Filling in the Blanks for Minyue Culture
Narrator: Mei Huaquan (Research Fellow at the Institute of Cultural Relics, Fujian Museum)
Volume 64 of the Book of Han (also known as the History of the Former Han) records Liu An, the Prince of Huainan, asserted in a petition to the emperor that: Your humble official has learned that the Minyue region has no cities. Bounded by valleys and rivers, the Minyue region is located within vast tracts of bamboo forests. The prince went on to derisively dismiss the Minyue region as a place “unfit for human habitation”, where “its peoples know not of animal husbandry (a metaphor for agriculture)”. Today, the winding walls and towering palaces of the Minyue Palace Site, a complex of architectural ruins dating from the Western Han era (206 BCE to 25 CE), have not only “filled in the historical blanks” on Han-era Minyue architecture. These architectural wonders have also enlightened those ignorant of the Minyue region’s splendid history and culture.
The discovery and excavation of the Minyue Palace Site have corrected errors in the historical record. Parts of the Jianyang County Local Gazetteer compiled in the reign of the Ming Dynasty’s Jiajing Emperor record that: The Minyue Palace Complex is located in Chongwenli, in a place known as Chengcun (Cheng Village)… According to earlier records, Wang Shenzhi (also known as Prince Zhongyi of Min) built palaces and strongholds in this location. The entry on Jianyang County in Dushi Fangyu Jiyao (literally “Essentials of Geography for Reading History”) by Qing Dynasty scholar Gu Zuyu also notes that: The Minyue Palace Complex lies 30 li north of the county, and is said to have been built by Wang Shenzhi. However, the artifacts unearthed from the site contradict these accounts. These relics were obviously from the Han Dynasty, and have nothing to do with Wang Shenzhi, who lived during the era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.
These relics have features similar to the cultural relics of the Yue people unearthed from Han-era tombs in the nearby regions of Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces. Together with the “Gu Yue” horizontal inscribed board on the gate to the ancient palace complex, we can confidently assert that the site is an ancient city of the Han-era Minyue Kingdom. This allows us to determine the historical era and ethnic provenance of the site, and correct the errors contained in the Jianyang County Local Gazetteer and Dushi Fangyu Jiyao.
The site’s sophisticated urban and palace architectural designs monumentally contradict the written historic record. The Minyue Palace Site was discovered in 1958, and re-surveyed and mapped in 1980. The surveys and mapping in 1980 showed that the site was somewhat rectangular on the horizontal plane. Its city walls stretched roughly 860 meters from north to south, while the site itself was roughly 550 meters from east to west. The Minyue Palace Site has a perimeter of 2,896 meters, while the palaces occupied an area of roughly 480,000 square meters. The palaces were nestled among mountains and rivers, in this ancient Han-era city that was built on hilly slopes.
When building the city walls and the base of the palaces, the builders used the “earth-ramming” method that had been prevalent in China since the Spring and Autumn Period, whereas the siheyuan (Chinese “quadrangle courtyard”) style was adopted when designing the palaces. Beams were embedded deeply into tall “rammed-earth” platforms to form a beam framework that ensured structural stability. To guard against the humidity that commonly plagues buildings built in the mountains, the builders opted for patterned floor tiles and laying floors upon wooden floor beams. The roofs were laid with large slate roof tiles and patterned eave-end tiles. The interior walls were coated with a lime plaster known as baihuimian (made from loess dolls), and decorated with red and black moire patterns. In addition, the well-designed spatial layout of the main halls and enclosing corridors, the exquisitely decorated air shafts and the wide and extensive sewer system all demonstrate that the architects had put much thought into the design of these grand palaces.
The Minyue peoples had a distinctive cultural persona and a highly enterprising spirit. The many rich and diverse cultural artifacts unearthed at the Minyue Palace Site include not only numerous Yue-style pottery pieces such as cauldrons, weng (a type of jar), urns, pou (another type of jar), pao hu (a necked jar in the shape of a bottle gourd), liankou bo (bowls with a “converged mouth”) and ti tong (“handled buckets”), but also Han-style pottery, including three-legged cauldrons, three-legged shallow dishes, flat-bottomed cups (known as yu) and basins. In particular, the flat tiles, semi-circular tiles, clay water pipes and patterned floor tiles used in architectural construction, as well as the Han Chinese characters inscribed on the clay tiles and pottery artifacts (using traditional techniques known as paiyin “pat-printing” and chuoyin “stamping”), all bore the hallmarks of Central Plains cultures. The ironware and bronzeware of the site also showed signs of having been influenced by the Central Plains cultures. For instance, the crossbows bearing the mark of government workshops from the Han-Dynasty Henei Commandery (an administrative division) have been discovered at the site, in addition to Central Plains-style spades, axes and pickaxes used in agriculture.
Thus, it can be seen that the site’s Minyue culture was formed by the large-scale introduction of cultural elements from the Central Plains and surrounding regions to the local area. It is precisely this highly enterprising spirit that gave rise to the richness of the Minyue culture.
Economic productivity in the Han Dynasty was defined by ironware. The many iron tools and weapons unearthed at the site show that, despite being located in China’s southeast, far from the heart of Chinese civilization, the Minyue region had already embarked upon the Iron Age, together with the Central Plains. History tells us that because of enmity and conflict with the Han imperial court, the Empress (Dowager) Lü had once forbidden the flow of ironware from the Central Plains to the Southern Yue (also known as Nanyue) Kingdom, which constrained their economic and military development, and left them hapless against attacks from the Minyue Kingdom. Based on the large numbers of iron weapons unearthed at the Minyue Palace Site, we can see that the military strength of the Minyue Kingdom was not to be scoffed at.
In recent years, scientific tests on the ironware unearthed at the site show that, apart from the ironware similar to that of the Central Plains, there were also some iron artifacts whose composition was unique to the region. They were made of steel forged using a special smelting method, which demonstrates that the Minyue regions had already surpassed the Central Plains in iron smelting and manufacturing techniques. The iron smelting sites that we found in the Yuanbaoshan site at the Minyue Palace Site may just be the best proof that iron production techniques existed in the Minyue regions
Sixty years of toil at the site by several generations of archaeologists have yielded remarkable results. The conservation of this archaeological site and preparations for a national archaeological park are proceeding as planned… However, our research into the culture of the Minyue Kingdom, which traverses the provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Guangdong, is only a beginning. Our research into the Minyue Palace Site has so far only unveiled the tip of the iceberg. There is still much research on unearthed and yet-to-be-discovered relics and artifacts that we have not carried out.