Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Treasures

The legends of these
two treasures point to
the first emperor of China,
Qin Shihuang.

This recounts the legends of two of China's most ancient, valuable and mysterious treasures. They are the Jade Disc of He (和氏璧 - Hé Shì Bì), and the Pearl of the Marquis of Sui (随侯珠, Suí​ hóu​ zhū).

Together they are known as the Two Treasures of the Spring and Autumn (春秋二宝 Chūn​ qiū​ èr ​bǎo). That is because they were both discovered during the Spring and Autumn Period in Chinese history, which lasted from 770-476 BCE.

Both of these priceless artifacts disappeared after being in the possession of many rulers and emperors over hundreds of years. What were they? Where did they come from? What happened to them? Read on, adventurers...

The Marquis' Pearl
Legend has it that an ancient leader (c. 700 BCE) known as the Marquis of Sui (随侯, Suí​ Hóu) once happened upon a large, wounded snake by the side of the road. Feeling sorry for it, he had his servants apply ointment to its wounds, bandage the snake, and place it back in the grass. After the snake had fully recovered, it came to visit the Marquis, carrying a glowing pearl in its mouth. The great snake said: "I, Son of the Dragon King, thank you for saving my life, and have come to offer my gratitude."
The Marquis Pearl: What was it?
The serpent's mysterious gift became known as the Pearl of Marquis of Sui, 随侯珠 (Suí​ Hóu​ Zhū). Several theories exist as to what exactly this thing was. (Notably, the divine snake-delivery method is not questioned. Apparently, that kind of thing happened all the time back in the day.)
The "real pearl" theory is mostly dismissed since a real pearl would probably have degraded over the hundreds of years it was passed down, and natural pearls are not as big as the Marquis Pearl was supposed to have been. Other experts think it may have been a diamond, since one description says it "can light up a room like a candle."

Descriptions vary, but some hint that the object was larger than a person's thumb, and glowed in the dark, or at least shone brightly under moonlight. This description (it was sometimes called the "Pearl that Shines at Night" 夜明珠 yè míng zhū) has led some to believe that the Pearl was actually a chunk of fluorite, or fluorspar, which is found in some areas of China.

Fluorescing fluorite
Fluorite could fit the bill since it can be fluorescent, phosphorescent, photoluminescent, thermoluminescent and even triboluminescent. That means a really rare piece would glow: when exposed to UV light, for a while after being exposed to UV light, when exposed to regular light, when subjected to heat and when scratched, crushed or rubbed.

In any case, it disappeared from the historical record after the reign of Qin Shihuang, the ruler who unified China, standardized measurements and writing, had the terracotta warriors made, and invented the Internet. Speculation is that he had the Pearl buried with him when he died in 209 BCE, in his amazing, crossbow-booby-trapped.tomb, which features mechanically controlled flowing rivers of mercury. (More on that in a later post!)

Qin Shihuang's tomb remains sealed, so if it is ever opened, we may know the answer. Until then, the Pearl's secret stays buried. (Or in the private collection of some rich tycoon in Taiwan).

The Jade Disc of He
Bian He presents the jade three times

The first known story of this mysterious artifact is recorded in the Legalist philosophical work "Han Feizi," (韓非 Hán Fēizǐ), written by none other than the philosopher Han Feizi  (ca. 280 BCE – 233 BCE). Han retells the legend thusly:

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 BCE (a big year for mystical treasures), a man named Bian He (卞和 Biàn​ Hé) found a chunk of rock in the hills of his home near Jing Mountain (荆山 Jīng shān) in the State of Chu (楚国 Chǔ guó) (present day Hubei Province) while he was cutting firewood. Convinced that it was a piece of valuable, unpolished jade (璞玉 pú yù)​, he brought it to King Li (厉王 wáng), who had it looked at by a jade expert. The expert said: "石也." (shí yě: "It's a [freakin'] rock [you dumb hick].")

As a punishment for trying to trick the king (and probably for calling in the expert, who likely charged a totally unreasonable fee for simply showing up), the king had Bian He's left foot chopped off, a common punishment of the time known as  (yuè).

Years later when the next king, King Wu (武王 wáng), took over, Bian He went to him and presented his "rock" again. The king had his jade expert look at it. The expert said: "石也," (shí yě: "It's [still] a [freakin'] rock [you [one-footed] dumb hick].") And - you guessed it. They cut off Bian's right foot for attempting to swindle the king.

King Wu was succeeded by King Wen (文王 Wén wáng), but at this point Bian He finally caught on, and was afraid that if he went back with his treasure, most likely something very bad would happen to him since he had no feet left to chop off. So he took his chunk of rock and hid and wept for three days and nights until he was crying blood. Ow.

King Wen heard about this and fetched the miserable Bian He to ask why he was crying.

"There are many footless folks in these parts," the king said, somewhat outrageously. "So why are you so upset?"

"I'm not crying about my feet," replied Bian He. "I'm crying because people think my treasure is just a rock, and they think that I'm a liar!"

So King Wen relented and had a jade-worker break open the stone, and of course there was a beautiful piece of jade in it. Henceforth the priceless treasure was known as "The Jade Disc of He." (和氏璧 - Hé Shì Bì)

Why "disc,"you ask? At some point after King Wen cracked open Bian He's piece of jade, it must have been carved into a disc, since that is part of its legendary name.

璧(jade disc)
From neolithic times, Chinese cultures had been carving jade into flat discs with a round hole in the center, known as "bi." (璧 bì) The original purpose of these discs is not known, but the earliest ones were found in burial sites, so they probably had some kind of afterlife-type significance. One belief is that they are a type of information storage media brought by aliens from the planet M'Hoxxk, but no one else subscribes to that view besides me.

Han Feizi recorded the beginning of the story, but the legend of He's Disc merely starts there. The thing was passed down, stolen, used as a bargaining chip and finally lost sometime between the Tang and Ming Dynasties, or possibly earlier.

In 283 BCE, during the Warring States Period, the King of Qin heard that the King of Zhao had the Disc. He sent word that he would trade 15 cities for the object. Intrigue ensued, but essentially the King of Zhao held onto it until the famous Qin Shihuang (秦始皇 Qín​ Shǐ​ huáng (259-210 BCE)) defeated all of the other warring states in 221 BCE and united China as the First Emperor under the Qin Dynasty.

It's not clear how Qin Shihuang got the Disc, but he did, as well as the Marquis Pearl and other cool stuff, as evidenced by the words of famous bureaucrat, Qin Chancellor and Legalist philosopher Li Si (李斯 Lǐ Sī). In his famous treatise, "Advice against expelling immigrants," (谏逐客书 jiàn​ zhú​ kè​ shū)​, (which Li wrote because he was an immigrant and wanted to stay in Qin) he penned:

"Now, Your Highness controls the jade of Kun Mountain, possesses the treasures of Sui and He, holds the Bright Moon Pearl; wears the Sword of Tai Ah; rides Qianli, the Horse of Legend; flies the Jade Phoenix Flag, and holds the Drum of the Spirit Water Lizard. None of these treasures originated from Qin, yet Your Majesty speaks of them. Why?" (今陛下致昆山之玉,有随、和之宝,垂明月之珠,服太阿之剑,乘纤离之马,建翠凤之旗,树灵鼍之鼓. 此数宝者,秦不生一焉,而陛下说之,何也?)

The point being that the king has all these amazing treasures that are not indiginous to his homeland and yet are valued, so Li Si is saying that people from abroad (like himself) can also bring value to the kingdom. I think Obama used Li Si's argument in a debate with John McCain when they were talking about Mexican immigrants. (That's not true)

In any case, the "treasures of Sui and He" likely refer to the Disc and the Pearl. The "Bright Moon Pearl" might also be a reference to the Marquis Pearl as well. During his reign, Qin Shihuang made many decisions that would have long-ranging consequences. One of those was having the Disc made into an Imperial Seal, known as the Heirloom Seal of the Realm (传国玺 chuán​ guó ).

Live long and prosper.
The inscription on the 
Heirloom Seal may look like this.
It was inscribed with the phrase (also written by Li Si) "Having received the mandate of Heaven, may he live long and prosper forever." (受命於天既壽永昌 shòu ​mìng​ yú tiān​ jì​ shòu​ yǒng ​chāng). It was carved in the "birds and worms" script (鸟书, niǎochóng ​shū), a highly stylized form of seal script popular during the Warring States Period. (The image at left shows the inscription written in birds and worms.)

Over the next 1,600 years, the seal was passed between the emperors of nine dynasties. Defeated leaders would pass the seal on to their successors, and the seal was seen as a legitimizing symbol of the emperor's authority. It was lost sometime between the end of the Tang Dynasty in 907 and the start of the Ming in 1369. Or was it? One theory says that Qin kept the Disc and had it buried with him, and had the seal made from some other slaggy piece of jade that was lying around the palace.

In any case, after the seal disappeared, the country declined over the next thousand years from its peak at the height of the Tang Dynasty into the current bizarro-communist situation of today. Coincidence?

That concludes the tale of two treasures. Some day the mystery of their fates might be revealed. Stay tuned...


Mary Anne Huntington said...

Really interesting reading and great writing, but puleeez do not give me a quiz on names and dates.

Benjamin said...

Thanks for reading MAH! I don't think I would pass a quiz either