Qianling, the Mausoleum of the Heavenly Hexagram
In the 7 th century A.D., whilst Europe was still living in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, China was entering its golden age under the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). This dynasty produced 20 emperors, 18 of whom were buried in mausoleums scattered across the Guanzhong plain, China’s ‘Valley of the Kings’. One of these mausoleums is the Qianling Mausoleum.
The Qianling Mausoleum, literally meaning the ‘Mausoleum of the Heavenly Hexagram’, is situated in Qian County, Shaanxi Province, and is about 85 km northwest from the former capital of the Tang Dynasty, Xi’an. The mausoleum itself is located on Liangshang Mountain, with the Leopard Valley to the east and the Sand Canyon to the west. This limestone mountain had three peaks on its top, the highest of which was the northern one containing the Qianling Mausoleum. The southern peaks are shorter and faced each other. As each of them has an earthen mound on its surface resembling a nipple, they are collectively known as Naitoushan (Nipple Hills). Like other imperial mausoleums, Qianling comprised a complex of underground chambers, while the surface structures included monumental gates, a long spirit way lined with stone statuary, a large enclosed mortuary garden, memorial halls, chapels, lodges, shrines and imperial quarters where the souls of the deceased monarchs could eat and sleep.
Pre-modern style painting showing the layout of the Qianling complex. Source: Cover of the journal Qianling wenhua yanjiu (Cultural Research on Qianling).
This mausoleum was completed in A.D. 684, and its construction is believed to have taken up to 40 or 50 years. The mausoleum is a complex of tombs that contained the remains of a number of the members of the royal Li Dynasty. These include the builder of the Qianling Mausoleum, the Emperor Gaozong of Tang (also the third emperor of the Tang Dynasty), and his wife, Wu Zetian. Wu Zetian was a formidable woman who usurped the throne after her husband’s death, founded her own (short-lived) Zhou Dynasty, and was the only governing female emperor in Chinese history. Apart from these important tombs, there are also 17 smaller attendant tombs in the complex. Of these, only five have been excavated, three of which belong to members of the royal family, one to a chancellor of China, and the last one to a general of the left guard. The mausoleum is renowned for its many Tang Dynasty stone statues located above ground and the mural paintings adorning the subterranean walls of the tombs.
Coloured mural in tomb chamber of an excavated satellite tomb of Qianling Mausoleum. Image source .
One of the issues surrounding the Qianling Mausoleum is whether the tombs should be excavated or not. Although five tombs in the Qianling Mausoleum complex have been excavated, the rest are still untouched. One of the arguments put forward in support of re-starting archaeological excavations at the site is the fact that the Qianling Mausoleum is the only Tang Dynasty mausoleum that has not been plundered. It seems that the other 17 mausoleums were either plundered during the late Tang period, or the succeeding Five Dynasties period. Moreover, the richness found in the five attendant tombs has raised the hopes that the more important tombs would yield even greater treasures. Thus, it has been argued that the skeletal remains, precious grave goods, ceramics and carpentry inside the tombs would be able to help archaeologists gain a much better understanding of that period and imperial mortuary practices. Furthermore, it has been argued that the excavation would be considered as a form of salvage archaeology, as the area is prone to earthquakes. This claim, however, is not backed up by geological data.
One of the problems facing archaeologists who intend to excavate the Qianling Mausoleum is the fact that the artefacts would start to decay once they are removed from their resting place. In other words, the archaeologists have to be armed with a sufficient amount of conservation knowledge before proceeding with their work. Some people are unconvinced that the archaeologists involved have the expertise to protect the excavated artefacts from falling apart. In addition, it has been argued that the tombs may not be as wealthy as previously thought. For instance, it has been pointed out that the surveys done at the site have not been rigorous enough, and that the tombs may have actually been plundered in the past. Additionally, in A.D. 683, the Emperor Gaozong issued a memorial calling for the ‘exercise of thrift in the matter of imperial burials’. Hence, it is also possible that there were not many grave goods in his tomb in the first place.