In 1965 Archaeologists In China Discovered A Perfectly Preserved 2,400-Year-Old Weapon

It’s 1965 in central China, and a team of archaeologists are exploring a network of subterranean tombs. Then the experts locate something intriguing: an ancient, water-logged casket. Prizing the object open, the group find both a human skeleton and a sealed wooden box contained within. But that isn’t all. Inside that box is a sword – a beautifully crafted instrument that no one has set eyes on for around 2,400 years. And the weapon was once in the possession of one of the country’s important historical figures, as the archaeologists will ultimately find out.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the sword is so old, however, as such blades have long represented power in human societies. For warriors of so many different cultures and era, the weapons have been seen to symbolize strength, chivalry and masculinity – as well as war. And this is reflected in the plethora of hero myths that have survived through the ages, from the tale of King Arthur and Excalibur to the Greek fable of Perseus. The Far East, too, has much to offer in this arena.

The sword discovered in the Chinese tomb in 1965, meanwhile, has proved to be an incredible cultural treasure. The so-called Sword of Goujian is not just exceptional for its outstanding workmanship, but also for its extraordinary physical properties. And the weapon’s unearthing in modern times has allowed historians to take a look back into an ancient world.

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More specifically, the sword was uncovered in the province of Hubei. That name translates to “north of the lake” – a reference to the expansive Dongting Lake in Hunan province. During Neolithic times, the Hubei area was inhabited by humans, and it is considered to be one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization. Given its rich history, then, naturally, Hubei province has an intriguing archaeological record.

And Hubei is geographically significant, too. At its heart, the province hosts a sprawling, ultra-fertile alluvial plain called Jianghan. This stretch of land is itself surrounded by the Jing, Daba, Wu and Wudang mountain ranges, with the highest peak among them all climbing to more than 10,000 feet. The Yangtze river also runs through Hubei, with one of its larger tributaries, the Han, joining it at the Jianghan Plain.

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Furthermore, the plain is punctuated by numerous bodies of water – the reason why Hubei is also known as the “Province of Lakes.” In addition – and thanks to its many hydroelectric dams – the land has a high number of artificially created reservoirs. In fact, the region is currently home to the largest dam in the world in terms of electrical output: the Three Gorges on the Yangtze.

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The Sword of Goujian, meanwhile, was found during a survey of the Zhang River reservoir’s second aqueduct, which is located in the city of Jingzhou. The urban center is a 2,000-year-old hub of culture and history that was once the illustrious capital of the State of Chu – a kingdom that lasted for 411 years and saw a succession of 20 rulers.

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Now, while investigating a section of aqueduct in Jiangling County, the archaeologists discovered a series of 50 tombs that were all apparently constructed during the Chu era. In October 1965, then, they commenced digging at the site – and to some success, too. You see, over the three months that followed, the team would go on to recover more than 2,000 artifacts.

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And the casket containing the Sword of Goujian was discovered in a tomb situated around four miles from the ruined city of Ying. That bygone city was another old capital of Chu that is now located close to contemporary Jingzhou, and it came to international prominence when the sword attracted media attention from across the globe.

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The sword, it transpired, was forged during the so-called Spring and Autumn period in China’s history – an epoch that lasted from 771 B.C. to 476 B.C. The name given to the weapon, meanwhile, comes from a set of records written during this time that describe the affairs of the state of Lu.

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Known as the Spring and Autumn Annals, these documents contain accounts of major events in the region, such as battles, marriages, deaths and rituals. And the annals – which are traditionally thought to have been assembled by the pivotal Chinese philosopher Confucius – remain a key historical source. In fact, today they are regarded as one of the Five Classics of Chinese literature.

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The Spring and Autumn period began in 771 B.C. with the destruction of Haojing, the capital of Western Zhou. Defeated by the Quanrong, the Zhou king escaped to the east and founded the Eastern Zhou dynasty in the capital city of Luoyi. Yet his power over the region was far from absolute.

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In order to hold his empire together, then, the Zhou king had relatives and loyal generals manage parcels of it as their own fiefdoms. These areas then gradually evolved into separate states, with the dozen most powerful states becoming known as the “12 vassals.” And representatives from the states met frequently to strategize and collaborate – particularly in matters of warfare.

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But as time went on, the kingdoms began to quarrel among themselves. Then warfare in Hubei led to the gradual establishment of numerous small states, transforming the map of the region. In fact, 148 states were noted in the Spring and Autumn Annals – although the total was ultimately reduced to just 20.

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Naturally, the period was marked by ongoing technological developments – particularly in the production of armaments. Yes, fine swords were designed and forged during this era, with some even taking a number of years to complete. And the Sword of Goujian is one such weapon – itself a product of tremendous skill and labor.

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The Sword of Goujian stretches to just under 22 inches long and weighs just a little under 31 ounces. Tapering to a pointed tip, its blade is slightly less than 2 inches in width at its base, while the hilt – or handle – of the sword measures up at 3.3 inches in length.

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The sword is sumptuous in appearance, too, with the surface of the blade on both sides etched with diamond patterns. The hilt, meanwhile, is lightly embellished with blue stones and silk bindings, while its rounded pommel features 11 circles that all share the same center. Great care was seemingly taken, then, in the weapon’s design and construction.

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But what makes the Sword of Goujian truly special is its remarkable state of preservation. Yes, despite having spent more than 2,000 years in a water-soaked tomb, the artifact was discovered completely untarnished. It remained deadly sharp to boot, as researchers found it quite capable of slicing through a pile of 20 sheets of paper.

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Why was the sword in such exceptional condition? For starters, its air-tight sheath helped protect it from the elements. And the metallurgical composition of the weapon also played a part in its longevity. You see, while the blade consists mainly of copper – thus bestowing it with flexibility – its edges contain extra tin, which gives them an enduring sharpness. Traces of sulfur throughout have also reportedly helped to protect the metal against tarnishing.

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As for the owner of the sword? Well, he is named in two columns of engraved script on both sides of the blade. That writing is a type of seal script known as bird-worm after the fuzzy strokes that define its characters. Seal script derived from so-called oracle bone script and was in popular use throughout the Spring and Autumn period.

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The inscriptions on the sword reveal, then, that it once belonged to a local king. On one side of the blade, there are the words “King of Yue”; on the other, it reads, “Made this sword for [his] personal use.” Unfortunately, though, the script does not specify exactly which particular King of Yue is responsible for bringing the weapon to life.

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The Kingdom of Yue was a regional power that lasted for approximately 160 years until its annexation by Chu in 334 B.C. During that period, however, nine different monarchs ruled over the state. And so in order to determine the sword’s owner, a group of historians started to share their theories in a series of written letters.

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Then, after several weeks of discussion, the scholars began to develop a broad sense of the sword’s history. It is believed that the weapon once belonged to Goujian – a warrior-king famed for his grit and determination in difficult times. Goujian participated in the last great war of the age and is thought by some to have been one of the Five Hegemons.

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The Five Hegemons were essentially a succession of regional warlords who had the power to mobilize the considerable military resources of the Zhou empire. In effect, these men were responsible for maintaining peace and unity throughout the region as well as defending the land from outside aggression.

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But before he could become a hegemon, Goujian first had to prove himself worthy. Inheriting the Yue crown from his father Yunchang, Goujian became king in 496 B.C., upon which he immediately faced an existential challenge. At that time, King Helü of Wu – a neighboring state and long-running enemy of Yue – perceived vulnerability in the Yue court and gathered his armies for an attack.

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The feud between Yue and Wu was rooted in a failed diplomatic strategy that ought to have tied the two kingdoms: the marriage of a Yue princess to a Wu prince. But, sadly, that union ultimately failed. And when the princess subsequently fled to her home country, it caused enough bad blood to start a war.

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Yet Helü’s opportunistic attack turned out to be a grave misstep, as at the Battle of Zuili, he was roundly defeated by Yue and left with mortal injuries. Before dying, though, he instructed his son Fuchai to take revenge for his defeat – thereby committing future generations to the cycle of conflict. “Never forget Yue,” Helü apparently told Fuchai.

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Then, three years later, Wu and Yue faced off again. This time, however, it was Wu who emerged victorious, and he even took Goujian prisoner. And yet Goujian was not executed nor even kept in a locked cell. Instead, he was forced to suffer the symbolic indignity of acting as Fuchai’s attendant.

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Goujian’s ordeal lasted for three years before Fuchai allowed him to return home. With his royal power restored, Goujian subsequently assembled a team of seasoned counselors and diplomats to help strengthen his kingdom. And at the same time, he began pursuing a strategy of weakening Wu and its infrastructure with unofficial inducements and conspiracies.

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In fact, there is an old Chinese idiom that’s said to partly refer to Goujian’s dogged persistence: “sleeping on sticks and tasting gall.” During his reign, you see, Goujian did not indulge himself in worldly extravagances. Instead, he ate as simply as the common folk and even forced himself to consume bile as a reminder of his captivity in Wu.

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And in the end, Goujian’s persistence paid off. According to a historical chronicle written by the Han dynasty in 94 B.C. and known as the Shiji, a decade of focused statecraft had transformed Yue into a regional powerhouse. “[After] ten years of reforms,” the text says, “the state is rich [and] the warriors well-rewarded.”

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Before striking at the Wu capital, though, Goujian had waited for Fuchai to guide his armies northward for a separate confrontation with the state of Qi. That strategic move proved to be a success, with Goujian even managing to kill You, the crown prince of Wu. Then in 473 B.C. Goujian again laid siege to the capital. And this time, the city endured for three years before falling.

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Interestingly, Goujian was known for some bizarre and terrifying tactics on the battlefield. It is said, for example, that he would fill his front lines with self-destructing soldiers. Rather disturbingly, these men’s function seems to have been to frighten the enemy by committing suicide – sacrificing themselves in a spectacle by slicing their own throats.

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Now, despite Fuchai having shown him clemency years before, Goujian refused to accept Fuchai’s surrender – leaving the monarch with no other option than to take his own life. Then, upon assuming control of Wu, Goujian purged the Wu court by executing its scholars. Indeed, in what was perhaps a wise – yet undoubtedly cruel – move, the triumphant King Goujian did not spare his enemies.

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Goujian subsequently reigned over the Kingdom of Yue for 31 years until his death in the year 465 B.C. Then around a decade later, the wider region entered a new phase of history known as the Warring States period. This was a time typified by an intensification and escalation of interstate conflicts.

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In 334 B.C. – six generations after the reign of Goujian – King Wujiang of Yue was readying to invade Qi. The king of Qi dispatched a diplomat, however, to convince him to launch an assault on Chu instead. And yet the attack failed, Wujiang was defeated and the Kingdom of Yue was subsequently conquered by Chu.

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The Warring States period actually continued until 221 B.C, when the state of Qin conquered all six of its major enemies and China was unified under Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of Qin. And while the Qin dynasty was short-lived – lasting just 15 years – it did have its own enduring legacy. In that period, a new form of Chinese imperialism was introduced that ultimately lasted until 1912.

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Today, then, the Sword of Goujian is on display in Hubei Provincial Museum. The weapon has not continually been at the location since the ’60s, however, as in 1994 it was lent to a museum in Singapore – where, unfortunately, it was accidentally damaged. And since that incident, the sword has been added to a list of artifacts that are not allowed to be removed from China.

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Meanwhile, in 1983 archaeologists discovered a remarkable companion piece to the Sword of Goujian while digging in Jiangling: a spear belonging to King Fuchai of Wu. And as is the case with the sword, the Spear of Fuchai is engraved with bird-worm script. “[Belonging to] King Fuchai of Wu,” the item says. “Made for his personal use, this spear.”

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So, Hubei’s rich cultural and historical legacy may make it a true treasure for those looking to find pieces of the past. And the priceless artifacts found there – such as the Sword of Goujian – bring to life a distant time filled with kings and warriors that previously were only the domain of history books. Who knows what other archaeological treasures may be waiting to be unearthed in the area in the future?

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