Chinese archaeology over the last 30 years has made prodigious discoveries of things as spectacular as anything to emerge from the sands of Egypt. And yet, these remain largely unknown in the West, especially in the USA.
I should point out that my knowledge of things Chinese is very spotty. I know enough about it to know that my knowledge of this vast and complex subject is very limited. But it fascinates me and I enjoy reading about it.
One of my favorite books that I recently bought on the cheap at a used-book store is Historical Relics Unearthed in New China, a book published in 1972 by the Foreign Languages Press in Peking (Beijing). It is filled with magnificent artifacts beautifully photographed. It was published in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, and the text reflects a complicated (to say the least) attitude toward China’s vast history. Here is a representative example:
In 1968, the tombs of Liu Sheng, Prince Ching of Chungshang of the Western Han Dynasty, and of his wife, were excavated in Mancheng, Hopei. They were hewn in cliffs, out of solid rock, and each occupied 3,000 cubic meters of underground space. Over 2800 bronze, gold, and silver artifacts were found in the tombs. Two suits of jade and gold burial clothes were a find never seen before. Each suit was made of more than 2000 finely cut jade wafers joined with gold wire, and tightly enveloped the body with the aim of preserving it. It is estimated that at that time it would take an artisan more than 10 years to complete one such jade suit. These relics glaringly expose the luxury and decadence of the feudal ruling class, and the inhuman exploitation of the working people.
The passage reflects Mao Zedong’s own conflicted views of China’s past. The passage alternates from pride in the prodigious accomplishment of China’s craftsmen to revolutionary disgust at the ancient culture of privilege and luxury. It was Mao who began the systematic excavation and documentation of China’s historical relics while waging war on that past and its traditional culture, a war that would destroy some of those very relics that he sought to preserve. At the very same time that he incited his Red Guards to loot temples and destroy relics, Mao very publicly identified himself with major transformative figures in its dynastic past such as the Qin Emperor and the Ming Emperor Yongle.
Viewing the jade burial suit of Prince Liu Sheng in the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing sometime before 1972, from the book Historical Relics Unearthed in New China
We in the USA are largely alienated from history, including our own. We live very much in the moment, and can barely remember last week let alone last century. We are (or at least we used to be until recently) a very forward-looking people.
China is the world’s oldest continuous civilization. The past always weighs heavily, and managing that vast heritage has always been an issue going back to the days of Confucius. Mao was not the first ruler of China to try to write its history and alter it at the same time.
That process is happening again as the regime that rules China trades ruthless Communism for ruthless capitalism.
In true capitalist fashion, China’s past and its antiquities now play the role of economic resource and business opportunity. Its numerous monuments and archaeological sites are being restored and cleaned up for tourists, foreign and domestic. Access roads, airports, and hotels are being built to accommodate expected hordes of tourists. The Chinese may be right to expect such crowds. China’s archaeological and historical wonders outside the usual Forbidden City to Great Wall tourist path remain little known in the West (at least in the USA), but they rival Egypt’s in size, splendor, and spectacle.
One such site is the Ming Tombs. This is the second Imperial cemetery of the Ming Dynasty located just to the north of Beijing, and now heavily restored and thoroughly touristed. The first, and smaller, Ming cemetery is located outside of Nanjing, the first Ming capital.
Until recently, the Ming tombs bore the curse of the Cultural Revolution, unvisited, and left to be over run with vegetation. Now, they’ve practically been rebuilt to accommodate the tourist crowds.
One of the larger Ming tombs seen in a satellite photo. The circular part is an enormous tumulus over an elaborate underground burial complex.
One of the tombs that remains unrestored and closed to visitors.
Four smaller imperial tombs seen in a satellite photo.
The Ming Tombs are the final resting place of all but the first 2 Ming Emperors. The tombs are a collection of enormous structures on a scale to match the burial places of the Pharaohs. Like the royal tomb monuments of ancient Egypt, these were to be visited regularly. Their occupants expected to be perpetually venerated by their successors. The Tombs were designed around annual Imperial rites venerating the dynastic ancestors and the emperor’s predecessors. Like the Imperial Palace, the tombs were laid out according to Feng Shui. Before Feng Shui became a kind of New Age decorating, it was a form of geomancy. The Tombs occupy an arc shaped valley in the Jundu Mountains. The mountains block off the north, protecting the tombs from the traffic of evil spirits. The site fulfills other requirements of Feng Shui for auspicious burial.
Great gates in succession greet visitors approaching the Tombs, just as they still do in Beijing along the approach to the Forbidden City along the north-south meridian.
A marble gate to the Sacred Road to the Tombs
The Sacred Road
A court official on the Sacred Road
The Shengong Shengde Stele House
The stele carried on the back of mythical tortoise. This is a Qing Dynasty replacement
The succession of gates announces ever-approaching proximity to the Sons of Heaven. Commoners were forbidden access to the tombs beyond the outer gates, just as they were forbidden access to the Palace. The last structure contains a tall stone stele and begins the “spirit path” lined with carved stone soldiers, ministers, and animals to the tombs. The path is also lined with willow trees, according to tradition.
The Great Tomb of the Great Yongle Emperor
The oldest and the largest tomb is that of the Emperor Yongle (1360 – 1424), the third and most famous Ming emperor. He was very capable, effective, accomplished, and ruthlessly cruel. He was the Emperor who moved the capital to Beijing and built the Forbidden City. He restored and extended the Grand Canal, making it the longest man made waterway in the world. He restored and rebuilt part of the Great Wall, the part that we see in all the tourist photographs. All of this he did with forced labor. He reformed the civil service, making promotion dependent on merit instead of patronage. He sent his minister Zheng He on journeys of exploration to Southeast Asia, to the Arabian Peninsula, and to east Africa. He brought a large measure of religious tolerance and harmony to China despite his own Confucian loyalties. He built Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques. He had an enormous encyclopedia of Chinese literature compiled. He also had 2000 of his concubines, ministers, and servants massacred in the Forbidden City when he heard rumor of an affair between a minister and one of his concubines. When he died, about a dozen of his favorite concubines were hung with silk nooses, and probably rest with him in the tomb.
The Chinese, like the ancient Egyptians, refer to each royal tomb as an “underground palace.” Like the Egyptians, the Chinese believed that the tomb was the eternal residence of the dead ruler, and had to be appropriately furnished.
The Chinese named the tombs of their emperors (I suspect that the Egyptians might have done something similar). The tomb of the Emperor Yongle is known as the Chang Ling (“The Long Tomb”). While still large and impressive, many of the tomb’s buildings were burned down in the rebellion that ended the Ming Dynasty.
Satellite photo of the Chang Ling Tomb of the Emperor Yongle.
A model of the Chang Ling Tomb in its former state. It was much more extensive than what we have now. Much of the tomb complex was burned down in the rebellion that ended the Ming Dynasty.
The Hall of Eminent Favor at the Chang Ling Tomb, a smaller version of the primary audience hall in the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Interior of the Hall of Eminent Favor. The columns are the trunks of a type of hardwood tree felled in southwestern Sichuan province hundreds of miles away. The Hall contains displays of surviving artifacts from the nearby tomb of the Emperor Wan Li.
Statue of the Emperor Yongle in the Hall of Eminent Favor. This is a modern statue. Supposedly it replaces a statue destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Whether or not this is a replica of that earlier statue, I don't know. Notice the money pile in front. Visitors place money before the statue for good fortune. I noticed something similar in Rome. The tomb of Pope Martin V (who ended the Papal Schism) was peppered with coins.
Behind the Hall is the path to the tumulus, the tomb proper.
Here is the tower and the tumulus, the "Underground Palace," or the "Precious Hall" where the Emperor and his concubines rest.
Opening Emperor Wan Li's Tomb
The tomb of the Emperor Wan Li (1563 – 1620), the Dingling (“Tomb of Stability”), is the only opened imperial tomb. Many of the earlier imperial tombs were broken open and looted (and some of the later ones), but the tomb of the later Ming Emperor Wan Li remains the only one officially opened and systematically excavated, something that the Chinese government is not likely to repeat. Opening Wan Li’s tomb turned out to be a disaster.
In 1956, 2 prominent archaeologists Wu Han and Guo Moruo proposed opening the tomb of the Emperor Yongle. Other archaeologists protested due to the tomb’s prominence and historical importance. As a compromise, the third largest of the Ming tombs, that of Wan Li, would be opened as a practice run for the excavation of Yongle’s tomb. Political pressures caused the excavation to be rushed without a thorough and proper archaeological report. Numerous items of wood and silk were recovered from the tomb and disintegrated due to poor storage and inadequate conservation. During the Cultural Revolution, a mob of youths broke into the museum attached to the tomb and destroyed many of the relics recovered from the tomb. They took the Emperor’s remains and the remains of his Empress and set them up outside the tomb and condemned them for their past misdeeds before burning them.
The Chinese government since decided not to open any more imperial tombs unless required by a desperate emergency concerning their preservation. No imperial tomb has been excavated since.
State portrait of the Emperor Wan Li
The Dingling Tomb of the Emperor Wan Li in a satellite photo
Path to the entrance of the tomb
The entrance tower and stele viewed from the entrance to the tumulus
Entrance to the tumulus. Behind the entrance is a vertical shaft with a modern staircase down to the tomb chambers.
The Throne Chamber deep underground containing marble thrones for the Emperor and his favorite wives.
The burial chamber with replicas of the red laquer coffins of the Emperor Wan Li and 2 of his Empresses. The smaller laquer boxes contained grave goods.
The remains of the Emperor Wan Li photographed in 1957 at the time his tomb was opened.
The Last Imperial Funeral
The penultimate Emperor of China, Guangxu (1871 – 1908), died on November 14, 1908 at the age of 37. His aunt, the Dowager Empress Cixi, died the day after. She was the real ruler of China in the final days of the Qing Dynasty. Cixi’s choice for the succession, a 3 year old boy, became the last Emperor Pu Yi, who would be forced to abdicate in 1912, ending more than 2000 years of dynastic rule in China.
Guangxu spent most of his reign under house arrest and in disgrace. He became Emperor at age 4, and spent all of his life under the shadow of his regent, the Dowager Empress. When he attained his majority and could rule independently, he immediately struck out on his own path, beginning an ambitious program of reform and modernization modeled on the Meiji Restoration in Japan. That effort lasted only about 100 days. The deeply conservative and xenophobic Cixi would have none of it, and staged a successful coup d’etat ending Guangxu’s rule. She stripped him of all of his powers and privileges, everything except his title. He spent his remaining days as a prisoner in the Forbidden City.
As Cixi lay dying, she had Guangxu poisoned rather than see him succeed her. A recent autopsy on the Emperor’s remains found them so full of arsenic that the poison had leached into his clothes.
Guangxu’s was the last imperial funeral in China. Six months after his death, his body was carried to the Qing Tombs about 80 miles southwest of Beijing for burial.
His tomb was completed by the government of the Chinese Republic under Sun Yat Sen. It was soon broken into and looted during the civil wars that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. His tomb and that of the Ming Emperor Wan Li are the only ones open to visitors.
The Emperor Guangxu (fourth from left) with his officials and European officers shortly after the Boxer Rebellion
A special road from Beijing to the Western Qing Tombs was built exclusively for the Emperor's funeral.
The Emperor's coffin, weighing several hundred pounds, was carried in relays to his tomb in May, 1909. Note the people in the distant fields gathering to watch as the procession passes by.
The Emperor Guangxu's coffin passes by on its way to the tomb in 1909.
The Emperor Guangxu's tomb today in the Western Qing Tombs near Baoding. The last Emperor Pu Yi is buried nearby. I get the impression that this is a place not visited by many Westerners. I could find little about it in English or in any Western language.
The Dowager Empress Cixi in the snow with court ladies.
The Dowager Empress Cixi's funeral, 1909.