Octagonal Walled, Pyramidal Chinese Tomb Whispers Ancient Moral Messages
Mythologies, philosophies and religions around the world are bolted together with stories, poems and songs offering moral messages which we hope our children will to aspire to live by. So often, ancient stories were passed orally from elders to children and never written down, hence, over time they became diluted and in the greater part completely evaporated, and lost forever. But not in China! Archaeologists in Yangquan have discovered an “octagon-shaped tomb with walls covered in murals” dating back 7 centuries to a time when the descendants of Genghis Khan ruled over China.
A Mongol army led by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered China in 1271 and his descendants ruled China until 1368. The Mongols constructed Shangdu (also known as Xanadu), which they used as their capital city during the summertime. The octagonal tomb was first discovered in April 2012 and excavated by archaeologists from Yangquan City's Office of Cultural Heritage Administration and the Bureau of Cultural Relics and Tourism of the Suburbs of Yangquan City. The archaeologists report was first published in the journal Wenwu in 2016, and was recently translated into English in the journal of Chinese Cultural Relics.
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Octagon shaped tomb was discovered in 2012. (Image: Chinese Cultural Relics)
A Heavenly Mongol Tomb
The tomb’s pyramidal roof features detailed images of the sun, moon and stars reflecting the cosmos above, and seven of its 8 walls are covered in detailed murals, while an eighth wall frames the entrance into the ritual space. Although a mural on the north wall shows the tomb’s two occupants, a husband and wife, no skeletal remains were found according to the team of archaeologists, who also noted that some of the people illustrated in the murals are wearing Mongol, rather than Chinese, fashions. In one mural, a man with a camel “is wearing a soft hat with four edges, matching the traditional hats worn by northern nomadic tribes in ancient times," the archaeologists wrote in the journal report.
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A man wears a soft hat with four-sides, typical of Mongol dress. (Image: Chinese Cultural Relics)
According to a report in Live Science, "Mongol rulers issued a dress code in 1314 for racial segregation: Han Chinese officials maintained the round-collar shirts and folded hats, and the Mongolian officials wore clothes like long jackets and soft hats with four edges.” Other murals show musicians playing, tea being prepared and animals transporting people and goods, according to an article in archeology.org.
Two series of images depict popular Chinese folk stories, for example, one tells of two adults burying their son alive, and read out of context this has seriously gruesome implications. However, this image is but one part of a greater story which was an extremely popular folk tale in ancient China. The story goes:
Guo Ju and his wife are poor and they have a young son, while caring for Ju's sickly mother. They must choose between caring for the mother or the child and decide to bury their child alive to feed Ju's mother. While digging a hole, they unearth gold coins - a divine reward for choosing to care for the elderly mother, and no longer to they need to sacrifice their son.
Guo Ju and his wife, burying their son. From the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety by Okumura Masanobu, early 1730s. (Public Domain)
Chinese “Family Respect” Values
The researchers said such stories depicting "filial piety” roar out the importance of respecting your parents and grandparents and caring for them when they get older. Filial piety is considered a key virtue in Chinese culture, and it is the central archetype in many stories and, although China has seen a wide diversity of religious beliefs, filial piety is common to almost all of them, evident in what historian Hugh D.R. Baker called “respect for the family” the only “element common to almost all Chinese believers.”
The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety, was written around the Qin-Han period, recording a purported dialogue between Confucius and his student Zengzi, about setting up a good society using the principle of filial piety. This principal, however, is not only about respecting one's parents and elders, but also one’s ancestors. In more general terms it means to work hard enough to be able to support one’s parents, as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors, but it extends into showing love, support, respect and courtesy, and ensuring male heirs, of course…
The discovery of this octagonal temple of morals reassures us that even during a violent, unpredictable and socially turbulent period of history, morals and principals remained intact throughout.
Top image: The octagon-shaped tomb is filled with murals and has a pyramid-shaped roof. Source: Chinese Cultural Relics
By Ashley Cowie
1. (Baker, Hugh D. R. Chinese Family and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. pg. 98).