In 1978, the discovery of the tomb of Marquis Yi of the Zeng surprised the public with its trove of thousands of shockingly well-preserved artefacts from China’s Bronze Age. Because of the extreme rarity and sophistication of the objects, this find ranks among the foremost discoveries in Chinese archaeology of the 20th century, akin to Tutankhamun’s tomb, Pompeii, or Knossos – yet it remains little known in the West. The large burial chamber imitates a palace, with a wealth of sumptuous objects accompanying the marquis into the afterlife – bronzes, jade carvings, lacquerwares, textiles, weapons, and musical instruments. Among them was a full set of 65 ornate bronze ritual bells, inlaid with detailed inscriptions. Amazingly, these chime bells can play the sounds of the entire chromatic scale, much like that of a modern piano.
The bells represent the highest accomplishment of art, music, design, and technology in early China, and demonstrate how all these intertwined within the daily life of Marquis Yi’s court, while hinting at broader cultural and political intersections during this tumultuous period. The set includes a bell commissioned by a Chu king as a special gift to this Zeng marquis in the year 433 BC, clearly indicating the occupant and date of the tomb. Still, some questions have puzzled archaeologists for years. How did the Zeng, a small state under the sway of the Chu, develop the technology and resources for such a complex bell set? What was the relationship between the Zeng and the powerful Chu? And can solving this ‘puzzle’ shape broader trends within a global archaeology that remains orientated away from the rich complexity of ancient China?
The Zeng and Chu kingdoms flourished along the middle Yangzi River, one of the cradles of Chinese civilisation. Both were vassal states of the Zhou dynasty (c.1050-256 BC), who ruled from its Yellow River base to the north. In order to exploit the Yangzi region’s natural resources, the Zhou court expanded its southern frontiers through a fiefdom system and assigned numerous vassal states to better monitor local tribes and kingdoms. Many small states were gradually annexed by large ones over the years, with seven major states still surviving around 450 BC, when Marquis Yi started his rule. One – the infamous Qin – finally conquered the other states and founded the first unified Chinese empire, replacing the by-then powerless Zhou. The majority of these states have been forgotten over time, in part by design, with the Qin (whose first emperor left us the famous Terracotta Warriors) recording their victories and burning local records and histories that might have offered an alternative take on their glorious conquests.
Yet two legendary kingdoms – Zeng and Chu – have emerged from the dark and begun to shine again thanks to archaeology. They thrived in a fertile land, where the worship of phoenix totems and shamanistic spirits was established long before the founding of these kingdoms (c.1040 BC for Zeng and c.1030 for Chu). Zeng was once a significant political force but the state’s existence was only recently attested to by archaeological evidence. Chu was well known in history, as it dominated southern China for centuries, but the kingdom’s remarkable artistic patrimony and mysterious iconography received less attention than deserved.
The past half a century has been a golden age for Chinese archaeology, with a wealth of finds enriching our knowledge of the transitional period from Bronze Age to imperial China. The majority of discoveries of Zeng and Chu art come from the province of Hubei in south-central China, where large tombs have been found with a typical assortment of ritual bronze vessels, jade carvings, lacquerwares, and silks, which would ensure the afterlife of the aristocratic occupants stayed as privileged as their earthly existence. Among the luxurious bronzes in the tomb of Marquis Yi is a pair of square coolers with an innovative design and exuberant decoration. A vessel-in-a-vessel, the lidded interior container is chilled by ice from the surrounding outer basin, which allowed refreshments, like millet ale, to remain cool and unspoiled during the intense summer heat. The square coolers were paired with a set of round basin-vase coolers, which are elaborately cast using the lost-wax method. The dense openwork ornamentation and sophisticated dragon-shaped appendages showcase the artistry, creativity, and technological accomplishments of bronze art in early China.
The pace of archaeological discovery in Hubei has increased over the past two decades. In 2002, excavations in Guojiamiao in Zaoyang revealed the tombs of several early Zeng marquises that confirmed Zeng’s close cultural affiliation with the Zhou court. Previously, Zeng was merely considered a subset of Chu culture, but recent finds have helped scholars realise that, despite its size, Zeng was actually an influential state firmly established in the middle Yangzi from the outset of Zhou hegemony in the region. In fact, Zeng and Chu both functioned as the major interfaces between the Zhou court and local cultures along the southern frontier. The amazing discoveries of Zeng noble tombs at Yejiashan and Wenfengta in Suizhou since 2011 have further revealed that the founding marquises of the Zeng were actually Zhou princes assigned to oversee the socially complex southern borderland. Among the numerous vassal states established in this murky border zone, the Zeng rulers enjoyed more privileges than most and were trusted governors, thanks to their shared bloodlines with Zhou kings. Yet there is, strangely, almost no record of ‘the Zeng state’ in historical books from this time.
The history of another state was similarly omitted after it was conquered by the Zhou (suggesting such acts of suppression were not unique to the more notorious Qin). Zeng troops possibly allied with the army that the Zhou court sent to defeat the rebellious E, an old vassal state from the earlier Shang dynasty (c.1600-1050 BC). A large portion of E’s territory was annexed by the Zeng, and the E soon disappeared – at least until recent discoveries of some noble tombs in northern Hubei and southern Henan reignited scholarly interest. Among the remarkable finds is a distinctive bronze ritual wine vessel, which features animated animal flanges (essentially ornate ridges) and masklike, fleshy faces with staring eyes and thick eyebrows alive with mystery. Because E was first annexed to the Zeng and then to the Chu, this idiosyncratic regional design must have left creative imprints on the art of Zeng and Chu bronzes – perhaps with these faces submerged into more stylised or abstracted patterns and textures.
During the first half of the 800-year rule of the Zhou dynasty, the Zeng guarded southern conduits and supplied the Zhou court with regional resources. The 2016 discoveries at Sujialong, Jingshan, attest to the great wealth and exalted status of the Zeng state and this role. As the inscriptions on a set of bronze vessels state, one of Zeng’s main tasks was to protect a trade route known as the Road of Copper and Tin. The Yangzi valley was rich in minerals, providing for (culturally vital) ritual vessels and (politically essential) weapons. The large number of bronzes in the tomb of Marquis Yi included some 6,000 works (about nine tonnes), far exceeding the amount of metal works in any other tomb in Bronze Age China – a testament to Zeng’s successful control, dynamic exploitation, and creative crafting of rich bronze resources.
The discovery of ritual bells from Wenfengta tomb no. 1 provides further evidence that Zeng lords descended from Zhou royalty. The bells were commissioned by Marquis Yu of Zeng, who asserted the glory of his ancestors in assisting kings Wen and Wu, the founders of the Zhou. He also recorded an important historical event in 506 BC, when the Zeng state provided shelter to the Chu king and helped him defeat the invading Wu army, thus restoring his throne.
Among the nobles of the Zhou’s vassal states, intermarriage was commonly employed to reinforce regional alliances and to secure political or military advantages from powerful neighbours. Many Chu daughters were married to Zeng lords, suggesting that the Chu were quite attracted to the prestige of the old Zhou royal bloodline. In Suizhou’s Zaoshulin cemetery, roughly dated to the 7th century BC, at least two wives of Zeng marquises were from Chu (both were named Mi, the surname of the Chu ruling house). Madame Mi Jia, the wife of Marquis Bao (r. c.614 BC), was a noblewoman with no record in written history. From the inscription of a full set of ritual bells – intriguingly the only extant set dedicated to a woman of the period – a picture of this distinguished lady emerges for the first time. Mi Jia had an impressive background as the elder sister of the powerful King Zhuang of Chu, and, after her husband’s death, she assumed leadership over the Zeng, ensuring their survival as an independent state through subsequent political and military turmoil.
If the Zeng took the lead in the middle Yangzi in the early centuries of the Zhou dynasty, the Chu would dominate the region from the mid 7th century BC. Unlike his Zeng counterpart, the Chu founder initially received a low hereditary title along with a small fief by the Han River (a tributary of the Yangzi). As a marginal state lacking a royal bloodline on what was then uncultivated, mountainous land, the Chu struggled to survive at first. The ruling clan began to claim descent from the God of Fire, which enhanced their reputation and helped spur Chu’s growth. It would, however, take several hundred years to absorb neighbouring states and build up significant military power. One of the most noteworthy Chu leaders from this time is King Wu (r. 740-690 BC), who conquered other small states in the Yangzi region. When the Zhou king denied his request for a higher royal title, this lord simply proclaimed himself king in 704 BC and demanded equal status with the highest Zhou rulers. He later embarked on campaigns against the still-powerful Zeng – a mission his descendants would complete in about 640 BC.
During the reign of King Zhuang, the Chu state aggressively expanded to the south and east. After successfully protecting the Zhou court in a battle in 606 BC, Zhuang arrogantly sent a delegation to the Zhou capital in the north to investigate the weight of the Nine Tripods, a legendary symbol that represented the supreme authority to rule China. This was an audacious challenge to established authority. Soon after, Chu rose to the apex of its power and wealth. In 334 BC, following major victories over rival neighbours, Chu became the sole military and economic power in the south, with a vast territory spanning a thousand miles from the East China Sea to the inland Sichuan Basin – the first time these distant lands would be politically united, and a precursor to the first empire.
The cultural, religious, and literary traditions of the Chu departed from those of the Zhou dynasty, with Chu people worshipping the supernatural and practicing the shamanism conventionally associated with the south. The Chu’s distinctive religious and philosophical culture would eventually cohere and mature into what we now call Daoism. The folkways of Daoism seek harmony in nature and the cosmos, and were a chief rival to the more ethically high-minded Confucianism that emerged largely in northern China. Thus the Chu people managed to appropriate various indigenous customs and traditions to create a southern legacy that would be remembered for centuries, lingering on in household spiritual beliefs as well as in major schools of art and philosophy.
Still, Chu lost its bid in the competition for dominance over China. In 278 BC, troops of the rising Qin state conquered the Chu capital Ying and forced the Chu people eastwards. Their last capital of Shouying was seized in 223 BC, marking the collapse of Chu and the near total consolidation of the first empire. We are lucky the superstitions of the Chu aristocracy demanded elaborate funerals and enormous tombs, reflecting a culture that sought a rich afterlife as sweet as the days of this world, as it has resulted in a wealth of new finds for us to study this forgotten material culture.
One of the most impressive discoveries was made in 2002, when two waterlogged tombs were excavated in Jiuliandun, Zaoyang. The tombs belonged to a high-ranking noble couple who ruled a local kingdom during the last moment when the Chu state enjoyed tremendous wealth. Large Chu tombs often featured deep, tightly sealed burial pits and multiple burial compartments where wooden coffins and grave goods were stored. Inside compartments of the husband’s tomb (tomb no. 1), numerous ritual vessels and bronze weapons (which both indicate status as the head of an army in life and repel demons in the underworld) were found. This is in contrast to the large number of luxurious lacquerwares and jade carvings in the wife’s tomb, showing gender and hierarchic variations in preparing burial goods. Some bronze works with gleaming surfaces inlaid with shining metals and semi-precious stones reflect the elites’ predilection for meticulous ornaments and fancy displays. Traded across long distances, metal that does not tarnish and therefore seems indestructible likely played a role in the development of the cult of immortality (a core concern of Daoism), and the benefits of imperishability were believed to flow from these receptacles and surfaces to their owners.
This and other important finds demonstrate how Chu artisans adeptly incorporated indigenous cultures into Zhou traditions, creating a distinctive material culture that overshadowed those of Zhou’s protégé states and defined the southern style in Chinese art. This southern style was closely associated with the traditions of the Yangzi region. For instance, phoenix totems and animal motifs are often seen in Chu art, reflecting local worship of supernatural forces and animal spirits. Because phoenixes were thought to possess the power to transcend different realms, they became a sacred creature to guide the souls of the deceased or to help humans achieve immortality.
Phoenix drums have become an iconic artefact representing the tradition of Chu culture and music. Such standing drums have been found only in Chu tombs, and the one unearthed at Jiuliandun is probably the finest example. Besides the painted drum cover, the creative pedestal design features the magical phoenix – in this case two phoenixes standing tall and facing outward over crouching tigers. As artistic pioneers, Chu aristocracy pursued new styles and experiences in the music and entertainment of their palaces. If imposing bronze bells and chime stones represented the sombre ritual music of the Zhou court, then the elaborate wooden drums and zithers common in Chu aristocratic tombs allude to the charm of the unconstrained southern rhythm and melody in enjoying a luxurious feast.
The tangle of birds, snake-like dragons, and hybrid-animal motifs exemplify the untrammelled imagination and creativity of Chu as well as Zeng art. On the wooden inner coffin of the Marquis Yi, two registers of fierce-looking humanoid warriors armed with dagger-axes abound within mysterious patterns that protect the deceased lord. Although most of these motifs have lost their original meaning for modern viewers, they still legibly represent tomb spirits, beast guardians, and attendants ready to serve in the next world.
Surviving images and objects also demonstrate the impressive naturalism achieved by Zeng and Chu art. Artisans maintained a deep involvement with the natural world, likely drawing from first-hand encounters with animals, and skilfully merged the real and the fantastic in their creations. An interesting example from tomb no. 2 at Tianxingguan, Jingzhou, reflects the romantic imagination in Chu art and an intrinsic curiosity about what the medium could achieve. This lacquer sculpture from c.340 BC depicts a composite figure with a bird’s beak, tail, and claws, standing over a flying bird and a heavenly toad, and possibly functioned as a shamanistic totem. The figure may represent a shaman or immortal who was able to fly along with the divine bird (a common intercessor between realms) to transcend the human world and even travel over the sun and moon. This late Bronze Age triumph of creativity shows how long-standing motifs, symbols, and forms – spirit guides, powerful flying creatures, ritual sculptures – continued to inspire artisans for centuries.
More importantly, this southern tradition typifies crucial stylistic changes as Bronze Age China was entering a new historical stage. The demand for novel, sophisticated works stimulated art production beyond the conventional bronzes and jades, and encompassed colourful glass, lacquerwares, and more perishable textiles. A trove of Chu couture, Mashan tomb no. 1 contained dozens of well-preserved fabrics that dressed the body of the tomb’s female occupant. Their extravagant colours and intricate patterns offer a stunning testimony to the extraordinary artistry and sophistication of Chu silk. One can only imagine their glamorous effect as they shimmered in the glow of oil-lamp light during a nightlong feast.
Even as their power waned, Zeng and Chu elites were able to delight in a wide range of decorative styles and techniques in their everyday objects. They were covered in geometric and abstract patterns in elaborate lacquer painting, coated in silk embroidery, embellished with colourful inlays of semi-precious stones and glittering metals, or adorned with intricate relief and openwork ornamentation. Such elegant artworks paved the way for the technological and cultural accomplishments of the Qin and Han dynasties about a century later.
For about 800 years, Zeng and Chu artisans thrived. Many of the extravagant artefacts now recovered from this time are considered national treasures in China due to their rarity and beauty – but also because they form a much-need bridge between myth and recorded history, between the sophisticated Bronze Age cultures and the glorious imperial era, between the beliefs of these older kingdoms and the imagery that proliferated across subsequent dynasties. These later dynasties always represented a single face of China to the West; the Chinese empire, just a few decades after the fall of the Zeng and Chu, would begin engaging with the other ‘global’ empires that occupy much of the world’s fascination with the past. Yet these ‘lost kingdoms’ offer a valuable lesson, upending the notion of a monolithic early China and updating it with the story of many distinct cultures interlinking into one over millennia. It is an origin story that undoes the vandalism of the Qin, and suggests a richer past than one could have imagined a short time ago.
Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China runs at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from 7 October until 6 February 2023. Visit www.asianart.org for booking and other details.
This project is a collaboration with the Hubei Provincial Museum and four other museums in China.
The exhibition catalogue, Phoenix Kingdoms: the last splendor of China’s Bronze Age, is published by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the University of California Press, Berkeley.
All images: photo courtesy of the Hubei Provincial Museum.