Story of long-forgotten kingdom in Yunnan

Zhu Ying
Among the bronze wares found in Yunnan Province, a shell container is listed as one of the cultural relics prohibited from being taken out of the country for exhibition.
Zhu Ying

Among the bronze wares found in southwest China's Yunnan Province, a shell container on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing is listed as one of the cultural relics prohibited from being taken out of the country for exhibition. Fifty-one centimeters high, it stands on three paw-like feet, and has a pair of tiger-shaped handles.

The shell container, or a piggy bank in the modern sense, belonged to a noble man of the Dian kingdom during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). By the time it was unearthed from the Shizhaishan tombs in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, more than 300 shells were found inside. Experts believe the shells served as currency at the time, and the container was used as a symbol of status.

The value of the artifact is related to the details that adorn the top of the container, where a sacrificial scene is depicted – a rare piece of evidence of the Dian kingdom, which lasted for nearly 500 years.

Story of long-forgotten kingdom in Yunnan
Ti Gong

The bas relief on the top of the bronze shell container depicts a sacrificial ceremony that took place in a public square.

Wearing earrings and a bracelet, a woman sitting in a stilted building is believed to be a priestess hosting a sacrificial ceremony attended by many people. Among them is a naked slave thought to be one of the sacrificial offerings along with livestock.

Sixteen small bronze drums are situated around the stilted building, a major style of traditional Chinese residences common in Yunnan that prevents water from flowing in. In the sacrificial square, there are two huge bronze drums and a sacred pole with two large pythons coiling around it.

The sacrificial square was also a market place where people from different regions traded goods, and there are 127 bronze figurines (not including incomplete ones) on site, each wearing different styles of outfits and accessories.

There is also an intriguing story about the discovery of the ancient kingdom of Dian.

The monumental history book of ancient China "Shiji," or "Records of the Grand Historian," written by Sima Qian, suggested that during the Warring States Period and the Han Dynasty, there was a state called Dian in today's Yunnan.

Story of long-forgotten kingdom in Yunnan
Ti Gong

A bronze shell container unearthed from a tomb of a Dian nobleman in Yunnan Province

However, apart from the several hundred words recorded in "Shiji," no more historical documents about the state had been found. As such, the state faded into oblivion.

Evidence of the existence of Dian reappeared in 1992 when a diver named Geng Wei accidentally discovered some stone plaques with thick moss above them at the bottom of Fuxian Lake in the city of Yuxi, about 60 kilometers from Kunming.

Spanning an area of 212 square kilometers, Fuxian Lake is China's second-deepest freshwater lake, with a depth of 155 meters. The crystal clear lake is a paradise for divers.

To carry out a survey, Geng dived into the lake 38 times, shot many videos and reported his discoveries to experts. From 2001 to 2007, four large-scale archeological investigations were executed underwater.

With the help of advanced sonar equipment and cameras, archeologists found a large number of regular blocks scattered at the bottom of the lake. The discovery of a stone wall, flagstones and magnificent architecture proved the existence of an ancient city with an area of 2.4 square kilometers.

Archeologists believed the underwater remains were the Dian kingdom established by the Dian people, who were believed to live around Lake Dian in northern Yunnan some 2,000 years ago.

According to "Shiji," Zhuang Qiao, general of the State of Chu, was engaged in a war to conquer the "southern barbarians" of Dian during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

Despite his victory in the war, Zhuang's forces failed to return home, as his country had been attacked by the State of Qin's armies. He settled down in Dian, married the princess of the Dian kingdom and became the new king.

Special Reports