Sometimes a legend of hidden treasure turns out to be true. For hundreds of years, tales of a lost hoard of gold and silver circulated in the Sichuan Province of China. It was said to have belonged to Zhang Xianzhong, leader of a peasants’ uprising during the final years of the Ming Dynasty.
Zhang was born in Shaanxi province; even as a young man, he had an imposing figure and became known as the “Yellow Tiger.” Though he served for a time in the Imperial army that was engaged in keeping rioting peasants under control, he soon defected to the rebel forces, and soon became the leader of his own band of raiders.
Zhang’s entire career is a fascinating story of military success, defeat, and recovery. He surrendered several times, only to rebel and amass an army again. Finally, in 1644, Zhang marched 100,000 men toward Sichuan province. His men blasted a hole through the city walls of Chongqing; some reports claim that Zhang cut the hands off those who defended the city and massacred many inside. Zhang sent word out to the rest of the province that no one else would be harmed if they turned over their officials and surrendered without resistance.
Initially, Zhang ruled Sichuan well. Local Jesuit missionaries reported that he “began his rule with such liberality, justice and magnificence by which he captivated all hearts that many mandarins, famous both in civic as in military affairs whom fear was keeping concealed, left their hideouts and flew to his side.” But there was continued resistance to Zhang’s rule; Chongqing fell to Ming loyalists in 1645, and Zhang began a bloody war to stamp out all resistance in the province. Reports of deaths caused by Zhang’s orders vary, but there is no doubt that he had a massive impact on the population. The 1578 census for Sichuan recorded 3,102,073. Less than a hundred years later, only 16,096 adult males were recorded in the province.
When Qing dynasty forces began to invade, Zhang decided to leave Sichuan, and took the vast treasure he had accumulated with him. In January 1647, while Zhang was fleeing toward Shaanxi, his forces met the Qing forces in Xichong; Zhang was killed during the battle. Some reports say that a trusted lieutenant betrayed him by identifying Zhang to an archer, who shot him as he left his tent.
For hundreds of years after Zhang’s defeat, stories of his lost treasure abounded. Legends were told of 1,000 ships, loaded with gold and silver, lying at the bottom of the river. Chinese researchers recently confirmed that a newly-discovered wreck is, in fact, one of Zhang’s ships, containing more than 10,000 pieces of precious metal coins and ingots. Seven silver ingots were found during a construction project in 2005, and the site was declared a protected location in 2010, but exploration was halted while experts debated whether there was any merit to the stories of sunken ships. During the interim, treasure hunters began looting the site; while some were caught, there is no doubt that some historic items have been lost.
In January of 2017, excavation of the site began, with pumps working to keep the area as dry as possible. The project is expected to continue into April, and officials are hoping to build a museum nearby to display and preserve the items. Peking University archaeologist Li Boquian said, “The items are extremely valuable to science, history and art. They are of great significance for research into the political, economic, military and social lives of the Ming Dynasty.”