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