Chengdu's Best Crypt Secret

|China Daily|Published:2021-07-26 13:54:23

In the downtown area of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province, on any given evening, anyone passing by No. 10 Yongling Road will see crowds of elderly women dancing from dusk till dark in a small square.

An onlooker that is unfamiliar with the city would probably be surprised to learn that behind the red wall at front of the square is the mausoleum of an emperor.

It is home to the Yongling Museum which houses the mausoleum of Wang Jian (847-918), the founder of the Former Shu Kingdom (907-925) which rose to power during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960) period.

It is the only ancient mausoleum found in China to have been built above ground. Inside the mausoleum, colloquially known as Wang Jian's Tomb, are relief sculptures of two female dancers alongside 22 female musicians that were members of Wang's imperial band, as well as a stone, seated statue of Wang himself.

They are China's most completely preserved sculptures of an imperial band of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) while the effigy of Wang is believed to be China's only statue carved on the basis of an emperor's true appearance.

A native of Wuyang county in Henan province, Wang lived most of his life at the end of the Tang Dynasty, when the royal house was weak and ambitious warlords were locked in combat, competing for control of the country.

Wang was born into a cake-making family. At a young age, his parents died, so he sold salt illegally for which he was eventually imprisoned. Later, he joined the army and became a member of the royal guard.

When a riot took place in the Tang capital of Chang'an in AD 885, Wang escorted the fleeing emperor for more than two months. On their journey, Wang managed to lead the emperor to safety from a burning plank road and when the emperor would rest, he would fall asleep with his head on Wang's legs.

The emperor was so grateful and treated Wang as a favorite. Wang finally rose to the rank of a warlord.

After the general Zhu Wen killed the emperor and overthrew the Tang Dynasty in AD 907, China was divided into many small states. There were five dynasties in the north and 10 kingdoms in the south.

After trying in vain to rally support from other warlords to send armed forces to suppress Zhu, after the fall of the emperor, Wang established his own kingdom, the jurisdiction of which included most parts of Sichuan, Chongqing, the southern part of Shaanxi province and the western part of Hubei province.

During his 11-year reign, the kingdom, with Chengdu as its capital, was strong and prosperous thanks to Wang's diligence and skill at appointing capable people, according to Xu Xueshu, a researcher with Yongling Museum.

After Wang passed away, he was buried in Chengdu, becoming one of the three emperors buried in Sichuan.

Emperors liked having their mausoleums built deep underground, but Wang was an exception.

Knowing that Chengdu abounded in underground water which would rot a coffin in a deep tomb, Wang had his mausoleum built above ground.

Wang's mausoleum was discovered in 1940 when the Tiancheng Railway Bureau was digging an aid shelter on the north side of the huge mound in which his mausoleum was located.

"Since 1938, Japanese invaders kept bombing Chengdu and killed and wounded lots of people," says Ma Wenbin, a researcher with Yongling Museum.

Due to the shortage of professional personnel and funds, excavation was impossible. Ge Weihan (1899-1977), a founder of modern Chinese archaeology, asked the bureau to close the aid shelter construction site.

In the autumn of 1942, Ge led the first-phase excavation of the mausoleum thanks to a fund from the Sichuan provincial department of education.

Entering the mausoleum, Ge found that ancient builders had first used large stones to make the arch-shaped coffin chamber above ground and then covered the chamber with tons of mud.

When Liang Sicheng (1901-72), a famous architect and architectural historian, visited the stone chamber in the 1950s, he hailed it a marvel, as it had no supporting pillars at its center.

In the 1,103 years since Wang was buried, many earthquakes, including the magnitude-8.0 Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 which killed 69,226 people and resulted in 17,923 missing people, have taken place in Sichuan, but the chamber has continued to support the heavy mud.

Just inside the museum's front gate, a path lined with stone statues of civil officials and animals leads to the mausoleum.

With a height of 15 meters and a diameter of about 80 meters, the outside of the mausoleum still looks like a huge mound.

Inside, there is the stone coffin chamber with a total length of 23.4 meters, the widest part being 6.1 meters and the highest part 6.4 meters.

A huge stone platform, where Wang's coffin was placed, can be seen in the center of the chamber.

When the mausoleum was excavated, the coffin was found to have rotted. No bones were discovered, only pieces of wood on the platform.

The relief sculptures of the dancers and musicians are seen on the sides of the stone platform. All of the 22 musicians are seated and playing different instruments including the clapper, flute, konghou (an ancient plucked, stringed instrument), zither, sheng (a reed-pipe wind instrument), waist drum, conch and orange leaf-blowing through a rolled orange or reed leaf to produce pleasant musical notes was popular during the Tang Dynasty.

Looking plump, the dancers and musicians are represented in Tang costumes.

A music aficionado, Wang imitated the imperial court of the Tang Dynasty and established his own royal band.

Researchers believe that the relief sculptures provide valuable material in the study of several areas, including sculpture, music in the imperial court, organization of the imperial band and women's fashion during the Tang Dynasty.

Seven years after he passed away, Wang Yan, Wang Jian's 11th and youngest son, ascended to the throne at 18 and was very corrupt, caring for only women and wine.

The kingdom was eventually toppled by the Latter Tang Kingdom (923-936), the capital of which was Luoyang, Henan province.

"About 20 years after the demise of his kingdom, Wang Jian's mausoleum was sacked," says Feng Xia, deputy curator of Yongling Museum.

Even so, about 400 relics including silver, jade, copper, iron and earthenware were excavated. Many of them are on display in a modern, three-story building at the north end of Wang Jian's Tomb.

Relics from the relatively short-lived Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period are seldom uncovered. This makes the treasure found in Chengdu important for studying the period.

The most valuable pieces are a jade seal and a jade girdle.

The seal, 11.7 centimeters by 10.7 centimeters by 3.4 centimeters, is one of only two seals for the "nether world" to have been discovered in the mausoleum of an emperor. The other seal was found in the mausoleum of Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The seal has a dragon's body and a rabbit's head. The dragon was the symbol of an emperor in ancient China, while Wang Jian was born in the Year of the Rabbit according to the Chinese zodiac.

Made of seven pieces of jade, the girdle was Wang Jian's favorite.

Legend has it that, three years before Wang Jian's death, a fire destroyed his palace. The next day, the only thing Wang found in the ashes was a large piece of jade of incomparably high quality.

As jade was believed to burn easily, Wang, who was very superstitious, thought that the piece must have been offered to him as a gift from heaven. He had craftsmen make a girdle with the jade and he wore it every day.

Technically, he still does-it is carved into his seated stone likeness in the coffin chamber.

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