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陳培脈《南越王墓》 “Tomb of the King of Nanyue” by Chen Peimai









In the days when All-under-Heaven put an end to the Qin,

[he] took the opportunity to occupy the land of Yue.

To entertain himself, [he] casually sneaked the throne into his pocket;

Having grown stronger, [he] eventually proclaimed himself hegemon.

In the flaming sea, winds and billows are vigorous;

Over the lone tomb, grass and wood are gone.

After millennia, [his] heroic spirit remains,

constantly surrounding the palace of Commandant Tuo.

* From Qing shi biecai 清詩別裁, edited by Shen Deqian 沈德潛 (1673-1769) (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2013), 1028.

[1] Red characters rhyme.


The discovery of the mausoleum of the King of Nanyue in Guangzhou was one of the biggest archaeological events towards the end of the twentieth century as it revealed a fascinating diffusion of cultures in the South of the Ridges during the first century BCE. In addition to the sets of jade pendants, jade burial suit, bronze vessels and weapons that one may expect from a big royal tomb from this period, the funerary artifacts also include nomadic golden plates with Eurasian Steppe animal motifs, a Persian-style silver box, a horn cup presumably imitating a Greek Rhyton, and African elephant tusks, among other exotic objects that inspire the imagination about the prosperity along the Maritime Silk Road. I also adore the bronze barbecue set, the ginger shredder, and the hook with a bell-shaped water trap to guard food against ants.

Spanning nearly a century, the Nanyue Kingdom and its royal tombs were a famous legend in history. The first king of Nanyue, Zhao Tuo 趙佗 (257-137 BCE, ruling 203-137 BCE), once served the Qin empire as a military commander of Nanhai (modern Guangdong). Witnessing the chaos towards the end of the Qin, he annexed the neighbouring lands (including my hometown), quickly established himself as the major force in the South of the Ridges and proclaimed himself king shortly before the founding of the Han regime in the north. Although the Nanyue Kingdom recognised the Han as the legitimate imperial house, it largely maintained its autonomy during the first decades of the Han and even briefly declared itself an independent empire.

Although the South of the Ridges was perceived as a land of exiles after it fell under the central control of the northern court from the Tang onwards, Zhao Tuo and his descendants were obviously quite happy with their kingdom during the first century BCE. The posterity of the kingdom was also famous enough to tempt Sun Quan 孫權 (182-252, ruling 229-252) to send his men to strip the land near its former capital Panyu 番禺 (modern Guangzhou) to find the king’s tomb. They managed to locate the tomb of the third king of Nanyue and brought a good amount of valuables back to the capital of Easter Wu (modern Jiangsu).[2]

Many poets have composed verses about the King of Nanyue, by which they all meant Zhao Tuo, and about visiting his mausoleum, which must be one of the suspected locations of the real tomb. It is said that the first king arranged several carriages to leave in different directions on his burial day to conceal the actual location of his tomb. He was successful. The tomb found by Sun Quan’s men belongs to Zhao Tuo’s great-grandson, and the one excavated in the 1980s belongs to Zhao Tuo’s grandson and the second king of Nanyue, Zhao Mo 趙眜 (175-124 BCE, ruling 137-124 BCE). The location of Zhao Tuo’s real tomb remains a mystery today.

But a poet is not a treasure-hunter. Whether the tomb is the real one with the body and funerary objects inside doesn’t really matter (at least not that much). For a local poet such as Chen Peimai 陳培脈 (fl. 18th century, a native of Chaozhou), Zhao Tuo is certainly a hero of the region. Chen Peimai’s lines are filled with appreciation of the first king, and the establishment of the kingdom is depicted almost like a game, which serves to contrast with the king’s prowess.

It is interesting that the last line mentions Zhao Tuo’s palace, perhaps referring to a memorial building or an imaginary one. But today we do know something about the palace of the Nanyue Kingdom. In Guangzhou, there are two museums, both very nice and accessible, dedicated to the Nanyue Kingdom: one for Zhao Mo’s tomb and the other the Nanyue palace. The relics of the Nanyue royal garden are a gem. It is the earliest known example of its kind in China and has some lovely details. Along the crooked brook that runs through the garden, for instance, we find a few slabs that glide from the soil level to the brook bed. The museum guide told us that these might have been prepared for the turtles kept in the garden to take a sunbath! On the not-so-bright side, we also find bamboo slips recording that (possibly during a mouse plague) any servant who failed to catch five mice would be beaten.

(A slab presumably prepared for turtles’ sunbathing; the well next to it is from the Qing dynasty)

It’s noteworthy that, apart from the legacy of the Nanyue Kingdom, archaeologists also discovered on this site relics of road surfaces, drainage systems, building foundations, etc. constructed throughout the two millennia after the fall of the Nanyue Kingdom. One also finds a gallery of the Nanhan Kingdom (917-971) that offers a precious opportunity to glimpse into the side stream of Chinese history. Most impressive of all, the site was such a densely inhabited area that more than 500 wells from Han to Qing times have been excavated since the 1990s, so within the museum there is a building dedicated to the history of Chinese wells.

In short, I’m glad that I always find something interesting to do when I visit Guangzhou for visa applications, international flights, visiting friends, etc. There is a wealth of culture to be discovered in the history of Guangzhou, the city that has remained a cultural and economic centre in the South of the Ridges over two millennia.

[2] See Taiping huanyu ji 太平寰宇記:


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