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For Stephanie Schaufler.
Despite being considered the underdog of history, owing to her defeat and annexation by the Chinese Qin and Han dynasties, the history of the southern kingdom of Chu must be writ large. Even in defeat and her prostration to the Chinese Empire, the culture of Chu and the feats of her people still resonate in Chinese society to this very day.
Rugged Lands, Harsh People
If classic Sinitic civilisation was dominated by the ebb and flow of the Yellow River, then it would be safe to say that the polities of what is today southern China were sprung from the no less awesome "Great River", the Chang Jiang or the Yangtze, flowing for 3000 miles and navigable from the sea for half of its course. Unlike the Central Plains (whose name is self-explanatory) southern China is a vast world of treacherous mountain, hill and swamp which belie its shockingly immense biodiversity and vast natural resources. Minerals, particularly gold, iron and copper, all can be found dotting the landscape, while the temperate climate of the south allows all manner of flora and fauna to grow there — some herbs and other crops, such as star anise and tea, all have their origins in southern China. Animals too there are, and there would have been plenty, such as pandas, turtles, dolphins and tigers. Ancient sources also indicate that southern China too played host to other commercially valuable animals, such as elephants, crocodiles, and rhinoceroses - all of which unfortunately no longer have their range in these lands.
With resources such as these, it is no wonder that many non-Chinese peoples — most notably the Nanman and the Yue, made southern China their home ever since time immemorial. Some of the world's oldest human remains (dating back as far as 120,000 years ago) were discovered in 2015 in the Fuyan cave system in modern Hunan province in southern China, proving the long presence of human habitation in this vast world of fast water, jagged rock and forests in comparison with the Central Plains region of China. The transition to agriculture in the Yangtze basin is thought to have happened around 8000-4000BCE with the emergence of the Pengtoushan and Hemudu cultures along the Yangtze — both cultures have been proved to have engaged greatly in the harvesting (and possibly, cultivation) of rice, which remains the staple of the lands south of the Yangtze to this very day.
The House of Mi
The Mi family was said to have ruled Chu as early as the Shang dynasty, with the first recorded ruler being Lord Jilian. He was the first of Chu's rulers to adopt the surname of Mi (or possibly Xiong), and had married into the family of king Pan Geng (c 14th century BCE) who was famous for setting up Shang's first permanent capital at Yin. Much later, the Mi family was said to have sided with the Ji family of Qishan (later the Zhou royal family) in their march against the Shang dynasty. For this feat, Xiong Yi, who was himself descended from Jilian, was tasked by his sovereign, king Cheng of Zhou, with (as well as the privillege of) building a fief for himself at Danyang (present-day Xichuan, Henan) over which he would rule as a viscount.
The heartland of Chu was held to be based around the territories comprising modern Henan and Hubei (both meaning "south of the (Yellow) River" and "north of the lake (Dongting)"), yet the aforementioned natural wealth of Chu lands meant that the Mi family had inherited what was probably one of the richest and most prosperous states in all of Zhou China. We do not know the exact details as to what happened, but it is clear that Chu was sufficiently large or prosperous enough to attract the attention of king Zhao, the grandson of Cheng. Whether it was to satisfy his greed for precious metals or to prevent Chu from using her wealth to unseat him, king Zhao attempted to invade Chu, but eventually failed and died during his last expedition against Chu in 957BCE. Zhao's death also sealed the fate of Chu-Zhou relations: from that moment on, Zhou would be embroiled in conflict with her former vassal Chu, who was now independent in all but name (until the reign of Xiong Che (died 690BCE) who would crown himself king of Chu). This conflict would eventually turn Chu into one of the "Five Hegemons" of the Spring and Autumn Period, as Chu from the time of king Zhao's final expedition would begin a drive of expansion, colonisation and conquest of her neighbours.
Septarchy: The Warring States Period
During the Warring States Period, it was threatened by Qin to the west, and, in 241 BC, it allied with Zhao, Wei, Yan, and Han against the expansionist Qin, but the alliance was defeated at the Hangu Pass. In 223 BC, Qin began its Conquest of Chu, and the Chu general Xiang Yan was slain in battle with the Qin general Wang Jian.
Qin succeeded in conquering Chu after two expeditions, but the people of Chu launched an insurrection after King Ying Zheng of Qin proclaimed himself "Qin Shi Huangdi", the first Qin emperor.
In 209 BC, the Dazexiang Uprising led to the foundation of "Rising Chu" by Chen Sheng, who was soon slain in battle. However, it inspired Jing Ju and Xiang Liang to rebel, and Xiang appointed Xiong Xin his puppet King of Chu. In 206, after the fall of the Qin to Liu Bang, Xiang Yu proclaimed himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" and promoted Xiong Xin to "Emperor" before having him assassinated and seizing power.
Fall of the Kingdom
In the ensuing Chu-Han Contention, Xiang Yu and Chu fought against Liu Bang's Han for control of the Eighteen Kingdoms, and Xiang Yu's death at the 202 BC Battle of Gaixia ended Chu and allowed for the Han to unite China.
The Shizhaishan Culture
It was at Shizhai Hill where a vast trove of bronze artefacts, including ceremonial weapons, vessels and even coffins were discovered by PRC archaeologists throughout the 1950s CE, depicting all manner of activities. Yet no textual evidence — aside from a golden seal which must have been gifted by the Han court — was found which could shed light on the context of the burials and even the people buried there, as well as their feats.
Nevertheless, the vast number and quality of the burial goods uncovered there have provided tantalising clues about who the chu were and what their society were capable of. We know that the people who produced these bronzes — now dubbed the Shizhaishan culture, after where they were unearthed — were highly proficient metalworkers, or were capable of commanding sufficient labour to either produce or purchase them. The chu were most likely to be proficient metalworkers and the ones who produced these bronzes, since the hills of Yunnan are rich in copper - even as some later burials contain the remains of iron implements. Some of these bronzes (most likely ritual vessels containing offerings of food, just like those discovered further northeast in China proper) are depictions of agricultural activities and cattle rearing — the number of images of bulls and buffaloes found must indicate that cattle and livestock ranching must have contributed to the local economy. Yet too, as the Shiji suggests, the chu too had a highly sophisticated and tightly organised society capable of belligerent behaviour, for there too are scenes of dancing, warfare and even human sacrifice.
We too know that the chu too must have been astute traders — Han sources state that the chu often traded with the more better known kingdom of Shu to the north as well as the Dong Son cultures further south, while grave goods of Chinese design were discovered in many of the tombs, implying a close relation to the Chinese world (but it is one whose links, again, still remain elusive). The Shizhaishan culture also dressed in the way Han sources mentioned - highborn men sported topknots in "mallet fashion", while women wore their hair down, "open-faced". Yet, the existence of equestrian figures, as well as figures dressed tantalisingly in Central Asian garb — capes and trousers — have led some scholars to believe that the chu had contacts farther beyond Sichuan, perhaps all the way to present-day Xinjiang itself too. This contact with western China is somewhat contested - one Russo-American duo have controversially proposed that the chu may have intermingled with the Scythians, or were even colonised by them prior to official contact with the Han. More controversial are nigrocentric pseudohistorical claims that the chu kingdom was originally founded by Negroid peoples from Africa — a claim which is not entertained at all by contemporary scholarly consensus.
Despite the vibrancy of chu culture, and the fertility of the lands surrounding the chu capital, the kingdom itself suffered from geopolitical isolation. Mountains to the south and west prevented the chu from expanding there, while Han sources - primarily dominated by the Shiji - attest to the existence of powerful neighbours, such as the Nanman kingdom of Yelang, and the Sino-Yue state of Nanyue farther east, as well as threats from nomadic tribes to the north, most notably the Kunming tribes. Although chu had links to other more prominent powers in the past such as the late kingdoms of Shu to the north and Chu to the northeast, it was not until the Han dynasty that the Chinese began to focus on expansion in the south, as well as the kingdom of chu. There were many reasons for doing this.
The first one was purely military — the Han Empire dominated the Central Plains and Yellow River, yet had to face the depredations of the northern Xiongnü tribes, while the southeast bordered the kingdom of Nanyue, ruled by the Zhao dynasty, who were descended from one of Emperor Qinshi's generals. The second was for commercial reasons — by the time of Emperor Wu, the Han had become aware of the existence of sophisticated states to the west in India and Bactria, and also wanted access to Bactria's famed Ferghana horses to provide an edge for the Chinese army against the Xiongnü, whose cavalry were the terror of the Chinese — the deteriorating diplomatic situation with the Xiongnü during Emperor Wu's reign, and his desire for a more decisive solution in neutralising them, meant that it was no longer safe for Chinese caravans to pass through, and the Xiongnü in no way wanted the Chinese to grow ever stronger through trade. Thus it was for these two reasons, that the Han began to send envoys to chu, seeking to block the Zhao dynasty from becoming too powerful, and to seek a new route to Central Asia that would bypass the now unsafe Hexi corridor.
Following Zhang Qian's return to China in 125BCE, Emperor Wu decided that China needed to seek alternate trade routes to Bactria which weren't menaced by the Xiongnü. Four groups of envoys and explorers were sent, of which one arrived in chu but couldn't go further due to the savage tribes that lived around chu, although it managed to relay back to the Han court information of other cultures far beyond the south and west of chu.
From that point onward, Chinese activity in the region ebbed and flowed, depending on the situation between Han China and her most powerful neighbours, the Xiongnü host to the north, and the Chinese kingdom of Nanyue to the south, culminating in the final defeat of Nanyue in 111BCE. With Nanyue successfully annexed to the empire, chu was now the only independent kingdom left outside of China's pre-Han southern borders that had not been subjugated. chu at first did not submit when first approached in 109BCE — at that moment, the kingdom had a small army, and an alliance with some local tribes, so the Chinese despatched a military expedition to exterminate them.
Only after her tribal allies were destroyed in this manner did chu accept Han demands. The chu royal family was allowed to continue ruling as a member of the Empire's tributary states, and the Han court issued them with a seal acknowledging their authority over their territory but this gesture would prove fruitless. Within 20 years, a rebellion broke out in chu against the Chinese. This time, the Han response could not have been more different: the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed, cultural sinicisation intensified, and the kingdom, replaced with a Chinese viceroyalty upon abolition, would pass away from living memory until the 20th century, when its relics were unearthed at Shizhai Hill.
The Dai people, an ethnic group who live across Southeast Asia, are considered by some to be the heirs of chu culture.
- Kluger, J; Earliest Humans Found in China; Time Magazine
- Ambergh Education; Huayao Dai People in Yunnan