individual living in the Chinese city of Luoyang during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 8 CE) was buried with an
assortment of fine bronze, jade, and ceramic objects. Among their burial goods
was a jar containing a yellow liquid which smelled alcoholic. Amazingly, it had survived over 2,000 years without seeping away.
Although initially thought to be rice wine, a chemical analysis has
revealed the liquid to be a mixture of potassium nitrate and alunite. These minerals are the main ingredients of the
legendary “elixir of immortality” mentioned in ancient Chinese texts. Given that it was found as part of a burial, the elixir did not work.
Still, this is a major find. It is the first hard evidence that one of the various “immortality medicines” written about in ancient texts were actually made. And presumably tried out, too.
This map, based on geographical data recorded by a Greek writer in the early years of the Roman Empire, shows the trade route from Rome to India.
Elites in India and China prized Roman-made glass and rugs. Elites in Rome enjoyed wearing silks made in the Far East – so much that the Senate got worried about how much gold was leaving the empire, and tried to ban silk clothing. It did not work.
You will notice that most of the goods traded were for elites – silk, glass, ivory, carnelian. Given the long distances to travel between the Mediterranean, the Ganges, and the Yangtze, only
expensive items to wealthy aristocrats made the journey. Basics like grain or iron were traded in more localized networks.
More than 200 cliff cave burial sites have been identified in Zhengxing Township in Chengdu, in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. The 200 burial sites number is deceptive; they are not just holes in the ground, but a cluster of hewn rooms, carved out of the cliffs overlooking the Jinjiang River. Some of the tombs have up to seven chambers with tunnels as long as 20 meters (65 feet).
Unfortunately, the tombs appear to have been previously looted. Bummer. But in what should be considered a small miracle, a large number of artifacts were recovered despite the looting; initial estimates are that around 1,000 gold, silver and bronze artifacts are still there. The tombs date between 206 BCE and 420 CE – the Han Dynasty through the Wei-Jin period.
THE achievements of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), often regarded by scholars and the ancient Chinese themselves as the golden era of Chinese culture, would have lasting effects on all who followed, particularly in the areas of government, law, philosophy, history, and art. The thirst for new knowledge, ambitious experimentation, and unstinting intellectual enquiry are hallmarks of Han culture, and they helped, amongst other achievements, to develop the Silk Road trade network, invent new materials such as paper and glazed pottery, formulate history writing, and greatly improve agricultural tools, techniques, and yields.
The Han Dynasty saw the first official trade with western cultures from around 130 BCE. Many types of goods from foodstuffs to manufactured luxuries were traded, and none were more typical of ancient China than silk. As a result of this commodity, the trade routes became known as the Silk Road or Sichou Zhi Lu. The ‘road’ was actually an entire network of overland camel caravan routes connecting China to the Middle East and hence is now often referred to as the Silk Routes by historians.
PEOPLE OF THE ANCIENT WORLD: Cao Cao (Military Dictator in Ancient China)
CAO Cao (c. 155-220 CE) was a military dictator in ancient China during the end of the Han dynasty. Something more than a mere warlord, Cao Cao supported a puppet emperor and governed a large area of northern China. His attempts to unify China ultimately failed, but he did found the large state of Wei and introduced various administrative changes including a new social ranking system and land reforms.
Cao Cao’s ruthless objective of recapturing the lost glory of the Han Empire his manipulation of the imperial court and association with unsavoury political intrigues have resulted in an ambiguous reputation which has darkened ever since his portrayal as the villain of the popular 14th-century CE epic the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
In 1992, a man named Wu Anai, near a Chinese village in Longyou County, based on a hunch, began to pump water out of a pond in his village. Anai believed the pond was not natural, nor was it infinitely deep as the local lore went, and he decided to prove it. He convinced some of his villagers and together they bought a water pump and began to siphon water out of the pond. After 17 days of pumping, the water level fell enough to reveal the flooded entrance to an ancient, man-made cave!
The cave has twenty-four rooms. There are pillars, staircases, and high ceilings over 30 meters (98 ft!) up. The work was done by humans, we know, because they left visible chisel marks in uniform bands of parallel groves. With over 30,000 square meters of space, all meticulously chiseled, this would have been a huge undertaking. Even if people were simply enlarging caves which already existed, it would still have required a lot of manpower working in a coordinated system for a long period of time.
Since the project would have been so large, it seems amazing that no record of it exists in China’s extensive written history. But there is not a word. Based on the cave alone, it is estimated to have been completed around 200 BCE, near the Qin Dynasty or Han Dynasties.
The “nine familial exterminations” or “nine kinship exterminations” was the most extreme punishment someone could receive in ancient China. Our first record of this punishment comes from a history of the Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty. Apparently it was common for military officers to threaten before battle that if a subordinate disobeyed orders, all their family would be killed.
This eventually evolved into an elaborate, and legal, method of punishment. The nine familial exterminations varied by dynasty, and how often it was used varied as well. Generally, those to be executed included:
the criminal’s living parents
their living grandparents
all children over a certain age (which varied) and all their children’s spouses
all grandchildren over a certain age, and all their grandchildren’s spouses
siblings and their sibling’s spouses
the criminal’s uncles and aunts, as well as their spouses
cousins (in Korea, this could go to second and third cousins)