China’s Immense Wealth of Buried Cultural Treasures

The December 2009 discovery of the mausoleum of the celebrated Cao Cao in Henan province’s Anyang City excited everyone in China and created a stir among foreign historians and archaeologists too. This is hardly surprising because Cao, one of China’s most controversial statesmen and brilliant military strategists of the Three-Kingdom era (184-280 AD), is reputed to have constructed 72 decoy tombs in order to thwart any future attempts by any grave raiders to desecrate his final resting place and to steal the treasures buried with him for his needs in the afterlife. His very colourful life and famous exploits have been vividly captured and romanticised in one of  China’s best known classical novels, the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and he became a household name in China. This discovery has been proclaimed by the media and some cultural experts as the greatest archaeological find since the unearthing of the terracotta  army in 1974 in Xian, which protects the yet to be excavated burial chamber of the First Emperor, who built China’s Great Wall more than 2200 years ago. Even before Cao’s 740 sq. m mausoleum, with an assortment of 250 artifacts found therein, has been officially authenticated and opened to the public, the province’s government officials and tourism authorities are optimistic that his tomb will soon become a cash-tree, as it were, and will generate up to an annual windfall of 420 million yuan, in close competition with the revenue created by the terracotta army in Xian.

Despite the national rejoicing over the discovery of the elusive Cao burial chamber, many well-known historians, scholars, archaeologists and anthropologists have cast doubts as to its genuineness. Their main dissenting views can be summed up as follows:

The tomb was earlier raided by tomb robbers before the archaeologists found it, and some of the artifacts in it had already been removed by them. It is possible that some of the remaining artifacts could have been tampered with, including the stone tablets bearing Cao’s posthumous title, King Wu of Wei,  which could have been forged ingeniously so as to deceive even the experts as had happened in some disturbed tombs of other prominent people. These stone tablets are said to offer the strongest evidence that the tomb must belong to Cao himself.

The discovered burial chamber does not correspond with the descriptions of Cao’s in historical records. Also, none of the stone tablets mentions his name and no memorial mourning album was found, which would have been the practice for such an important figure of that period.

While one of the skeletons in the tomb is claimed to be of Cao’s age and of the period, experts believe that as the remains are not in good condition because of long burial, it would be extremely difficult to extract DNA samples from them. Furthermore, it is not known that there are living lineal descendants of his who could undergo DNA tests to either confirm or reject the authenticity of this discovery. To trace any possible descendants that Cao might still have will be an uphill, if not impossible, task.

These experts also have reasons to believe that Cao was not buried in Anyang, but in Bozhou in Anhui province, where he was born. Some experts are convinced that the discovery has been hyped up prematurely by sensational media publicity and by the opportunistic local government authorities in order to promote the expected increased tourism and the revenue windfall this will bring.

Finally, it is significant that China’s authoritative Institute of Archaeology has maintained a guarded stand that it is too early to confirm that the unearthed tomb is truly Cao’s until all the available evidence have been exhaustively analysed and firmly established.

Despite China having the longest continuous civilisation in the world dating back to 5000 years, there are not that many truly ancient monuments and other historical edifices in their original state of preservation left in this vast country. This is because most of these were either destroyed by ravages of nature, frequent wars or due to human neglect in the course of time. Be that as it may, the saving grace for China and that of mankind is that its immense wealth of historical cultural heritage has been largely preserved beneath the ground awaiting discovery to see the light of day again. For the record, the most extravagant mausoleums are those of its numerous reigning monarchs and others belonging to lesser royalties and prominent personages throughout the ages. All of these would have contained valuable funerary items. However, not that many of these prominent tombs have, to date, been found  and for  those that have already been located, the Chinese government is in no hurry to excavate them until the state of technology has become sufficiently advanced for them to undertake such a task so as to ensure the safe preservation of the artifacts in these tombs for the benefit of all.

Take the tombs of the emperors and various kings as an example. China’s First Emperor’s burial place, with its inestimable wealth of funerary treasures, has not yet been opened up. Neither have those of the rulers of the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), when China was at its peak of prosperity and was probably the richest and most powerful nation on earth. The experts are of the view that, based on the grandeur and artifacts-rich tombs of minor royalties that surround the not yet excavated mausoleum of the 6th Han emperor Jindi, his mausoleum, and that of his successor, Emperor Wudi, could well match the First Emperor’s in scale and extravagance. Of the emperors’ tombs of the nation’s last two dynasties, namely Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911), only that of the 13th Ming Emperor Wanli’s has already been dug up and has since become one of the top tourist attractions in China. The array of high quality and rare artifacts in this tomb had long ago been removed to a museum for display, but the replicas of these can still be seen on site. Situated in the outskirts of Beijing, it is one of the thirteen royal mausoleums crisscrossing a vast expanse of land, all with grand structures surrounding each of these tombs. Needless to say, they were all constructed strictly in accordance with the best fengshui principles, China’s art of geomancy.

The worldwide interest created by the discovery of the tomb of Cao reminds me of a related article that I wrote in 2002, which was published in Singapore’s Sunday Times, under the caption, “What lies beneath”, and I should like to share it with my readers. It is posted immediately after this article.

Lam Pin Foo

2 thoughts on “China’s Immense Wealth of Buried Cultural Treasures

  1. Dear Siew Chey

    You have put forward an important point, which Chinese experts should take into consideration when deciding whether or not the tomb’s occupant is truly Cao Cao. I hope the ultimate consensus will satisfy both the believers and the doubters. We shall wait and see.

    Pin Foo

  2. Dea Pin Foo,

    I enjoyed reading about your article on Cao Cao’s tomb. I too am a little skeptical about its genuineness. I remember the Chinese press reported the finding of a tablet bearing the name Wei Wu Di in the tomb. Cao Cao’s official title when he died was Wei Wang. He was not a Di (sovereign ruler). His son Cao Pi took over the Han throne and became a Di. He gave his father the posthumous title of Han Wu Di. I do not know whether the title was given before or after Cao Cao’s burial. If the title was conferred after the burial, then the tablet should be a fake.

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