Qianling - the Mausoleum of the Heavenly Hexagram

Qianling, the Mausoleum of the Heavenly Hexagram

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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.

Layout of the Qianling complex

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

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.


It's difficult to begin to choosing whether to excavate because that's the main method of acquiring knowledge in the field of archaeology. If the Chinese government (or whoever is calling for the tombs to remain untouched) would prefer the tombs to be left alone then the hopeful archaeologists should move on and accept that it's not a place to study. Yeah, sure, there are ways of arguing for the opening of the tombs like the fact that it will actually make the place entirely less likely to be grave-robbed or ransacked by looters because the site will be better protected, better documented, undoubtedlly turned into an even better managed tourist site with whatever is discovered in those tombs. But it's easy to also say, 'so what?' The graves are delicately balanced in their own chambers with correct atmosphere and gas/temperature levels and so on, excavating them would harm losing the remains like a glass of water into the ocean. And that's fair enough, of course; keep the place shut and closed to archaeologists and there's no risk that the graves will be damaged or beyond conservation. But if it's conservation techniques that's the issue then train the archaeologists in question to deal with what is most likely to be found (by what has already been found in the previous excavations at those 5 (6?) tombs) so that there is far less of a risk of damage. But I still don't think this solves the problem. I think the problem is just a simple 'why should you excavate these precious tombs? Why disturb what you may not be able to conserve?' But that's the question archaeologists face every day. Why excavate? Excavation is itself a damaging process even though all precautions are usually made by the team of researchers to avoid damage - simply because any damage caused by poor excavation will also damage the passing of knowledge from the past to the present. An archaeologist isn't exactly out to kick a nazi skeleton in the head just to prove a point from decades ago. Sure it might be that that skeleton in the mud with swastika helmet helped to kill millions of people, but an archaeologists' desire (I kind of hope anyway) is to bring about knowledge and perspective about the past. A nazi skeleton with a tin helmet is just a skeleton with a tin helmet afterall. An archaeologist will excavate anyway and will seek to bring about truth and to further expand that ridiculous mystery of the past for us out here in the present. If those against excavating the Chinese emperors' tombs are fearful that somehow secrets will be lost in the excavation process or in reckless conservation methods, perhaps they might take some solace from the fact that if there is anyone whom they should trust with the secrets of their ancient kingdoms, it is those who are at most risk of losing everything themselves by actually excavating the tombs. The archaeologists probably care more about respecting the dead through learning and caring for their remains and possessions than anyone else. They should be trusted to deal with that which they love.
Great post and excellent food for thought! Thanks a lot for posting. 

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