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How to Tell a Story of Ye City

As a student majoring in archaeology, I always aim at becoming not only a researcher but also a great storyteller, telling about the vicissitudes of an ancient city, as well as the social life at that time, to share the achievements of academic research with the public equally.

Today, my story is about Ye City (鄴), a famous medieval city in China, which is believed to be the prototype of Chang’an (長安) and other contemporary cities in East Asia. I conducted field research here from May to June this year, classifying and analyzing roof tiles unearthed from an architectural site in Ye City in the Northern Qi (北齊) Dynasty, which can give me some details to make this story more interesting.

Ye City was located in the southern part of Linzhang (臨漳) County, Hebei Province, more than five hundred kilometers southward Beijing. This city was situated in the transitional zone between mountain and plain, where there are plenty of water and flat lands for agriculture and transportation. The history of Ye City could date back to the Chunqiu (春秋) period nearly 3000 years ago. After the Qin (秦), Han(漢) and Cao Wei (曹魏) Dynasties, Ye City transformed from a small town to a magnificent capital city. From the fourth century, Ye City became a bone of contention among at least five minority regimes, destroyed and reconstructed many times. In the first half of the sixth century, Gao Huan(高歡) and his son established the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi Dynasties and built a new city just south of the old one of the Cao Wei Dynasty. Ye City rode on the crest of its development at that time, but rapidly disappeared like dew in the turbulent period. It was razed by the army of the Northern Zhou (北周) Dynasty in 580 AD.

The information from literature can only tell us these things. If you want to know more about Ye City in details, you need a support from archaeology. Most of the previous studies about Ye City focused on the spatial structure, so that we can know the layout of this city even though it was destroyed more than 1400 years ago. If you traveled in China in the middle of the six century, you could find the huge square city, around 2800 meters from east to west and 5160 meters from north to south, situated in the west of the North China Plain. The city consisted of two main parts, the southern and northern parts, surrounded by the rampart. Going through the moat and Zhuming (朱明) Gate in the south of the southern city, you could see a street nearly 40 meters wide, continuing towards the imperial city in the north, with “Li Fang (里坊)” (a kind of Chinese traditional residential quarter) locating orderly on both side of the street. The northern city was the old capital of the Cao Wei Dynasty, which changed into a complex of gardens and dwellings for the imperial family.

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I agree that the previous studies on Ye City’s spatial structure have got a lot of achievements, but I do not want only to show an accurate map to my readers. I need something vivid. The roof tiles I focus on were unearthed from an architectural site, attached to a complex of rammed-earth foundations to the south of the southern city. The site is believed to be a gate of the royal temple in the Northern Qi Dynasty. It is the first time in China that all of the roof tiles unearthed from an architectural site were collected and provided for academic research. Therefore, I can find much underlying information that cannot be noticed from the macroscopic spatial structure, and describe some episodes of some people hidden under the ruined city.

My investigation based on the roof tiles will provide newly three episodes.

The first episode is about the production technique of roof tiles. We know the basic steps of tile production from previous studies, like making clay cylinders, drying the cylinders, cutting them into several tiles and baking in kilns. Do you know, however, what kinds of tools the craftsmen used or how did they shape the clay? The marks left on the surface of roof tiles during the production process can help us to speculate the techniques in detail. For example, through the dents on the concave of flat tiles I can tell you the size and structure of the mold used by the craftsmen who worked at the No.5 architectural site at that time.

The second episode is about the organization of craftsmen. Differences of marks left in the same production step show the distinction of technique or tool, which imply the existence of different groups of craftsmen. In the case of No.5 architectural site, curved tiles can be divided into two sets according to the number of cloth mark’s warp and weft left on the concave, which means that at least two groups of craftsmen produced curved tiles for this gate. If you want to know the status of these craftsmen, I will introduce the inscriptions stamped on the roof tiles. I found some characters that have the meaning of punishment. It pointed out that one of the origins of craftsmen who made roof tiles for this gate was criminals. Other craftsmen might be vassal labors.

The third episode is about the orders of laying tiles on the roof. You may ask what kind of roof it was at that time. I am sorry I cannot make an accurate description of this site, but the wall paintings from some contemporary tombs could answer it. A case in Jiuyuangang (九原崗) Tomb shows a gate with hipped roof (庑殿顶). The gate on the No.5 architectural site might have the same roof style. There must be some orders for laying tiles on such huge roof. I found that the tiles unearthed from the same part of the roof usually have same kinds of inscriptions which cannot be found in other parts. It means that the roof of the gate might be divided into several areas during the work of laying tiles, and each area might have its own source of tiles.

After the complicated processes of production, supplying and construction, the beautiful roof of a temple’s gate with glossy black tiles appeared in Ye City in the latter part of the 6th century. Did other architectures in Ye City also experience the same processes when they were built? At the end of the story, I will analyze some typical materials, like inscriptions or eaves tiles, unearthed from other sites related to the No.5 architectural site, trying to add some secondary melodies to make the music of Ye City more plentiful and harmonious.

That is the outline of my story about Ye City, with historical events as narrative structure, spatial structure as background, and episodes of social life extracted from numerous roof tiles as plots. Borrowing Fermat’s dictum, I should say that I have composed a truly marvelous story of Ye City, which this margin is too narrow to contain.

(L.M.)

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