Our group of five entertained no small discussion of the meaning hidden in the murals. The most sensible explanation was put forward by Zhou Ziyuan, who was well acquainted with mythology. He believed the content depicted in these scenes was an exact confirmation of how heroic mythology was elaborated on within modern theory. From the perspective of comparative mythology, the mural described the adventures of the hero in the headdress. He led his people into the cave because of the war, which symbolised that he had been summoned to embark on a journey. Falling into the river represented the danger and suffering of his experience, while rescue by the snake-like creatures meant he had received outside help. Entering the snake's mouth symbolized the trials of the hero, while the appearance of the white snake-like creature represented the sublimation of the hero after passing through the trials. Finally, leading the snake-creatures to obliterate the enemy tribe symbolized the return of the hero.
This theory explained why the white snake-creature had worn the same headdress and furs, and was depicted with the same decorative pattern; this strange animal was the man who had been offered into the snake's mouth. Entering the mouth meant death; this was a metaphor for the elimination of the hero's secular identity. That which was reborn within the mouth of the snake was a being higher than the material world—a god, or something approaching one. Replacing the original image of the man with the image of a serpentine figure was merely the visualization of this process. Naturally, the hero was still a human being, the mural merely utilized the expressive technique of symbols. Many primitive religions depicted priests or wizards as creatures different from ordinary people, even directly elevating them as the heirs of the gods. This symbol may have originated from the priests imitating these sacred snake-like creatures by wearing snake-skin (or the skin of another type of reptile) during sacrifices, just like a shaman covering himself in furs or an American Indian wearing feathers.
We could not reach a consensus on whether or not the serpent-creatures actually existed, if only because Yao Zhenhua thought they really may have depicted a type of long-extinct reptilian hominid. The rest of us suspected they were only the imaginings of primitive humans. Although, considering the images of half-human, half-snake creatures in China’s own ancient legends, this was not an utter impossibility.
Even so, we did not dally for long. After careful photography of the entire mural, we lifted our carbide lamps and proceeded down the tunnel, hoping for even more ancient artifacts to advance our understanding of Zhang’s revelations. Yet as we emerged from the other end of the tunnel, what our eyes beheld shocked us speechless.
The passage emptied out into an immeasurably gigantic hole. Even when we turned our high-strength torches—which we had specially brought to fathom the far ends of such crevasses—to maximum brightness, the effort was useless. Apart from the stone walls surrounding the aperture, our torches revealed nothing but dense shadow in every direction, like we had departed the cave for a lightless oblivion. Some time passed before it dawned on us that this was an unimaginably large shaft. Even Yang Hua, who had spent his life in the Geology Department, was unable to explain how such a cyclopean shaft could have formed.
A path extended from the portal’s right edge, scarcely wide enough for three men to walk abreast. It clung tightly to the wall of stone, sinking gently into the shaft’s far depths. Its surface was decked with uneven potholes, chipped stones, and smooth rocks; and the trail was of constant width throughout. The stone wall revealed cutting marks upon inspection. This proved the passageway had been carved by man, although it was unfathomable how those primitive Stone-Age denizens had accomplished this feat. All the chisel marks had been eroded to exceptional smoothness over time—indeed the result of generations of people leaning against the rock face as they descended. Our curiosity was piqued. What lay below, that was worthy of the ancestors accomplishing this work and walking this trail year after year?
We could not resist. In single file and clinging to the stone wall, we made our way to the deeper regions of the shaft. Quickly we were pleased to find the walls of the passageway were also covered in many more murals. The maturity of the drawing technique and the degeneration of the surface informed us these murals dated not to the same period, but were in fact becoming far more ancient as we trod further away from the tunnel. In contrast to the large-scale murals, these were smaller—most only a few square feet in size—and possessing a more casual style; some multicoloured, others simple outlines sketched in white. Some displayed a single scene, others were a combination of multiple. Some were simple narratives, others were difficult to understand—probably incorporating elements of religious significance from legend. All the same, no two were alike, and there was no scheme of fixed patterns and symbols. Perhaps the purpose of these murals was not mere decorations; perhaps they served as a record of important events, preserving cultural heritage. We investigated and recorded as much as we could from each mural we saw, despite limited time—and with each new inspection, fear and doubt gripped our hearts ever tighter. Those first people who had once walked here, like a river which dripped into the sea of life, bore no resemblance whatsoever to anything we had seen before. Surviving them was only an infinite strangeness that left us uncertain whether we dared to call them human.
These were clearly the descendants of the white tribe from the tunnel murals, and this deep cave their sacred ground and holy temple. Certain murals, mythological in nature, depicted the gods they worshipped—an incomparably giant snake and those serpentiform creatures with the slender forelimbs who meandered forward on their thick coarse tails. The murals told us those peculiar creatures were the progeny of the divine snake; its messengers. In the lowest depths of the sacred cave they lived in a great glorious city, with all manner of edifices towering therein. Between these structures grew an odd garden of huge mushrooms, around the outline of a queer open square that followed no rules—even Babylon paled in comparison to its marvellous majesty. Yet below that fabulous city lay an even larger world full of rolling hills, steep valleys, vast plains, and deep oceans. It was there that the divine snake, large as a mountain, swam and took its rest.
Just like in the murals from the tunnel, those grotesque serpent-things were again used to depict the high-caste priests and persons of interest living in the Ancient Country of Nanyu. In a series of narrative murals, the creatures conducted rituals, led the army, and imparted technical skills to mankind. Far fewer creatures appeared here than in the mythical city, and they had been rendered in richer detail—like the humans, they wore strange ornaments or wrapped themselves in animal pelts. These decorations convinced us that the serpent-men were merely an expressive technique to mark the social status of different tribespeople. Besides those symbolic creatures, the murals contained many other varieties of monster, seemingly degenerate or dissimilated humans, whose appearance inspired a terror previously unique to nightmares. These things were not even exceptional; in fact, there were three types of different exotic beast that commonly appeared in the murals.
One was a giant ape similar to a human, tall as one and a half or two men—physically strong, with forearms hanging to the knees, and the ability to walk upright like a gorilla. Their smooth hairless bodies, flat head shape, and flatter faces imbued these creatures with even more human-like features. These animals seemed to be beasts of burden for the ancients of Nanyu, carrying heavy loads on their backs or scaling cliffs in many of the murals.
The second kind of animal was more disgusting: like savage humans who had devolved into beasts. Their hairless bodies were of similar proportion to a human's, but bowed at the waist. Like a dog or a bear, they used their four limbs to run at high speeds, hunting prey and pursuing the enemies of the ancients of Nanyu. We discovered in some more detailed murals that their forepaws did not have short toes like canids and ursids use for running, but long ones like a primate's… or a human's. They had slender splaying knuckles, four fingers that bent in either direction, and a grasping thumb. From the tip of each slender finger grew a sharp talon-like nail long enough to rend flesh—it was so similar to both a human's palm and a wild animal’s claw that we were left with a peculiar sense of unease. And yet, the true horror was still the animal’s face: more man-like than any ape, but there was something it… lacked. We refused to call it man; it was a melange of human and animal. Its forehead and its eyes were human, save its missing eyebrows and hairless scalp, but the collapsed nose-bridge, its upturned nostrils, its protruding jaw, and its formidable incisors and canines belonged to a hideous, violent beast. All throughout, the beasts maintained a crazed, monstrous face, devoid of any expression that man ought to exhibit. We were uncertain whether to feel fortunate or fearful.
The final beast, the shortest of the three, looked like a bald monkey or an unnatural dwarf, with outgrown forearms and stubby hindlegs. Upright, they were about half the height of a human, but their distinguishing feature was their heads, which were far too large for their bodies—more or less the same size as an adult human's, except with a pair of incommensurately huge eyes and exaggerated ears. They seemed to be scouts for the ancients of Nanyu; they scaled trees with their slender arms to spot distant quarries.
There was no agreement among us whether these bizarre images—and the snake-priests—were symbolic expressions of social class, or whether such unnatural creatures had once existed in reality. At least, we reached no definite conclusion while studying the murals. Nonetheless we hoped with our whole hearts these were merely images employed by prehistoric painters, and simply difficult for modern humans to intuit. We were already discomfited by the idea that those beasts, which may or may not have been human, had potentially possessed the intelligence to cooperate with humans on complex tasks. If true, it was the substance of nightmares.
Compared to these weird animals, the murals showed relatively fewer normal humans. The ones one could see were always conducting activities in the temple or the cave nearby. The humans were divided into two separate classes: a small portion served as craftsmen or servants, doing menial labor, preparing the food, cleaning the temple, and painting murals. The larger portion were provided for, like aristocracy, and scarcely needed to work at all. The murals exhaustively illustrated their obesity, with some of them so bloated they could not even stand—as though this matter were both necessary and important to flaunt. The structure of their society greatly surprised us, since we had never before seen a primitive civilization that could tolerate such a high proportion of non-working people. Moreover, all of the people represented were young adults: we could almost find no other age group of human beings—the murals contained nothing about childbirth, childrearing, aging, or funeral rites.
We also found reason to believe this cave was not their only homestead. Several murals exhibited the vast size of the Ancient Country of Nanyu. A group of people led every kind of strange animal out of the cave to new frontiers, new settlements—typically, enormous and deep caverns. The ancients of Nanyu seemed to believe these caves were connected to the underground world where the divine snake lived, and were therefore sacred. The murals hardly mentioned what lay between these settlements. Each and every cave acted as an independent tribe, or city, scattered amidst the mountains of southwestern Sichuan.
Some of the other murals displayed wars between the Ancient Country of Nanyu and other tribes and countries. The later murals depicted scenes of several settlements at once invading, or being invaded by, another kingdom; yet, these wars were waged not for territory… but food. Those humanoid beasts would storm the other villages in packs, murdering any living thing they could find. They would cunningly ambush armies trying to cross the steep mountains, breaking up any groups of soldiers too slow to react, or simply pushing them down the mountain. The half-ape giants would lumber over the battlefield after the killings and bring the slain corpses back to the cave. We had known that cannibalism was not exactly unimaginable in the dawn of humanity, yet still we shuddered to think of such organized efforts to make prey of other people. Even more terrifying was the ancients’ attitude toward predation, which was far different from the cannibalistic societies we were familiar with. The latter commonly attributed special religious or social significance to the practice—Aztecan blood sacrifice appeased the gods; New Guinean natives swallowed their old to reduce extraneous consumption of food... To these ancients, however, the people of other tribes were nothing but a daily food source, just another game animal. They held no grand ceremony for the slaughter of man, nor did they view human flesh with any precious significance other than as food. A strange fantasy took hold of us, suggesting that these ancestors were not, after all, human; rather, that they were wicked abominations in the form of men.