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Eastern Han Tomb (CC by SA 3.0). Inset: Ancient Chinese dragon made from gold (Lukas Hlavac / Adobe Stock)

Spectacular Royal Han Tombs Reveal Wealth and Glory of China’s Golden Age

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The Han Dynasty was China’s second imperial dynasty and succeeded the Qin Dynasty . This dynasty ruled China for about 400 years, during which there were more than 20 emperors on the throne. Many of these emperors were buried not far from the ancient Han capital of Chang’an in what have been called some of the most spectacular tombs in the world. Measuring millions of square feet in size, the tombs resembled palaces and were packed full of everything and anything the royal would need in the afterlife, from concubines to weapons, musical instruments, food, cooking utensils and ornaments of all kinds.

The Maoling Mausoleum

One of the most famous emperors of the Han Dynasty was Emperor Wu of Han, who reigned from 141 to 87 BC. The tomb of this emperor is known as the Maoling Mausoleum, which is located in Xingping (a county in the Shaanxi province), about 40 km (25 miles) from Chang’an (known as Xi’an today). The Maoling Mausoleum is the largest of the tombs constructed by the emperors of the Han Dynasty, as well as its most famous. This mausoleum is known also as the ‘Chinese Pyramid’ due to the shape of its burial mound, which was built using rammed earth.

The gilded bronze horse is more than two feet tall and is the largest ever found in China. Discovered near the Mausoleum of Emperor Wu, it has been suggested that the burial pit in which the horse was found belonged to Princess Pingyang, who was the elder sister of Emperor Wu. (Tony Hisgett / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The gilded bronze horse is more than two feet tall and is the largest ever found in China. Discovered near the Mausoleum of Emperor Wu, it has been suggested that the burial pit in which the horse was found belonged to Princess Pingyang, who was the elder sister of Emperor Wu. (Tony Hisgett / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The construction of the Maoling Mausoleum began in the second year of Emperor Wu’s reign and was only completed 53 years later. The emperor would have been buried with numerous objects of value, which he could use in the afterlife. The tomb was later looted by the Cimei (meaning ‘Red Eyebrows’) rebels during the 1 st century AD. Nevertheless, many of the remaining artifacts are today displayed in the Maoling Museum. The Maoling Mausoleum is not an isolated tomb, as other tombs, i.e. those belonging to his wives, ministers, and nobles were constructed around the emperor’s.

The Yangling Mausoleum

Another well-known royal Han tomb is the Yangling Mausoleum, which is the burial place of Emperor Wu’s father and predecessor, Emperor Jing of Han. The Yangling Mausoleum is located in Zhangjiawan, a town about 20 km (12 miles) from Chang’an. At the center of the burial complex is the emperor’s tomb. Neatly arranged around this central tomb are the empress’ tomb, burial pits (in the north and south), a ceremonial site, a human sacrifice graveyard, and a criminal’s cemetery. The arrangement of the burial site shows that even in death, there was a strict social hierarchy that had to be maintained.

Reconstructed model of how Yangling Mausoleum looked like when it was built. (Dorisyong / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Reconstructed model of how Yangling Mausoleum looked like when it was built. (Dorisyong / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Tomb of Marquis of Haihun

Apart from the tombs of emperors, the royal tombs also include those belonging to members of the Han royal family. These tombs are usually located further away from Chang’an. One such tomb is that of the Marquis of Haihun , located in Xinjian (a the district in Jiangxi province). The Marquis of Haihun was a grandson of the Emperor Wu who lived during the 1 st century BC. He reigned as emperor in 74 BC for a short period of 27 days. The man who placed him on the throne, the powerful official Huo Guang, was also responsible for deposing him, as he was an incompetent ruler. He was then demoted to the rank of marquis.
The Marquis of Haihun’s tomb was discovered in 2011 and excavations were conducted until 2016. The tomb complex is significant for archaeologists today as it is “the best-preserved royal tombs of the Western Han Dynasty ever discovered in China”, and contains “the most complete structure, the clearest layout as well as the most complete ritual system by far.” Additionally, it was reported in 2015 that more than 10,000 pieces have been unearthed from the tombs and includes ancient coins, bronze cooking vessels, jade pendants, and a lacquer screen with a portrait supposedly of Confucius.

Goose-shaped bronze lamp excavated from the tomb of Marquis of Haihun. (Siyuwj / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Goose-shaped bronze lamp excavated from the tomb of Marquis of Haihun. (Siyuwj / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Royal Tombs of the Kingdom of Chu

Another group of royal Han tombs is located in Xuzhou (in the Jiangsu province), the ancestral home of the Han royal family. After the establishment of the Han Dynasty, the Kingdom of Chu (which included the area of Xuzhou) was granted by the emperor to a branch of the royal family. A number of tombs belonging to the kings and queens of Chu were discovered by accident, either during construction projects or during attempted robberies and were subsequently excavated. Many of these tombs contained artifacts that provide a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Han elite. These include jewelery, weapons, and ritual equipment. Additionally, there were objects specifically associated with death, the most iconic of which being the jade suits these elites were buried in. The Chinese believed that jade protected the body from decay and granted its wearer immortality.

Bronze from the Tomb of Chu in Xichuan County. (Greg kf / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bronze from the Tomb of Chu in Xichuan County. (Greg kf / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Top image: Eastern Han Tomb ( CC by SA 3.0 ). Inset: Ancient Chinese dragon made from gold ( Lukas Hlavac / Adobe Stock )

By Wu Mingren

References

Asian Art Museum, 2019. Unearthing Han Tombs. [Online] Available at: http://www.asianart.org/regular/unearthing-han-tombs
China Internet Information Center, 2019. Maoling Mausoleum of Emperor Wu Di of the Hang Dynasty (206 BC- AD 220). [Online] Available at: http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/atam/115108.htm
Chinadaily.com, 2015. Amazing finds unearthed at the Marquis of Haihun’s tomb. [Online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/china-watch/culture/12033326/marquis-of-haihun-tombs-artefects.html
DeMar, D., 2016. Excavation of Haihunhou Tomb in China Completed. [Online] Available at: http://www.newhistorian.com/excavation-haihunhou-tomb-china-completed/7382/
The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2019. The Han royal tombs. [Online] Available at: http://www.tombtreasuresofhanchina.org/the-exhibition/han-empire/the-han-royal-tombs/
TravelChinaGuide, 2019. Han Dynasty. [Online] Available at: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/history/han/
TravelChinaGuide, 2019. Maoling Mausoleum (Mao Ling). [Online] Available at: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/maoling.htm
TravelChinaGuide, 2019. Yangling Mausoleum of Han Dynasty (Hanyangling). [Online] Available at: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/hanyang.htm

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