The History of the Tomb of the King of Nanyue
In the midst of bustling Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, lies hidden beneath the ground, the remains of the once great kingdom of Nanyue. After the Qin Dynasty collapsed, there was a power vacuum that was struggling to be filled in China.
The Qin general Zhao Tuo established his own state here. In 206 BCE, he declared himself king and was recognised by the Han Dynasty, albeit grudgingly. The second king was his grandson, Zhao Mo but he ruled unsuccessfully. In 111 BCE, shortly after Zhao Mo had died, the Han invaded and conquered the kingdom and made it part of their own.
Zhao Tuo was not a Nanyue – the pre-Qin inhabitants of an arc of land stretching from present-day eastern Guangdong to northern Vietnam – he was from the north in modern day Hubei Province. He married a local woman which ‘compensated’ for his origins.
In fact, a large amount of the Nanyue population (the ancestors of the Baiyue people) were from the north; those in the service of the Qin, as well as the descendants of the State of Yue who were deafted by the state of Chu in 333 BCE.
The tomb was found in 1983 by workers as they were digging the foundation for a new shopping plaza. It was a remarkable discovery and is one of Guangzhou’s most popular tourist destinations. “From the street level, twin flights of steps reverse on themselves to reach the central focus of the building, a magnificent staircase, roofed with a glass barrel vault, which rises to the top of the building. Facing each other across the facade of the staircase hall are bas-reliefs of heroic figures, a man and a woman, each grasping a serpent’s head in an upraised hand, the serpent’s body entwined around the human torso. Each figure stands at the head of a train of ferocious beasts, carved in a taotie style. Over the man’s head is the sun; over the woman’s are the moon and stars. Inside the building, the staircase is flanked by dimly lit exhibition halls filled with glass cases of exhibits. Behind the building, across a patch of rough ground, is a modern glass structure covering the entrance to a tomb”.
The tomb is the resting place of the second Nanyue king, Zhao Mo, and is a wonderful mixture of imperial design and saccharine style of design used to represent minority people.
The tomb was carefully excavated two months upon discovery. Inside, archaeologists found a wealth of treasure – jades, a jade burial suit, discs, cups and beakers mounted in bronze, other bronze objects and numerous tools. The designs were quite extraordinary – some were a Han/Chinese Northern style, but there were others in what is classed as a South Eastern style. For archaeologists, this proved the high level of sophistication of the Nanyue kingdom.
One surprising aspect of the tomb was that no coins were found. This has led to the speculations that the Nanyue kingdom had no monetary economy.
For south Chinese historians, the discovery of the tomb and its wonderful treasures has been a source of great delight. “Scholars who spent several decades of their careers (1950s-1970s) earnestly trying to prove the arrival of slave society in their area can now tell what they think really happened: that there was a society in Lingnan that was not Han, that had a free and expressive culture quite distinct from the Han culture, and that has survived over time in the spoken languages of the region and in ethnic memory. They have not so much revised history as they have revealed it-in most cases, literally unearthed it. The history of Lingnan has come out of the ground (chutu). Their work turns out to meet the political demands of the moment, for the assertion of a separate identity, which in earlier times could only have been a hidden agenda, is now the ruling agenda of their society”.
The Nanyue tomb is a remarkable archaeological site – beautiful, graceful and impressive, it is a link between the ancient past and the present day. Not only this, it is a site which may tell us more about the history of the Baiyue, their culture, and the part they had to play in China’s long history.
Lary, Diana (1996) The Tomb of the King of Nanyue-The Contemporary Agenda of History: Scholarship and Identity, Modern China, Sage Publications, Inc.