Old tomb sheds light on Ming dynasty’s voyages

BY :Sophia 丝路云帆

UPDATED :October 19, 2018


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In June 26, 2010, Nanjing Zutangshan Social Welfare Institute discovered an old brick-chambered tomb during their construction work at the foot of Zutangshan Mountain.

Archaeologists came and opened the gate of the tomb. They found that the brick structure, 8.2-meter-long, 4.1-meter-wide, and 3.5-meter-high, was composed of a front chamber and a rear chamber. The rear one houses the coffin of the tomb's owner, but all that had been eroded and disappeared except a few coffin nails.

A stone tablet was found on the wall, recording the identity and life story of the owner. It indicates that tomb belongs to Hong Bao, the second fiddle for Zheng He's oceangoing fleet in Ming dynasty. The tablet was made and inscribed before the death of Hong Bao, according to the inscriptions.

寿藏铭 The stone tablet found in the tomb.

Like Zheng He, Hong was also born in Yunan and got his name from Emperor Chengzu. Zheng and Hong shared similar experiences of being captured in the war and castrated in a young age and being dispatched on multiple voyages overseas to display the strength of the dynasty.

Having been robbed in early years, the tomb has a humble number of relics, including jade rings, earthenware jars and some other burial objects.

A pithos was found in the front chamber, containing a piece of blue brick with a hole in the middle.

洪保墓前室内的陶制大缸 A pithos was found in the front chamber.

大缸里面,有眼的青砖 A piece of blue brick with a hole in the middle was found in the pithos.

Archaeologists speculated that the pithos was used to contain oil, and a wick would normally be put on the hole of the brick so it can dip into the oil and keep burning, which is common in tombs from Ming dynasty.

The discovery of Hong Bao's tomb excited archaeologists, as the stone tablet found in the tomb sheds lights on the epic voyages in Ming dynasty.

"In the first year of Emperor Chengzu's reign (1403), Hong was appointed the deputy superintendent to lead a fleet on a voyage abroad, on a ship with a displacement of 5000 Liao (about 2500 tons)," the tablet reads.

This could mean that the first official oceangoing voyage in Ming dynasty started in 1403 instead of the 1405 we generally believe. And the fleet could have gone on more than seven voyages abroad. More importantly, the ship that Hong boarded had a displacement of over 2500 tons, which could mean that the ship Zheng He boarded might have been much bigger than we believe.

Two puzzles remained about the tomb of Hong Bao—first about the purpose of the iron hoops on the surrounding wall of the coffin bed, and second about the disappearance of the coffin and the body which were buried only 600 years ago.

Given the precious first-hand information it offered about the epic voyages of Ming dynasty, Hong Bao's tomb was listed as an important site of the ancient Maritime Silk Road.

Source: WeChat(丝路云帆)