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Notes on the Geography of China: Han and Tang Imperial Tombs

Two lines of imperial tombs were built in the Weihe Plain.  One, just north of the Wei River and west of Xi'an, comprises a set of 10 tombs of the Western Han emperors.  The other line, farther north and stretching along the base of the North Mountains, comprises 19 Tang tombs.  Both groups are associated with many attendant tombs--for some emperors, dozens of them.  Most were excavated in the plain's soft loess, an ideal material to dig and shape into artificial hills. 

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One such hill stands perhaps 500 yards from Maoling, the much larger hill marking the tomb of the Emperor Wu.  There's nothing much to see, because the hill has eroded into a nearly natural shape.  Its treasures are invisible, too, because the tomb has not yet been excavated.  It's ironic, because the Western Han squandered a third of all China's tax revenues on their tombs. For the Emperor Wu, who ruled for 53 prosperous years, such lavish spending implied a veritable mountain of treasure. 

We've come to this attendant's tomb while on our way to a tomb that was discovered (for Europeans) by Victor Segalen in 1914.  He saw a hill like this one, bare except for a small stone building at the top, a couple of battered trees next to the building, and a remarkable cluster of granite boulders scattered near the summit.   Segalen wrote that "They are not of any definite shape.  There is no discernible link; they would not seem to have any architectural or ritual purpose.  They lie here and there halfway up the mound as if they had tumbled down from the top of it.  They look like a herd of stone animals, dead.  There is really no knowing what to think of them." (Quoted from Segalen's Great Statuary of China, 1978.)

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The hill he described is hardly worth showing now, because it's been "restored" with decorative staircases and a summit pavilion.  At the foot of the hill, however, the boulders Segalen described are now arrayed in an open-air museum.  Among the pieces is this horse, which Segalen saw standing at the foot of the hill and next to a second group of boulders.


It shows a horse standing over a supine body.  That's because the hill marks the underground tomb of  General Huo Qubing, who died in 117 B.C. at the age of 24.  In the preceding half-dozen years, he had fought half a dozen successful battles as far west as the Altai Mountains and had opened China's access to the West.  The emperor rewarded him with a tomb close to the site of his own, and he imported boulders so that the tomb would resemble Mt. Qilian, where General Huo had won a famous victory.  The horse tells part of that story, because it stands implacably over a fallen barbarian of the nomadic Xiongnu, a Hun--the Mongols defeated by General Huo.

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The boulders were carved into a profusion of animals that possess the vitality of paleolithic art.  Here, a beatific ox.

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A tiger is so stylized that it seems to be emerging from the rock.

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Absolute minimalism: the idea of a tortoise.

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Troll?

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What a difference 800 years can make.  We've climbed up on Mt. Liang to view Qianling.  It's the burial place of the Emperor Gaozong (d. 684) and of China's only ruling empress, the Empress Wu, Gaozong's widow.  She survived him to rule on her own for 20 years (d. 705).  It was she who insisted that Gaozong be buried here, rather than where he had died and had asked to be buried.  The tunnel entrance, sealed with molten metal, begins half way up the slope and has not been excavated.  In the distance is the innovative Sacred Way, flanked by watchtowers.  Some of the later Han emperors had experimented with a Sacred Way, but Qianling presents the archetype.

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This is the view from the other end of the Sacred Way.  It's lined with 125 stone sculptures, including guards of honor and civil officials.  As Ann Paludan writes in The Chinese Spirit Road (1991), "the Tang spirit road is primarily addressed to this world" and, as such, is as much an imperial road as a spiritual one. 

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If you turn around, you see stairs descending to the Weihe Plain.

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If you climb Mt. Liang, on the other hand, you may be in for a disappointment: there's nothing except rocks and trees.  The tombs, of course, are underground.  Excavating in bedrock was so difficult that few later emperors--and none after the Tang--even tried.

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At the foot of the mountain, and not far from the tunnel entrance, statues of 61 vassal-state envoys suggest the funeral that took place here.  The scene is fictitious--many of the envoys never attended the funeral--but it locates them in a position of subservience. All the statues were later decapitated, presumably by xenophobes.

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Surrounding Qianling are 17 attendant tombs, including this one.

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From the south side, a roof has been built over the tunnel that leads to the tomb, which has been excavated.

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A ramp leads down to the burial chamber, now empty.

Recommended reading: Victor Segalen, The Great Statuary of China, University of Chicago Press, 1978, and Ann Paludan, The Chinese Spirit Road, Yale, 1991.


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