History Lessons

Blood money

The treasure of Zhang Xianzhong


Most people attribute the observation “History is written by the victors” to Winston Churchill, but there is no conclusive proof that he actually coined the phrase. This highlights another fact of history: it is sometimes just myth.

In the official history of the Ming Dynasty, written by scholars of the Qing Dynasty, which had conquered it, one warlord is singled out as being responsible for the deaths of 600 million people in Sichuan through massacres, poor governance and resulting famines.

This is an obvious fallacy: the population of China was roughly only 150 million at that time. Nevertheless, this canonised Zhang Xianzhong as a bloodthirsty and ruthless scourge.

Zhang came to power as the leader of a roving horde of bandits in the 1630s. He deserted the imperial army to become a member of a rebellious peasant faction, which had risen in protest against the ruling Ming Dynasty.

He led his rebels south, engaging in skirmishes and raids, plundering villages and occasionally capturing cities. Sometimes he would be forced to surrender, but he always regrouped, and continued roving with his army. Eventually, in 1644, his troops invaded Sichuan province, first capturing what is modern day Chongqing, before seizing the modern capital of Sichuan, Chengdu.

Once he had Sichuan, Zhang proclaimed his own dynasty, the Daxi. According to Jesuit missionaries in Sichuan at the time, Zhang began his dynasty by ruling justly. But when Ming loyalists converged on Chongqing – in the same year the faltering dynasty was about to be toppled by the Manchus – his mania took over.

Accounts written centuries later attest that Zhang would send his forces on random massacres throughout the province, ordering his victims decapitated and their heads gathered in piles.

Once, Zhang was said to have promised to build two “heavenly candles” if he recovered from an illness. When he regained his health, he began construction of his candles by ordering the feet cut off of numerous women and sorted into two piles. He then placed the severed feet of his favourite concubine on top of the two piles, doused them in oil, and set them ablaze.

Tales of these atrocities created the idea that Zhang Xianzhong was responsible for the near-complete depopulation of Sichuan province, as thousands died and more fled. But another rumour grew too: it held that whilst fleeing enemy forces by boat, Zhang ordered the war chests he was carrying to be dumped into the Minjiang river, at the spot where it flows through today’s Meishan township.

This rumour, at least, has slowly been proven more accurate. According to state broadcaster CCTV, silver treasure has washed up on the shore since the 1950s. Then in 2005, farmers found a silver ingot whilst digging an irrigation ditch. Unsurprisingly, locals began embarking on treasure hunts, and as more artefacts turned up – some engraved with Zhang’s name – it was no longer just locals who were dredging the river for treasure.

The Global Times reports that in 2010, the stretch of river where most of the bounty has been recovered became a registered historical site. And in 2014, local police noticed that this same stretch of river had also become an unofficial hotspot for scuba diving.

The police decided to launch an investigation, and over the course of two years solved 328 cases involving the illegal trafficking of cultural relics, busted 10 trafficking rings and recovered thousands of artefacts, valued at over $45 million.

But although evidence had been mounting for decades, it was only in December 2015 that a group of academics from some of China’s most prestigious history academies decided that the legend of Zhang’s sunken treasure was fact. They requested permission for an official archaeological investigation, which was approved by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in June 2016.

Finally, on March 20 this year, officials from Sichuan convened a press conference to announce that the legend of the missing treasure had been confirmed by the efforts of the archaeological team, which had unearthed over 10,000 relics from the riverbed.

A member of the Sichuan Archaeology Research Centre told CCTV of the relics, “We believe they were plundered to finance the army,” adding a tangible truth to the rumours that envelop the peasant rebel Zhang Xianzhong.

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