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The First Wonder of Guizhou
a coded Message on a Red Cliff

29 May 2006

In China's remote mountainous Guizhou province where the unspoiled natural beauty is characterised by limestone hills, rocky caves, roaring waterfalls and terraced rice fields, a gigantic red cliff rising 30 metres from the level ground bears mysterious symbols. This cliff is known as the First Wonder of Guizhou - Red Cliff Relics (红崖天书).

The location of Guizhou Province highlighted in red colour

The Landscape of Guizhou

The sizes of the symbols vary, from one metre to two metres, so do their shapes, some resembling pictographic characters, others looking more like abstract drawings. And they are neither lined up horizontally, nor arranged vertically.

This piece of wonder has bewildered and puzzled Chinese historians and the general public for centuries. What are they? The work of Mother Nature? The written language of a lost tribe? Or, a message to the mankind from an alien civilisation?

Recently, however, some researchers in China came up with an amazing theory: it is none of the above but an imperial decree written in code.

The earliest record of this dates back to the middle Ming dynasty (1368 - 1646). Following this clue, they carefully studied the copy of the symbols and discerned some Chinese characters in assorted written styles, such as "yun" (允) on the top left corner, "bing" (丙) adjacent to "shu" (戍), and "xin" (心) for heart under a reversed "yi" (乙) for swallow.

In the Chinese calendar system, "bing" and "shu" together represent a fire dog year (like 2006, also a fire dog year), which appears only every 60 years. During the early Ming dynasty period, there was only one fire dog year, which is year 1406, and this led the researchers to look hard into another unsolved conundrum in Chinese history: the mysterious disappearance of the second Ming emperor, Jianwen.

In 1368, the first emperor of Ming overthrew the tyrannical Mongol reign and founded the last authentic Chinese Dynasty Ming (明: character "sun" plus "moon", meaning enlightened). While he moved the capital from Beijing to southern city Nanjing, he sent his fourth son back to strengthen the frontier defence in the north. Since the abbreviation of Beijing in Chinese is "yan" (which is also a character for swallow), the fourth son was titled Prince of Yan.

When the first Ming emperor died in 1398, power passed to his grandson Yunwen who ruled under the title "Jianwen".

Emperor Jianwen was gentle, relaxed and poetic by nature in contrary to his grandfather, an aggressive warlord. He proclaimed a general amnesty, put Confucian officials in the key positions to replace the military chiefs, and scaled down the bureau system to lighten the burden of taxpayers. Harsh laws were modified, excessive land taxes were reduced, and orphanages and nursing houses for childless elderly were installed. He was also a believer in the value of wide consultation in policy-making, and welcomed criticisms. Once he was censured by an official for being late to a daily court morning meeting. Despite the criticism was not entirely justified as it was caused by a sudden illness, the emperor still publicly apologised. But he was too young therefore too inexperienced, and too much of an idealist to rule a huge kingdom effectively. When he tried to restrict the power of his prince uncles who overruled their residing provinces with their private armies, the princes rebelled. They soon rallied around Prince of Yan who had designs on the throne.

After four years of bloody battle, Prince of Yan carried the day and his armed forces entered Nanjing. The palace was set on fire, and burned bodies were claimed to be those of Emperor Jianwen and his empress, although the official documents later admitted that his remains were never positively identified.

The majority of the civil officials, however, refused to serve under the new emperor. Eventually tens of thousands were executed, incarcerated or banished, along with their families, relatives, friends, students and even neighbours. Dark military power of an autocratic prince had overcome a short enlightened period of Confucian liberalism.

But legends were passed on that Emperor Jianwen escaped his fate and had fled, possibly, overseas, and that Prince of Yan, now Emperor Yongle, was sending fleets led by his trusted eunuch Zheng He to locate the whereabouts of his predecessor.

Although this tragic hero's post-emperorhood existence has become a subject of popular fascination and literary motif for good 600 years, opinions are widely divided among the historians. Was he indeed burnt to death at the tender age of twenty-four, or he actually lived to a ripe old age and became an eminent Buddhist monk?

Yet by connecting the symbols on the red cliff to this piece of history, the researchers were able to break up the code. An image at the top right corner is identified as containing three distorted Chinese characters in Seal Style: "yun" (允), "wen" (文) and "majesty" (上) - the classic form of address in an imperial decree. And the one above the "heart" is recognised as the ancient character "swallow" written in a revered way - usurpation in Chinese is often represented by character "fan" (反 ), meaning reverse, so this code seems to be illustrating the fact that Prince of Yan is an usurper.

Having deciphered all the symbols, the researchers announced that the red cliff was once used as an imperishable message board by Emperor Jianwen who invented the coded language to publicly communicate with his officials in exile.

Many historians in China, nevertheless, are yet to be convinced. They doubt it is truly an imperial decree in disguise, or it was indeed issued by Emperor Jianwen, and after all, the young man ever survived the place fire on Lunar 13 June (13 July) 1402 in the first place.

Emperor Yongle (Prince of Yan), who relocated China's capital to Beijing, built the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, and initiated the biggest naval expeditions in history

Here is an ancient Chinese couplet that praises the top two wonders in Guizhou: Huangguoshu Waterfall and Red Cliff Relics:


Related website: Emperor Jianwen Research


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