“He handed me a chunk of green stone, almost too heavy to hold in one hand. … The inscription was in curved characters, not unlike Pitman’s shorthand; the face in the midst of them could have been a devil mask, or a snake god, or a sea monster.”
— Colin Wilson, “The Return of the Lloigor”
This is the kind of mystery that I love, because the clues are just far enough apart that there is no way to rationally solve or prove anything, but their shape — or the shape they point to — is so clear that the intuitive spark jumps across the gap regardless. This is the very meat and drink of Lovecraftian mystery investigation: the clues exist, and they unambiguously point to something insane. And there is no way to know more. Herewith, then, the clues, every one of which is real and as accurate as I can manage without knowing Chinese or taking a month to write this column.
Here’s a story about jade. Around 750 BCE a pilgrim named Bian He sees a feng (a composite creature usually translated, inaccurately, as “phoenix”) land on a mountain, travels to that spot, and finds a stone. He brings it to King Li of Chu and offers to sell him this stone, which he knows (because it drew the feng to it) contains jade. (Side diversion: jade is full of yang, attracting the yin-charged feng.) King Li’s jeweler examines the stone and decrees it worthless, so Li chops off one of Bian He’s feet. Bian He waits until Li’s successor Wu comes to the throne, repeats his offer, and gets his other foot amputated. Finally King Wen comes to the throne and one day sees Bian He weeping tears of blood. Wen buys the stone, which when split reveals a jade disk, the He Shi Bi, which eventually becomes the Imperial Seal of China, until it disappears during the Jin invasion around 950 CE.
So what is the Bi in He Shi Bi? The word bi means a specific kind of jade disk, one with a hole punched in the middle. Its character is made up of the characters meaning “jade” and “beheading.” Bi were buried on the chests or stomachs of the dead, or placed atop their graves. Nobody knows what they signified. One theory postulates the bi represents heaven or the great cycle of the stars, which implies return from the dead, or immortality.
The Chinese word for jade is yu, originally the same character as wang (“emperor”). Paleographers now believe the character originally depicted an axe. At some point, scribes added a blemish to the yu character to distinguish it from wang, much like the hole in the middle of a bi. Yu was originally pronounced ng-iog, the first consonant being a sort of trilled uvular. Maybe lliog is a better transliteration.
The earliest known makers of bi were the Liangzhu culture, which had a very impressive urban civilization at the mouth of the Yangtze River from 3400 to 2250 BCE. They used diamonds to carve jade, even making corundum axes for the purpose; diamond tools would not come into common use again until Minoan Crete around 1500 BCE. Liangzhu designs spread all over China, and in the case of the bi, lasted for millennia. Weirdly, genetic tests indicate the Liangzhu were Pacific Islanders, not Chinese. Even more weirdly, all the cities of the Liangzhu now lie beneath Lake Taihu — which may have been a meteoric impact crater, or something just as catastrophic.
The Liangzhu didn’t just invent the bi. They may also have created — or first depicted — the taotie, one of the “Four Evil Creatures of the World.” Sort of a looping geometric demon, it somewhat resembles staring eyes under curved, symmetrical horns (or tentacles) and the top of a mouth. Taotie are bodiless and even mouth-less, but apparently represent greedy hunger. Around 239 BCE the Qin chancellor Lu wrote: “The taotie has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them.” Another possible meaning of that last line: “Before it could swallow the man it devoured, its own body was damaged.” Perhaps Lu wrote both meanings, that being one advantage of a logographic script.
And of course the Liangzhu carved taotie into bi, although more often they put them on the corners and faces of cong, hollow jade cylinders found with bi in graves of the period. Topologically, of course, it’s the same thing: eyes in a ring around a central hole.
That’s all the clues I have right now, although I am certain as death that I could find a dozen more in Chinese legend and archaeology, or in the mineralogy of jade.
So we have a bodiless devouring creature associated with amputation, immortality, greenish stone, Pacific Islanders, the sudden destruction of cities, and cruel imperial rule. By an odd coincidence Colin Wilson’s lloigor ruled in Mu before it sank, destroy cities leaving greenish-blue lakes behind, amputate their slaves’ extremities, are made of energy (yang energy to boot: aggressive and cruel) and dwell in charged stones.
So here is the solution to our mystery. Mu left a colony or an outlying post on the coast of China, ruled by the lloigor dwelling in their jade stones. Their emperor was jade, so the glyph lliog could be the same — the glyph of the axe representing the power to amputate limbs of human rebels. Their hideous half-faces and monstrous symmetries infected the stones, emerging as the taotie. Then someone figured out how to step down the lloigor charge, or perhaps ground it entirely. Take a diamond tool and cut a hole of a certain geometric proportion into the lloigor stone, “beheading” the “jade” … in a word, bi.
Such a stone becomes the symbol of authority, not just because of its echoes of lloigor rule, but because it shows the king (or emperor) can break the lloigor-taotie to his will. (“Better a broken jade than an intact tile,” as Confucius reputedly said.) But the lloigor do not look kindly on this lèse-majesté. They call on the deep yang currents of the earth and destroy the cities of Liangzhu, drowning them under the new Taihu Lake. Chinese civilization only re-emerges centuries later, in the Huang He river far to the north. The Shang and later Zhou and Qin and Han and Tang carve taotie and bi, rote and ignorant reminders of the rebellion against the lloigor that created China while weeping tears of blood.