SHAANXI, Northwest China — In 2013, archaeologists in the city of Xi’an made an incredible discovery while conducting surveys for a new road-building project: a 1,300-year-old tomb belonging to one of the most powerful female politicians in Chinese history, Shangguan Wan’er.
Shangguan had served as the de facto prime minister to Wu Zetian, China’s sole female emperor. But after Wu’s death, she was killed in a bloody coup, and her final resting place had remained a mystery for centuries.
So, the find naturally generated huge excitement in China. For local archaeologists, however, the moment felt bittersweet.
“We did not need to excavate her — she had been there for 1,300 years, why would we want to dig her up in 2013?” Li Ming, the researcher who led the excavation, tells Sixth Tone. “But when the tomb was facing destruction due to the construction project, we had to do our work.
This situation has become common in ancient Chinese cities like Xi’an in recent years.
China today places much greater emphasis on protecting its cultural heritage than during the 1990s, when breakneck economic growth was the number one priority. Cultural heritage officials are now involved in every major urban development project, and surveys must be conducted to identify and preserve historical relics before any new construction begins.
The new measures have been a game-changer for Chinese archaeology, leading to a number of groundbreaking discoveries. But they have also created challenges in ancient cities like Xi’an, where historical artifacts seemingly lurk under every intersection.
Xi’an, located in northwest China’s Shaanxi province, is almost drowning in history. Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor, built his vast mausoleum and its famous Terra-cotta Army just a few dozen kilometers to the northeast. Several later imperial dynasties made the city their capital, including the prosperous Han and Tang empires.
Archaeologists work inside one of the pits at the Qin Shihuang Mausoleum in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, 2012. Zhang Yuan/CNS/VCG
The Tang dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.) especially is considered a golden age in China. Xi’an — or Chang’an, as it was then known — was one of the world’s greatest cities at the time, sitting at the center of a vast trade network stretching from China to the Middle East.
Protecting all this heritage is a monumental task. Xi’an is already home to 3,246 “immovable cultural heritage” sites, 52 of which are listed as key cultural relics of national importance. And the list grows every year, as construction crews continually unearth more historical remains.
The financial cost of preserving these sites can be considerable, Li says. And it also makes the city’s development unpredictable. On several occasions, major construction projects have had to be changed, after surveys uncovered ancient tombs on the sites.
Li — who previously worked at the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology, before being appointed associate dean of the Han Yangling Museum — also had to spring into action in 2019, after the tomb of another Tang dynasty courtier was identified during preparations for a road-building program.
This tomb belonged to Xue Shao, the first husband of Empress Wu Zetian’s daughter, Princess Taiping. As with many Tang dynasty tombs, it was a grandiose structure, but there was no sign of a skeleton. That’s because tombs were mainly political symbols during the Tang, Li says. Nobles built lavish tombs for their allies and patrons — and trashed those of their rivals — to assert their power and legitimacy.
The site of Xue Shao’s Tomb, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, September 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Archaeologists prefer to avoid excavating these sites when possible, Li says. The best way to protect historical relics is to leave them in the ground. His team only took action when it was the only way to save a site from destruction, such as in the cases of Shangguan and Xue Shao’s tombs.
Many similar cases are likely to emerge in the future. Despite decades of research, archaeologists in Xi’an still haven’t located the tombs of several emperors, let alone those of many other historical figures who lived in the city.
To prevent more forced excavations, Li says archaeologists are trying to pre-emptively map out Xi’an’s known burial sites, so they can be protected from future development projects. But it’s a tough job given the sheer number of sites.
In an interview with Sixth Tone, Li discussed the challenge of protecting Xi’an’s cultural heritage, and what the city’s many royal tombs reveal about its history. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The site of Shangguan Wan’er’s tomb, which has been transformed into a cultural park, in Xixian New District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, September 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: What do Tang dynasty tombs tell us about society during that period?
Li Ming: There was a system strictly regulating the planning of funeral rites. In ancient times, especially during the Tang dynasty, the system — from the depth of the tomb to the selection of burial objects — had to be carried out strictly. The rites were designed to reflect the social hierarchy: each social class was entitled to a certain kind of grave. Deviation was tantamount to breaking the system, and would be punished.
In terms of site selection, emperors had the highest level. They started to scout for potential burial sites while they were still alive. The mausoleum of Li Yuan, the founding emperor of the Tang dynasty, was built underground, which followed the routine of the Sui dynasty. After him, the Tang emperors’ mausoleums were all built inside mountains.
We uncovered Shangguan Wan’er and Xue Shao in Hongduyuan, a high-level cemetery in the north of historical Chang’an, which was used for over 1,000 years and was the resting place for many royals and dignitaries. In the excavation process, we can judge if a site belongs to a noble or a commoner based on its scale and the burial objects it contains.
Sixth Tone: What did you learn from excavating the tombs of Shangguan Wan’er and Xue Shao?
Li: During the excavation, there was no sign of Shangguan Wan’er’s skeleton, and the tomb was severely damaged. Our research indicates that the damage was likely done intentionally — and was related to the ongoing power struggles between Li Longji, or Emperor Xuanzong, and Princess Taiping.
Li killed Shangguan, and Princess Taiping built her tomb — a move that defied Li’s wishes. Such large-scale damage could only happen when it was authorized. After Li took the throne, there was no longer large-scale, organized damage to tombs, because there were no longer power struggles happening between the highest-level elites.
Left: A rubbing of the cover of Shangguan Wan’er’s epitaph; Right: The epitaph. From @陕视新闻 on Weibo
During the Tang dynasty, funerals were important social events, just like weddings. The funeral reflected the will of the person who organized it, not that of the person being buried, and it reflected the political status of the organizer and their faction. Take Xue Shao as an example: He had actually been dead for 17 years when this double-chambered tomb was built. No one remembered him anymore, and we didn’t find his bones.
It was a symbolic move. Xue was given a double-chambered tomb, a scale of tomb that’s usually reserved for the highest-level officials. But he was not. We could only explain this move through politics. After Wu Zhou (also known as Wu Zetian), many double-chambered brick tombs suddenly appeared. It’s because people were fighting for political legitimacy in the power vacuum left after Wu’s death. The tomb building and funeral rites became one of the ways to achieve that.
A view of the interior of Shangguan Wan’er’s tomb. From @陕视新闻 on Weibo
Sixth Tone: What happens when ancient tombs are discovered during a new construction project? Given how many tombs there are in Xi’an, how does the city balance cultural preservation with development?
Li: The Cultural Relics Protection Law has provisions. When uncovering important archaeological findings, the construction sector has to sit down with the cultural heritage bureau to come up with a protection plan.
Depending on their historical value, we use different conservation methods. Building a museum is the highest level of protection, and the most costly. With so many high-level tombs, it’s not realistic to build a museum or park for each one. There’s a limited amount of land available.
In the case of Shangguan Wan’er’s tomb, we split the road into two halves, buried the tomb again, and built a park on the original site. This is a better conservation method in my opinion. A park is also being built for Xue Shao.
The last 30 years have seen China develop rapidly, and there have been many construction projects. Naturally, that has meant there has been more archaeological work. But this is actually an abnormal situation, because our main task is not to excavate the tombs of ancient historical figures for everyone to see. It’s better if we never have to uncover them and allow them to rest underground. It’s the best form of protection.
We now aim to build a database of known burial sites. But since there are so many excavations, and each one might be led by a different team, the coordination is difficult and the research takes considerable time. We are exploring innovative ways of protecting tombs, because it’s still a relatively new issue that’s emerged just in the past two or three decades.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: The sun shines over the Terra-cotta Army in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, 2019. VCG)