This jade casket was said to contain the ashes of a Jiang Shi, an ancient monster of Chinese mythology. The Jiang Shi, or ‘jumping corpse’, was rumoured to be an animated corpse which haunted the night and fed on the qi or life energy of it’s victims. Readers may have noticed the similarity between this agile, undead predator which feeds on the soul of it’s victim and that of the traditional western Vampyr and others have noticed the ways they line up, including this casket’s first discoverer, Marco Polo.
He recounts the events in the journals which did not make it into his work ‘Il Millione’. The Venetian trader and explorer supposedly received this artifact whilst in Chengdu from a Buddhist priest.The priest told him the remains were that of a monster which fed on the essence of it’s victims in order to become youthful, hence calling it a Jiang Shi. However, this paticular beast was unusual, in that it was dressed not in Chinese garb but the antique armour of an unknown nation. What Polo tells us next is most enlightening;
"The priest proceeded to place his hands on either side of the caskets lid with extreme precision. Then, with movements too fast for my eyes to follow, he raised the lid and plunged his hand inside, before withdrawing it quickly and slamming the lid back down. During the brief time the casket was open, I thought I heard a rush of wind, as a sharp intake of breath might be. Having performed this action, he presented his open hand to me, paler and cold to the touch. In his palm lay a brooch in the shape of an eagle, and I could clearly make out letters inscribed in the metal; S.P.Q.R."
According to the priest, the creature had been sighted throughout China, but had been captured and burnt alive by his predeccessors over a thousand years ago. That would place the casket around the time of the Han dynasty, and there have been multiple theories about contact between the Han Empire in the east and the Roman Empire in the west. Polo returned with the casket to Venice, intending to present the casket and it’s contents as proof of such interaction. However, when he arrived back, he was captured by the Genoese and the casket was taken as loot. What happened to the artifact next is unclear, but an object matching Polo’s description was eventually returned to Venice in 1355, long after his death.
The casket itself, however, was empty. There were no longer any signs of either the ashes, nor the imperial badge within. What the Genoese did with the contents, we may never know.