For Centuries Pilgrims Visited the Wrong Tomb of China’s Emperor Wen
Liu Heng, better known in history as Emperor Wen of Han, ruled the Western Han dynasty from 180 BC to 157 BC, and was associated with a stable and prosperous reign, after a tumultuous period in Chinese history. For many hundred years, a tomb featuring 10 stone tablets, carved over centuries, called Emperor Wen’s [Emperor Wen of Han’s] Ba Mausoleum, on a mountain outside Xi'an City, Shaanxi, was regarded as his final resting place. Now, it turns out that his actual tomb lay several kilometers away, as reported by the South China Morning Post. “After checking ancient literature, we can conclude that the grave cluster in Jiang Village is Emperor Wen’s Ba Mausoleum,” said Ma Yongying, a researcher from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology.
The recently discovered true resting place of Emperor Wen of Han on the outskirts of Xi'an City, Shaanxi, not far from location pilgrims mistakenly visited for centuries. (ThePaper)
The Discovery of Emperor Wen of Han’s True Resting Place
Emperor Wen of Han, the fifth ruler of the Han Dynasty (the Hans were the second imperial dynasty of China, who ruled between 202 BC and 220 AD, over 400 years), was believed to have been buried on a mountain named feng huang zui, which translates into “the Phoenix’s Mouth.” It was located close to Xi'an City in northwestern Shaanxi Province, whose ancient capital Xi’an was a starting point for the Silk Road.
For several centuries Xi'an was the hub and center of political power and patronage in ancient China, across multiple empires and time periods. In Chinese Han society, the emperor was at the pinnacle, and therefore, all associations with the emperor assumed even greater importance.
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Emperor Wen of Han’s actual tomb, discovered in 2017, right inside northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province, has been confirmed to be his true resting place by China's National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA). They spoke about the newly discovered emperor’s tomb in an online press conference in Beijing, and also reported on progress and finds at a number of ongoing archaeological excavations in Shaanxi, Gansu, and Henan.
Emperor Wen of Han’s actual tomb had the form of a Chinese-style pyramid called a ya, 70 meters (230 feet) long and 30 meters (98 feet) high, a tomb style traditionally reserved for emperors and empresses.
Due to excessive vegetation, soil erosion, and the passage of time, the pyramid burial mound had disappeared over the centuries, so identifying it as a tomb before excavation was difficult. However, upon excavation, collating it with historical records, examining the seal and figurine artefacts, and the sheer size of the burial, helped confirm that this was indeed Emperor Wen of Han’s final resting place.
Black terracotta figures of the Western Han dynasty like these were looted from Emperor Wen of Han’s tomb. They featured in a 2002 Sotheby’s catalogue, and only an intervention from the Chinese government resulted in their return to China in 2003. (Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology)
Grave Robberies, Auctions, and the Underworld Emperor
The trajectory of the discovery of the tomb was also a very interesting one, reports CGTN. In 2002, 6 rare black terracotta figures of the Western Han dynasty were being auctioned in the US. They featured in a Sotheby’s catalogue, and only an intervention from the Chinese government and its officials saw that they were returned to China in 2003. A subsequent 2006 investigation of the figures revealed that they were stolen the Jiangcun tomb by tomb raiders. In 2016, when nearby graves were raided again, the Chinese government was prompted to take action, and launch excavations of their own.
This resulted in an investigation of the east and west tunnels of the tomb, which revealed them to be 250 meters (820 feet) long. These massive tunnels far overshot the normal burial tombs of previous Chinese emperors.
Near and around the tomb, 110 pits were discovered, which housed over 1,500 artefacts, including pottery items, bronzeware, and ironware. Some of the bronzeware pieces were decorations for horses and chariots. A collection of official Western Han seals was also among highlights unearthed. “It showed these pits may mimic an entire system of government," Ma said. "The emperor wanted to rule his country even in the underworld."
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Until now, not all pits have been explored fully, but what has been ascertained is that this is indeed Emperor Wen of Han’s final and only tomb. Moreover, the tombs of his wife and mother were found nearby. "Its format and large scale fit the highest-level tomb of the Western Han Dynasty. The idea is also supported by our investigations of the outer burial pits around the tomb. It is the earliest Western Han royal graveyard in which the emperor's tomb was put in the center and was surrounded by burial pits," commented Ma Yongying.
The grand tomb was a milestone in the evolution of Chinese royal mausoleums, said Liu Qingzhu, an archaeology researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as reported by China Daily. "But Liu Heng's [Emperor Wen of Han’s] tomb reflected that the country, represented by the emperor's power, was the priority," he said, adding that studies of the tomb also are a key to understanding the formation of China's national identity.
Top image: The true and final resting place of Emperor Wen of Han has been affirmed and his actual tomb is enormous! Source: Screenshot / CGTN
By Sahir Pandey
CGTN. 2021. Tomb in NW China confirmed as belonging to Emperor Wen of Han Dynasty. Available at: https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-12-14/Tomb-confirmed-as-belonging-to-Emperor-Wen-of-Han-15YUrq9qVVe/index.html
Yan, A. 2021. Scientists find emperor’s tomb after centuries of honour for wrong location. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/people-culture/environment/article/3160176/scientists-find-emperors-tomb-after-centuries
Yuen Hui, B. 2021. Royal tomb discovered. Available at: https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/colours-of-china/2021/12/20/royal-tomb-discovered
Kai Hao, W. 2021. Ancient tomb confirmed as that of famed Han emperor. Available at: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202112/15/WS61b92e45a310cdd39bc7b594.html