Dug-Up Grave of ‘China’s Shakespeare’ Broke Regulations, Say Authorities
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2017-09-15 13:34:55

Four centuries after his death, playwright Tang Xianzu is stirring up emotions yet again, as a central government department says the recent excavation of his burial site violates their regulations.

On Aug. 28, the municipal government of Fuzhou, Tang’s hometown in eastern China’s Jiangxi province, held a press conference with local archaeologists and announced the “great archaeological discovery” of 42 Tang family graves.

But just days after the publicity sensation, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, the government regulator of relics and antiques, stated that the archeological work hadn’t incorporated suggestions made to an initial plan approved in April. Specifically, the administration said it had not authorized the excavation of the graves, and that the local departments involved had neglected to report important findings in a timely fashion, state news agency Xinhua reported Tuesday.

An aerial view of the burial site of China’s most renowned playwright, Tang Xianzu, who lived during the 16th and 17th centuries near what is today Fuzhou, Jiangxi province. Nov. 6, 2016. VCG

An aerial view of the burial site of China’s most renowned playwright, Tang Xianzu, who lived during the 16th and 17th centuries near what is today Fuzhou, Jiangxi province. Nov. 6, 2016. VCG

The pushback from the administration has thrown a wrench in Fuzhou’s plans to convert Tang’s legacy into tourist yuan. The playwright is famous in his own right, but is also known as “China’s Shakespeare” because the two men both died in 1616 and wrote plays about forbidden love — which is why the city has said it wants to turn itself into a “holy land of marriage proposals.”

The Tang family burial site was to be opened to the public in time for a drama festival in the playwright’s honor that was scheduled to start Sept. 24, though that plan has now been halted.

Zhang Ling, the deputy director of the administration’s archaeology division, told media that it was against regulations for local governments to disclose information to the public without first contacting their national office. “We never advocate excavating the graves of famous people proactively,” said Zhang.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has asked for a meeting with the Fuzhou and Jiangxi governments to find out who was responsible for the unauthorized excavation.

The administration could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday. An employee of the publicity department of Fuzhou’s Party committee surnamed Xu told Sixth Tone that he was not sure about the current situation, though he added that the city was waiting for further guidance from the national administration.

Due to the widespread destruction of historical relics during China’s Cultural Revolution, the discovery of the burial site has limited significance. Wang Shanghai, the deputy dean of the Jiangxi Provincial Research Institute of Archaeology, told The Beijing News that no relics or bones had been found in the grave identified as Tang Xianzu’s.

Mao Peiqi, a renowned historian of the Ming Dynasty, told Sixth Tone that the location of the graves had previously been confirmed, and that this was not the first discovery of the site. “During the excavation, they found six carved stones documenting the life experiences […] of the owners,” said Mao. “These can add to the historical record, which used to be incomplete and ambiguous.”

The discovery comes amid an urban redevelopment project for an old town district. But according to Mao, more research should be carried out, and more caution exercised, before rushing ahead with plans to develop historical tourist sites.

“The family graveyard was in use for hundreds of years, and it might occupy more areas nearby than just the site we have detected,” said Mao. “If the situation is not understood clearly, the land elsewhere won’t be able to be used either.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Locals and tourists visit the burial site of China’s most renowned playwright, Tang Xianzu, who lived during the 16th and 17th centuries near what is today Fuzhou, Jiangxi province, Aug. 28, 2017.VCG)