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Royal tomb that defied robber

Ji Lei ( China Daily )

A stone lion guards the Qianling Mausoleum. [ China Daily ]

Eighteen Tang emperors were buried in tombs in Shaanxi Province. Seventeen of their tombs were plundered by a resourceful grave robber named Wen Tao.

Only one tomb escaped. It is still unopened today but archeological studies have determined why it defied Wen Tao's attempts. The passageway into the Qianling Mausoleum is filled with huge stones which were bolted together with iron plates. Molten iron and tin were then poured into the crevices to make a solid plug.

But still the tomb was opened once. The huge mass of rock was broken through in 705 when the Empress Wu Zetian died. Her body was placed beside her husband, the Emperor Gaozong, and then the tremendous sealing process was repeated. It was this second sealing that turned aside the efforts of Wen Tao, say historians of the Five Dynasties (907-960), who recorded the exploits of the grave robber.

Tourists who come to visit the tomb area in Liangshan (Liang Mountains) 80 kilometres northwest of Xi'an see a double line of stone carvings - more than a hundred of them - leading to the mound where the royal couple lie buried.

Originally the mausoleum included 378 above-ground buildings enclosed in double walls. Now only fragments of the walls remain and all the buildings are gone. But the stone tomb guardians still make the site an imposing one.

Approaching from the south, the visitor finds a pair of eight-sided cloud pillars, winged horses, twin scarlet rosefinches, five horses, 10 pairs of generals in full battle dress with weapons, a duo of memorial tablets, 61 stone statues and, finally, paired stone lions, keeping watch at each of the four gates to the grave area.

The Qianling was the first tomb to have guardian stone lions, the symbol of authority and power. But other Tang emperors used them later when building their own tombs.

The 61 statues have a story behind them. When the Emperor Gaozong died in 683, the Tang Dynasty was at the height of its power. As a result, more than 60 heads of state or important envoys from distant countries came to pay their respects. The empress ordered their likenesses carved in stone and their names engraved on the backs. The statues have been damaged over the years - most have lost their heads - but the sharp-eyed tourist can still make out many of the names. There is one from Afghanistan.

Emperor Gaozong's memorial tablet was unusual. It listed his exploits in an inscription done in gold and using more than 8,000 words. Up to that time, emperors had not had memorial tablets. They believed their achievements were beyond description.

The empress followed Gaozong's example by having a tablet made. But there was no inscription. Historians believe she left the tablet blank, believing that her descendants would fill it in with flattering words.

And, sure enough, it now carries 13 inscriptions in the Han language and Nuzhen, the language of a nationality in the north of ancient China. One of the inscriptions, in Nuzhen, describes how a Kin Dynasty prince renovated the mausoleum in 1134.

The two tablets are works of art even without words. Gaozong's massive stone, more than six metres high and weighing more than 81 tons, is divided into seven parts to represent the sun, moon and the planets Venus, Mars, Saturn, Mercury and Jupiter. The emperor's deeds are compared to the glory of the heavenly bodies. The tablet of the empress is also more than six metres high and even heavier than the emperor's - almost 99 tons. It is decorated with eight chi (dragons without horns) on top, while carved designs of horses, lions and clouds can be seen on its sides.

The Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian were noted for their political prowess; they are credited with consolidating the Tang empire. But the empress was even more noted for her cruelty. History says that she was responsible for the deaths of at least 109 kinsmen and high-ranking officials and their families.

She overthrew two other sons, Zhongzong and Ruizong, after Gaozong's death in order to make herself empress.

An ironic historical footnote is that, after her own death, Zhongzong became emperor and was the one who ordered the Qianling tomb opened - over strong protests - in order to entomb his mother beside his father.

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