Kenneth M. Swope is a professor of history, director of graduate studies, and senior fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of On the Trail of the Yellow Tiger: War, Trauma, and Social Dislocation in Southwest China during the Ming-Qing Transition (July 2018).
Blood, Treasure, and Historical Tourism
As historians we are wont to argue for the historical significance and contemporary relevance of our work, no matter what the specific field of study. After all, things like violence, bloodshed, greed, suffering, and political machinations are sadly universal to the human condition. Nevertheless, there is still something particularly validating when the subject of one’s own research gains contemporary notoriety, whether via the release of a film, novel, or television show, or due to exciting new historical or archaeological studies. Such is the case with the so-called “Yellow Tiger,” Zhang Xianzhong, AKA “The Butcher of Sichuan,” and “The Eighth Great King.” While he is certainly an obscure figure outside of China, Zhang has long been known for his bloody excesses in helping to topple the Ming Dynasty in 1644 and establishing his own kingdom in Sichuan province in China’s southwest. According to the most lurid accounts, Zhang murdered over 600 million people in just three years! While such figures are obviously in error, they attest to his reputation for cruelty and speak to the tragedies of an era that was indeed a literal “Game of Thrones” that raged in China for some six decades in the seventeenth century. So when I related to Chinese friends and colleagues that I was researching a book on Zhang and his era they were intrigued, to say the least. Some were even puzzled, presuming that this implied some kind of sympathy for Zhang’s actions rather than for his victims.
Over the past several years, however, several of them became fascinated by Zhang and his story. When I went to the village where Zhang was killed, a local taxi driver who helped me find his gravesite on a remote mountain decided to devote much of his free time to personally researching Zhang on the Internet. And, surprisingly enough, stories about Zhang’s “sunken treasure” started popping up in Chinese news media and on websites such as Baidu and the Global Times of China. There was a legend, often repeated in historical sources, that towards the end of his bloody reign, Zhang loaded a number of boats with plundered treasure and sought to sail away from his base in Chengdu, Sichuan and towards the southeast, where he had previously established a regime. On the way, however, the boats were intercepted by a Ming loyalist general and the fleet was sunk, the treasure settling at the bottom of the Minjiang River near the city of Jiangkou, which literally means “river mouth.” The Ming general in question allegedly dredged the river and recovered enough wealth and weapons to outfit his own armies and feed the local refugee populace for months afterwards.
Until recently these tales were dismissed as exaggerated at best or fabrications at worst. But as a result of a series of discoveries by local farmers engaged in irrigation projects, artifacts from the Zhang’s era of rule in Sichuan started circulating, making national news in China. Though the government designated the area a historic site in 2010, some locals apparently continued to “fish” for treasure in the river, which eventually prompted a police investigation. They ended up uncovering over 300 cases involving the trafficking of more than $45 million US dollars’ worth of cultural relics. This in turn prompted a full-scale archaeological investigation that has born considerable fruit. An astounding 30,000 artifacts were recovered from a two million square meter section of the riverbed. These included several hundred coins from Zhang’s Da Xi government, minted during his tenure as ruler of Sichuan, thousands of gold items, presumably looted from homes and temples, and more than ten thousand silver items of various kinds acquired by similar means. Initial archaeological activities were completed in May of 2017.
Such discoveries have proven invaluable in verifying accounts provided in written sources. As in cases elsewhere, these recent archaeological findings have in fact verified the folktales and fascinated the public, which may serve to aid the cause of archaeology in the future in the PRC. In fact, the local government already has plans of starting historical tourism in the form of “treasure boat” cruises on the river. Pictures of the recovered artifacts, including gold ingots bearing Zhang Xianzhong’s official seal, have circulated widely on Chinese Internet sites. On the negative side, one sees how the Internet age and the increasing sophistication of black markets create the conditions that inspire and empower would-be criminal entrepreneurs. On the more positive side, while tales of sunken treasure excite the public, the artifacts discovered go beyond valuables and offer fascinating windows into Ming-Qing society and culture. And from the perspective of the historian working in crumbling archives, discoveries such as this highlight the ongoing significance of our work.