Millennia before Chongqing became one of China's powerhouses it was home to an ancient Tai kingdom
Located on the Yangtze River in central China, Chongqing is not only a major city and transportation hub, but also a place of considerable historical and cultural significance. Standing here about four millennia ago was the Kingdom of Ba, believed to have been inhabited by Tai people.
The Tai are one of the major groups of indigenous people of Southeast Asia. At present, 90 million people divided into 80 groups speaking languages that belong to the Tai linguistic family inhabit a broad region, including not only Thailand and Laos but also northern Vietnam, southern China and eastern Myanmar.
Orathai Pholdi, director of Kasetsart University's Office of Agricultural Museum and Culture who has a keen interest in Tai culture, recently led a group of culture vultures to visit Chongqing and nearby areas in an effort to prove her theory that the Tai people lived there thousands of years ago.
"I believe Chongqing is located where the Kingdom of Ba was," she said. "Ba was an ancient city of the Tai people dating back 4,000 years."In other words, the Kingdom of Ba was where the Ai Lao Empire was located along the Yangtze River."
She cited several Western academics, including Prof Terrien de la Couperie of the University of London who wrote The Cradle Of The Shan Race (1885) in which he proposed that the Tai founded the Ta Meuang Empire in Sichuan about 5,000 years ago. They later migrated south and established the Kingdom of Lanna.
She also quoted a Chinese chronicle from the time of the legendary Emperor Yu, some 4,000 years ago, about a land survey of southern China close to a large kingdom called Ta Meuang.
Another Chinese chronicle mentions a diplomatic delegation sent from the Middle Kingdom to the Kingdom of Ba around the same time.
The group led by Orathai visited the China Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing. The museum boasts more than 170,000 objects and displays 10 exhibitions, including one on Ba Yu, two ancient cities on the way to Sichuan.
According to the exhibition, the Ba culture was the first culture since the Chongqing region entered civilisation. It is the root of the regional culture of Chongqing. About 6,000-7,000 years ago, Neolithic culture flourished along both banks of the Xi River.
The pottery of Daxi and the stone artefacts of Yuxi are outstanding examples of the region's ancient civilisation. After the Shang and Zhou dynasties, which ran from the 16th-3rd centuries BC, the Ba people migrated to the Xi River region from the Jianghan plain where they originally lived.
Here, they expanded their territories and eventually established the unique Ba culture. The Kingdom of Ba came into existence.Despite the harsh environment and pressure from the Han Chinese, the Ba people fought bravely and formed a unique culture that gradually rooted in the Ba Yu culture over 2,000 years.
Although the kingdom fell during continuous wars, the Ba people retained their original culture, traditions and lifestyles for a long period of time.
During the Western Han dynasty (202BC-9AD), the development of China's southwestern region sped up the decline of Ba culture, which was assimilated into Chinese civilisation.
At Qijiang Museum in Nanping, about two hours from Chongqing, the group found evidence of the existence of the Nanping Lao people in the area.
According to Orathai, some groups of Tai people were named Lao after the Kingdom of Ai Lao.
The museum boasts models of cave paintings depicting a horse, a stilt house and people performing a dance. The real paintings were found at a 2,000-year-old cemetery in Qijiang's most ancient city where the Nanping Lao people once dwelt. Its location is in a valley, a 90-minute drive from the city centre and another hour's walk along an earthen road into a forested area.
Another highlight at the museum is a stone inscription about the Nanping Lao people and the cause of their migration to Yunnan, southwestern China.
The inscription dates to the Song dynasty (960-1279AD) while the ancient script is believed to have been invented around 3,000 years ago. According to the inscription, more than 4,000 Lao families lived in present-day Chongqing and the surrounding areas, where the climate was hot and humid.
Men farmed and fished, while women did the housework. Many Nanping Lao people were killed during their wars against invaders and the survivors later migrated to Yunnan in the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD). The inscription is one of the four stone engravings found in Dongxi, an ancient town southeast of the Sichuan River Basin in Guizhou province. The group led by Orathai went there just to find the decaying inscription. The 2,200-year-old town was called Wanshouchang (Long Life) and also the First Town of the Mountains and Rivers in Eastern Sichuan.
People there still live in houses raised on piles, but have built walls downstairs and used the space as shops or rooms.
"Its significance lies in the theory that Ba was an ancient city of the Tai at least 4,000 years ago and related to the Nanping Lao people. There are 2,000-year-old cave paintings of a house on stilts and people dancing and holding silk balls, similar to the Tai rabam lukchuang dance," said Orathai.
She is certain that the people of Ba were the Tai, reasoning that the Tai grew non-glutinous rice similar to the 7,000-year-old fossilised grains unearthed in Hemudu in Zhejiang province.
The Tai also weaved silk, lived in stilt houses in flood-prone areas and made glazed black pottery, Orathai said.