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December 15, 2013

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China’s only empress rests at Qianling Mausoleum

The Qianling Mausoleum is the burial site of two rulers of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), Emperor Gaozong and his wife, Wu Zetian, the first and only empress in Chinese history.

Located on Mount Liang, about 85 kilometers northwest of Xi’an, formerly the Tang capital and today the capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, the mausoleum is a colossal complex consisting of two main tombs for the two rulers and 17 attendant tombs for members of the royal family and several prominent officials of the dynasty.

Construction of the tomb for Emperor Gaozong started in AD 683, one year before he died. Then other tombs, underground structures and a great number of stone statues and steles, or slabs, were added to the complex in the following years. It was not completed until 706 AD, one year after Empress Wu Zetian died.

Mount Liang has three peaks, with the north peak, the tallest, standing 1,062 meters above sea level. The Qianling Mausoleum was built on the north peak and the two south peaks — named “Nipple Hills” for their resemblance to human nipples — serving as the gateway leading to the complex.

Starting from Sui and Tang dynasties, emperors began to build their tombs in hills or mountains instead of just using man-made mounds to mark their tombs.

The mausoleum was originally surrounded by two city walls with the inner court covering an area of 240,000 square meters.

There was a long path, called a spirit road, leading from south of the mountain to the southern entrance. The spirit road was lined on both sides with large stone statues of real and imaginary animals, such as winged horses, lions and ostriches, as well as contemporary officials.

In addition, there were 61 stone statues of foreign diplomats, representing the actual 61 foreign envoys present at the burial of Emperor Gaozong. These statues are still standing in front of the mausoleum today, but all their heads have disappeared.

In front of the mausoleum, there also were many tall steles, many of which still exist. Among them, the stele erected for Empress Wu is the best known.

Weighing about 100 tons and standing 7.53 meters tall, Empress Wu’s commemorative stele is called a “wordless stele,” since it has no written inscriptions on it. That was very rare during her time, as almost all steles erected in front of emperors’ mausoleums had inscriptions on them, praising their achievements. But Wu’s is only decorated with nine exquisitely carved dragons.

During a large-scale peasant rebellion in the late years of the Tang Dynasty, Huang Chao, the rebel leader, mobilized 400,000 of his troops to rob the mausoleum, since Chinese emperors tended to place large amounts of treasure, such as jewels and artworks that they loved, in their graves as mortuary objects.

The rebel troops dug a 40-meter-deep ditch in the area, but failed to find the entrance of the underground chambers. In the following centuries, there were several other major attempts to rob the famous mausoleum, all in vain.

However, in 1960, while using explosives to clear away large stones at a construction site, several local farmers accidently found the entrance to the mausoleum. As a result, five attendant tombs were opened and excavated. More than 4,300 precious relics were found in these tombs along with more than 100 colorful murals.

Later, local archaeologists asked the central government for permission to excavate the tombs of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu, but the proposal was denied by the late Premier Zhou Enlai.

“We shouldn’t take all the good things for ourselves. Leave some for our posterity,” said Zhou.

Many archaeological experts believe that of the 18 imperial mausoleums from the Tang Dynasty, the Qianling Mausoleum is the only one that has remained nearly intact today.

石像生 (shi xiang sheng) Stone statues

In ancient China, people used to line both sides of a path in front of a tomb or mausoleum for emperors and other top dignitaries with “shixiangsheng,” or large stone statues of men and real or imaginary animals.

This distinctive architectural feature emerged during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

The stone statues usually depicted in a quite realistic way horses, lions, tigers, camels, elephants, gigantic turtles and also imaginary animals such as the Chinese unicorn. In addition to animals, there were also statues of civil and military officials. Together, they served as the honor guard for the deceased.

These statues were nearly always in pairs, standing face to face across a path, known as “shen dao” or the spirit road, leading from the south to the southern entrance of a tomb. This tradition lasted over 2,000 years, though during different dynasties, the number and types of the statues varied.


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