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Inside China’s treasure laden tombs

As the Chinese New Year approaches we detail five of China’s most remarkable historic mausoleums, looking at the tales of survival, conquest, loyalty and love that have resided within them for centuries

The Marquis of Haihun

The main tomb of a cemetery covering 40,000 square meters and dating from between 206 BC and AD 24 is believed to belong to Liu He, grandson of emperor Wu of the Han dynasty. Liu’s tomb is one of the best preserved royal burials of the western Han ever discovered in China. However, Liu’s position as ‘Marquis’ was not auspicious it seems, as it was bestowed upon him following his deposal as emperor after just 27 days.

Some of the gold unearthed from the Marquis of Haihun tombs

Some of the gold unearthed from the Marquis of Haihun tombs

Excavation of the tombs began several years ago and has unearthed over 10,000 gold, bronze and iron items as well as ten tonnes of bronze coins. In ancient China ten strings of bronze coinage was worth around 250 grams of gold – a unit known as a “jin”. The approximate wealth of an average middle-class family would have been about ten jin.

Early on in the excavation, archaeologists uncovered a series of hoof-like gold ingots as well as 75 gold coins in the tomb, representing the largest single discovery of gold items ever found in a Han dynasty tomb. Since then, numerous vehicles, slain horses and even a distilling pot have been uncovered, pushing back the history of alcohol in China by 1,000 years.

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Liu Fei

Liu Fei was king of the autonomous province of Jiangdu, reigning from 153BC until 128 BC. The recent excavation of his mausoleum by archaeologists from the Nanjing Museum has unearthed numerous treasures. As well as thousands of artefacts made of gold and silver, archaeologists discovered multiple jade works, including a burial suit made of the highly prized precious stone.

Liu Fei's jade burial suit

Liu Fei’s jade burial suit

Weapons, musical instruments and chariots all made from precious metals were found, as well as all more functional items to prepare the notoriously decadent ruler for the after-life, including a kitchen and 11 attendant tombs.

Liu became a local king having suppressed a rebellion against the Han dynasty at the age of 15. Emperor Jing rewarded Liu by creating the Jiangdu kingdom for him. Liu Jian, his son and successor then lost the kingdom following a plot against the Chinese emperor seven years after Liu Fei’s death.

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Lady Mei

Lady Mei died in 1474 at the age of 45 having lived a remarkable life. Once living in relative poverty, she became a concubine, eventually rising to become an integral player at court. Her tomb was excavated in 2008, revealing a number of tombstones documenting how an “unwashed and unkempt” woman married Mu Bin, a duke of Qian who ruled in China’s south-western province of Yunnan. She later became the mother of a local duke, advising them on “strategies for bringing peace to the barbarian tribes and pacifying faraway lands,” according to the tomb’s epitaphs.

A fragrance box from the tomb of Lady Mei

A fragrance box from the tomb of Lady Mei

Lady Mei’s tomb contained numerous intricate and stunningly crafted gold bracelets, hairpins and fragrance boxes. These in turn were studded with rubies, sapphires and turquoise, marking her out as an important, and it seems much-loved, official. Her epitaphs allegedly reading: “On the day of her death, the people of Yunnan, military servicemen or civilians, old and young, all mourned and grieved for her as if their own parents had passed away. Why did heaven bestow all the virtues upon her, while being so ungenerous as not to give her more years to live?”

Lord Hu Hong and Wu

A gold pendant from the tomb of Wu.

A gold pendant from the tomb of Wu. Copyright Chinese Cultural Relics

The tomb of Lord Hu Hong and his wife Wu was excavated late in 2017, revealing the final resting place of a couple who died 800 years ago. Gold jewellery, combs and hairpins where found in the intact tomb of Wu, Lord Hu Hong’s “virtuous” wife. Hu Hong rose from obscurity, through the notoriously bureaucratic Chinese civil service to become a magistrate.

The tomb reveals incredibly detailed insights into Hu Hong’s life. Having been outspoken over the mismanagement of government he took early retirement, eventually dying in 1203; three years later Wu passed away and was buried by his side. The couple were survived by two sons, three daughters and three granddaughters.

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Qin Shi Huang

The first emperor of China and founder of the Qin dynasty, having unified all of the country’s warring factions in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang is credited with the creation of the Chinese state and expansion of the empire’s borders. Ruling until his death in 210 BC, Qin Shi Huang became obsessed with finding the ‘elixir of life’ a mythical substance he believed would give him immortality. His death was rumoured to be the result of eating mercury in a bid to obtain immortality.

Excavated terracotta warriors from the 3rd Century BC, built to protect the Emperor in the afterlife

Excavated terracotta warriors from the 3rd Century BC, built to protect the Emperor in the afterlife

Having passed away, the emperor was entombed in an enormous mausoleum that took 38 years to build. Estimates at the workforce vary from less than 16,000 to over 700,000. The mausoleum represents an entire city and is based on the ancient capital of Xianyang, complete with inner and outer precincts and a circumference of 3.9 miles.

Qin Shi Huang's titanic tomb

Qin Shi Huang’s titanic tomb

The whole site has yet to be excavated as archaeologists have focused on the necropolis complex surrounding the emperor’s tomb and guarded by the legendary terracotta warriors. Royal historians from the time allege “the tomb was filled with rare artefacts and wonderful treasure – Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot at anyone who enters the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representation of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land.” The historian, Sima Qian, also details how the craftsmen who knew the tomb’s secrets were trapped inside following the funeral procession along with the already slain concubines.

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