What Lies Beneath

This article first appeared in the Singapore Sunday Times on 2 June 2002.

Five thousand years of  civilisation is a powerful magnet that draws visitors from across the world to China.

As the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, the attraction is undeniable. Yet a discerning visitor seeking a profound cultural experience in China may well leave disappointed. Why? The ancient monuments in the Middle East and Europe have survived well because they were built of stone. But in China, palaces, temples and other major buildings were generally constructed of timber. Most had succumbed to the ravages of nature and human conflict. Examples include the historic Buddhist temples that are spread in Chinese cities and sacred mountains. Hordes of devotees flocked there in their heyday.

Your Chinese guide would recite with eloquence their illustrious history dating back to Tang Dynasty or earlier, regaling you with stories about the long-gone relics and exquisite woodwork of the original buildings. But what greets you would likely be less refined buildings and art works of a much later dynasty, rebuilt on the same site. Some are recent replicas of the ancient works.

Brick-and-mortar structures like pagodas, watch-towers, city walls and bridges have fared better. However, most are dilapidated, or have been so extensively renovated over the centuries that they no longer resemble the original.

Aside from the ravages of time, the preservation of China’s historic monuments and artifacts suffered a further blow during the Cultural Revolution. Much of the country’s cultural heritage built up over the centuries were reduced to ruins in a few months of madness by fanatical Red Guards on the rampage. Fortunately, China’s foremost national treasures, including the sculptures and wall frescoes at the Dunhuang grottoes and the peerless imperial art collection at Beijing’s Gukung (Forbidden City) escaped the fury of the Red Guards, thanks to the timely intervention of the late Premier Zhou Enlai.

Even so, many of the choicest of these national treasures were long ago looted by rapacious foreigners and removed to their home museums.

Despite the scarcity of ancient monuments above ground, the real saving grace is the immense cultural wealth that lies hidden beneath China’s soil. In ancient times, it was the custom to bury precious, ornamental and household items with the departed for their use in the hereafter. This has resulted in major discoveries, the most widely publicised was the discovery in Xian in 1974 of some 8000 life-sized terracotta warriors. These earthen warriors guarded the outer tomb of the 2200-year old  mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang, a man who unified China and built its Great Wall but who feared being harmed, even in death.

As the technology of archaeological excavation advances, more of China’s national heritage will again see the light of day.

Chinese cultural experts, including the Director of the renowned Shaanxi History museum, Mr Zhou Tian You, are convinced that what had been dug up so far constitute only a small portion of the nation’s heritage. For example, recent digs have thrown up evidence that verified the existence of the Xia Dynasty, which was founded in 2200 BC.

The tombs that have been unearthed so far have generally been those of minor royalties and high officials. Far grander in terms of construction and funerary contents would be the tombs of China’s monarchs. But most of the burial sites of China’s early rulers are not known, while those of later periods remain largely unexcavated.

How do the Chinese experts ascertain the identity of a tomb’s occupant? They rely mainly on the Muzhimin (inscribed stone memorial tablet), normally erected at the entrance to a burial chamber.

Usually written by someone of standing who was close to the deceased, it would set out his biography, highlighting his achievements and contributions to society. A copy of this written eulogy would be kept by his family. Only royalty and privileged people could afford one.

The formidable Han Emperor Wudi and the egotistical Empress Wu Zetian insisted that the inscriptions on their memorial tablets be different from the standard formulation. His invited posterity to judge whether his contributions outweighed his shortcomings. Hers was deliberately left blank, confident of history as her scribe.

Visitors to China looking for a profound cultural experience should tour selected excavation sites, especially those with quality museums nearby showcasing the artifacts recovered from the pits.

Many of these sites are scattered in the provinces of Shandong, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hubei, Henan, Hebei, Sichuan and along the Silk Road. Some are accessible from the cities of Xian, Loyang, Beijing, Zibo, Qingzhou, Chengdu, Turpan and Yinchuan, to name a few.

As is said about true beauty, one has to look deeper to find the glory of China’s cultural heritage.

Lam Pin Foo

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