culture and History who has researched Bashu hieroglyphs for several decades, reckons that since both the Chinese characters for “king” and “ten” appear on the seals, this indicates that the Shu had a script, but one that was primitive and still in the pictographic stage. Including those seals unearthed at the large- scale Pujiang site, extant Bashu hieroglyphs number more than 200. He is confident that like the script found on Chinese oracle bones, as individ-