On May 11, 2013, four people armed with spades, ropes, and buckets climbed a hill in Zhangjialou, a small village in eastern China’s Shandong province, aiming to explore a grave possibly dating back around 2,000 years to the Han dynasty. They divided into two teams and worked tirelessly throughout the day until the early morning hours.
On the third day, they were spotted by villagers, who wasted no time in alerting the local police. The four later confessed that they were fans of “Ghost Blows Out the Light,” a best-selling novel by Zhang Muye from 2006 that follows the adventures of two treasure-hunting grave-robbing heroes.
Although the story seems a little ridiculous on the surface, it actually highlights a serious problem afflicting China: grave robbing.
As is the case with many cultures, burying the deceased in China is typically an extravagant affair. Often laid to rest with jewels and fine cloth, graves have naturally fallen prey to occasional looting throughout history, but it wasn’t until the late 20th century that this practice would begin to run wild.
With Deng Xiaoping’s opening up and reform campaigns in the late 1970s, the growth of the market economy afforded the average consumer more purchasing power and gave rise to organized crime, including the illegal trafficking of antiques. It was during this period in the 1980s that grave robbing began to flourish.
The most severe cases occurred in the countryside, where government regulation wasn’t as strong as in the cities. Larger-scale robberies sometimes included thousands of people from dozens of counties, who would scour graveyards and dig up corpses to strip them of their valuables.
The Protection of Cultural Relics law was adopted in 1982, making the private selling and buying of most antiques illegal. This gave rise to a domestic black market, which typically exported to the rest of the world through Hong Kong, which was already well established as an international trading hub.
The dissemination of China’s relics did not go unnoticed by Chinese field experts, who began realizing just how rampant grave robbing was becoming. Historian Wang Zijin wrote that when renowned antique specialist Li Xueqin spotted a set of precious antiques in London he asserted that they had likely been dug up from the grave of a king from the Western Han dynasty.
UNESCO has reported in recent years that around 1.6 million Chinese cultural objects are housed in 200 museums in 47 countries across the world, and this does not take into account private collections. Because of the high value of the objects, people are willing to go to great lengths to get them out and on the global market.
However, most of the antiques that could be looted from graves were not valuable enough to make the move overseas and instead settled themselves in the hands of private Chinese collectors. The author Wu Shu guessed in 2014 that there are roughly 100 million antiques from illegal origins in private collections in China.
In 2002, China revised the Protection of Cultural Relics law, thus affording legal protection to privately collected relics that had been handed down over generations. It also brought the black market above ground, since legally obtained relics could now be traded. However, a shortage of investment from the government and limited law enforcement meant a severe lack of regulation, and grave robbing persisted in high numbers.
I believe that modern popular culture has continued to add fuel to the fire for grave robbery. In Chinese traditional culture, it is taboo to defile a person’s final resting place, but novels like “Ghost Blows Out the Light” have romanticized tomb raiding. These action-packed stories spread quickly across the internet and some are even picked up by movie production agencies.
The internet has further contributed to an increase in grave robbing. Techniques and equipment are all made easily accessible thanks to online forums and e-commerce websites. Online marketplaces have only expanded the illegal trading of antiques.
This is why we have seen an increase in recent years of events like the four aspiring tomb raiders who were caught in 2013 in Zhangjialou. A little more than a year later, another group of amateurs were easily tracked down and arrested by police when they tried to dig up a grave in Xuzhou, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. They admitted to also having been inspired by online grave-robbing stories. Year after year, stories like this continue to surface.
As people across the world become more aware of how harmful the illegal antiques market can be to a country’s cultural heritage, Chinese grave robbery will perhaps begin to decrease. Hopefully, as the Chinese government continues to promote traditional cultural values, the industry will be further crippled.
In 2012, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage organized an exhibition “The Achievements in the Past Six Decades for Chinese Antique Import and Export Management.” It may have been propaganda, but it also highlighted the government’s acknowledgement of the importance of protecting cultural relics.
However, so far little has actually been done to curb the situation. The buying and selling of antiques in China remains poorly regulated, and the current trend of grave robbing rampantly persists.
(Header image: A looted tomb on Jilong Hill in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, March 3, 2011. Bao Dunyuan/VCG)