Obviously, the folktale elucidated the origins of that mysterious scroll to an extent. Ours was without a doubt the “Zi Suo Mo” of the Yi people, but the myth itself had revealed more troubling unknowns. I contacted my friends in the folklore research department for a discussion, and they informed me in no uncertain terms that this fable traced its origins to the far-flung recesses of time immemorial. The most immediate evidence would be its faint hints at the rituals of the time... that is, the act of sacrificing one’s brother to the mountain gods.
No, it was no act of martyrdom. As a consecration of heaven and earth, the people of the Central Plain once offered up the lives of their fellow tribesmen in sacrifice. This tradition supposedly ended long ago; the most recent example dated back to the Dongyi graves of the Western Zhou period3. Although there was no consensus on exactly when ancient Sichuan witnessed these human sacrifices, it could not have taken place later than King Huiwen of Qin’s conquest of the region4. This fable, if accurate, could represent three thousand years of history. Zhang had no doubt learnt of this myth, too—he had asked a friend of mine, also a scholar of southwestern customs, about a very similar story back in the fall of ‘07. This, among other reasons, may have been why he chose to name his prehistoric discovery “the Old Country of Nanyu”.
At any rate, the fable yielded no other useful information. It held only fragments of fragments, making further inductions impossible to extract. Anyone else would have believed they had hit a dead end. Fortunately—or unfortunately—Zhang had a knack for the names of ancient places. He discovered his next clue submerged in an ocean of ancient books: a scarcely-mentioned place once known as “Mount Nanyu”.
It was not long before academic circles heard the news. In October of 2008, Zhang held a conference in Beijing titled “Origins of China’s Ancient Civilizations” where he first announced his discovery of “the Ancient Country of Nanyu”. His report sparked such an intense debate that his critics spent most of the cross-examination period contradicting the findings. I did not make it to that summit, although when I first heard his thesis I could already imagine the outrage it would provoke.
Due to a lack of concrete evidence for his hypotheses, Zhang had understandably resorted to citing ancient texts as reference. His error, however, was grave. Most of the records he quoted were not trusted historical record, but supernatural texts: Wang Jia’s Forgotten Tales of the Eastern Jin [317-420 AD], Liu An’s Masters of Huainan of the Western Han [206 BC-8 AD], and the more doubtful Tale of King Mu, Son of Heaven. This was not to mention the apocrypha that most of academia considered to be counterfeits, some so obscure even I had never heard of them: the four scrolls of the Classic of Kunlun in the Classic of Mountain and Sea, the unfathomable seven Cryptic Books of Xian, and finally, the Records of Da-Huang, a forbidden scroll that once drove an emperor to try to burn every copy in existence. Evidence of this sort was, charitably, hard to believe. At worst, it demonstrated that the so-called "Old Country of Nanyu” was nothing but an indulgent, fantastical prank.
But the public opinion did not sway everyone. A small minority of researchers noticed that the calm, careful, and holistic consultation of the pseudepigrapha had revealed a bizarre phenomenon: although the old texts had been written in vastly different eras and locations, their contents—especially concerning Ancient Nanyu—were unusually consistent, with the most detailed myths found in the Records of Da-Huang, of the early Qin dynasty. The accounts of the Records, specifically the folktales from Nanyu, seemed to upset people considerably, eliciting thoughts of dread, directionless horror, and lasting nightmares in at least one case. According to these accounts, the mountains of ancient southwestern Sichuan once held an incomparably powerful empire, which had flourished in glory for hundreds, even thousands of generations—before the formation of modern-day China, before the civilizations of ancient Sichuan, even before the first primitive tribesman set foot in those Neolithic mountains.
According to the tome, the inhabitants of that land were called the Yu-Hui, possibly the original settlers of the southwestern plains. When the book was written, Nanyu had already developed into a fiercely prosperous empire, although there was no mention of when it had originated. From the central mountains across to the vast southern range, Nanyu held the entirety of the Bashu plains in its power. In its later years of decline, war broke out between it and the developing nation of ancient Shu [modern-day Sichuan]. To bring an end to the conflict, the Nanyu empire settled to relinquish the Bashu plains while retaining their home among the mountains, so long as the Shu paid annual tribute to preserve a peaceful equilibrium. The two states honored this agreement for almost a thousand years. It was possible that a small amount of Nanyu mythology, tradition, and religion had been passed down to the ancient Shu, and finally, osmoted into China’s own.
Religion held immense sway in that old empire. Unlike other early East Asian civilizations, the Yu-Hui worshipped neither nature nor totems; these mysterious inhabitants of antiquity revered only a single deity and its offspring. The god was known as “Ba-Hui”, or the “Great Serpent”5. The Yu-Hui believed Ba-Hui was unimaginably gargantuan, its body sunken beneath the Four Seas6 and coiling around the eight cardinal directions, encircling every continent and nestling its head in a crevice under the earth. So immense was Ba-Hui that its slightest stirring would shake the planet’s foundations, causing the ground to seize and earth’s mountainous veins to crumble, so it usually kept still. For this reason, Nanyu’s people revered the deep mountain caves, and made these sacred sites their places of ritual and sacrifice. In order to achieve closeness with their god, the people built their homes within these mountain caves, and held elaborate sacrifices in the networks of caverns. The closer one came to Ba-Hui, the easier one might receive the god’s favor. Their priests ruled over even the emperor, and the High Priest—the seat of the empire’s authority—oversaw only the most magnificent sacrificial ceremonies.
3 1027-771 BC.
4 338-311 BC.
5 “Ba” 巴: the ancient country of Sichuan. “Hui” 虺: a putative, legless dragon. See Pronunciation.
6 A.k.a. the boundaries of the known world.