The legend of a snake-patterned scabbard
The legend of a snake-patterned scabbard
By He Zhaoyang and Liu Jiatong Photographs by He Zhaoyang
Located in the center of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, Qujing is where the Pearl River begins its journey, and where human traces were found as early as the Old Stone Age. Since Emperor Qin Shihuang built the Wuchi Road during the Qin Dynasty (221BC-207BC), Qujing has served as a key entrance to Yunnan from central China. In the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), Zhuge Liang, prime minister of the Shu Kingdom (221-263), set up Jianning Shire in Qujing. Over the ensuing 500 years, Qujing served as the political and military center of Yunnan.
Eight-Tower Cemetery excavation
At the foot of East Mountain in Zhujie Township, Qilin District, Qujing, there are eight mounds called the Eight Towers standing five meters above the ground. According to ancient literature, they were built by Zhuge Liang to suppress evil spirits.
On an autumn day in 1977, several local farmers accidently discovered dozens of bronze wares when digging up earth at one mound. Soon, local authorities numbered all the mounds and started a field survey. Surprisingly, these mounds turned out to be a well-preserved cemetery where thousands of tombs were found. Later it was discovered that from the early Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC) to the middle Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the cemetery had been in use for 1,200 years. It is a brief history of Qujing and its discovery is of great academic value. Among the numerous relics unearthed is a bronze snake-patterned scabbard which can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period.
The bronze scabbard was found in Tomb M246 during the 6th excavation of Mound 2 in November 1982. When it was unearthed, everyone at the scene was astonished. The hollowed-out scabbard is flat, with a wider square top and a round bottom. Six circles are arranged along the scabbard axis in descending order with size, with five semicircles symbolizing a snake’s body on each side. At the bottom is a snake with two tails. A snake head and tails are engraved at the right and left edges of the scabbard top. Eight pairs of snakes, including a rare pair sharing one body, are arranged symmetrically along the two ridges, indicating the transformation from young snakes into mature ones. Specifically, all the snake scales were delicately engraved. Beneath the scabbard was a 28.5-cm bronze sword which features a flat handle and curve blades, with four rows of rings on its back.
Tomb M246 was built in the late Spring and Autumn Period (6th century BC), some 2,500 years ago. The bronze scabbard was found on the abdomen of the tomb owner, with clear marks showing it was used frequently. Accompanying its owner before and after his death, the scabbard is obviously of particular importance and value among all the grave goods.
Worship of snakes
The aerugo-covered scabbard reminds me of the Golden Snake Swordsman, a hero created by famous Chinese novelist Jin Yong. Walking down the stairs leading to the chamber of the tomb, I felt that each stratum is the witness of a period. I couldn’t help wondering the stories behind this “Golden Snake Swordsman”. What happened here?
It’s recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian that “Among the kingdoms in southwest China, the Dian Kingdom is one of the largest. People there wore their hair in buns, depended on farming, and lived in villages and towns.” When Central China entered the Iron Age, Dian was in the heyday of its Bronze Age, and snake worship was an important characteristic of its unique culture. Since snakes came out of hibernation at the beginning of the rainy season, people of the Dian Kingdom believed that snakes symbolized the coming of rain. In addition, as a type of productive animal, snakes were also worshipped for having a high reproductive capacity. This worship culture affected the later Cuan Family (a powerful family of the Yi people) which took snakes as their gods. In the epic Ashima, of the Sani people (a branch of Yi people in Yunnan), the heroine Ashima is a snake girl.
Through the bronze snake-patterned scabbard found in the Eight-Tower Cemetery, it is evident how much snakes were worshiped by ancient Qujing peple, and archaeologists determined the type of the cemetery. The marks of casting on the back of the scabbard, and the molds unearthed in the same stratum, prove Qujing is their birth place. Besides, the mastoid agates originally set into circles indicate a mastery of gemstone-processing technology by local people at the time. From this exquisite artwork, we can see a developed economy and culture, as well as the amazing artistic creativity of the ancient Dian people. Having laid silently underground for more than 2,500 years, the sword is not sharp anymore; however, the aerugo gives it a kind of charming softness that can only be created by time.