How taboos about death hold back Chinese archaeology
To traditionalists, grave robbers and spade-wielding historians are one and the same.
A line in the Confucian classical text the “Doctrine of the Mean” reads, “Serve the dead as though they were alive.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a phrase that better captures traditional Chinese attitudes toward the deceased. Like the ancient Egyptians, people in China have historically built glittering monuments to their dead, lavishing them with funereal offerings and seeking to preserve the corpse as well as possible.
A man sweeps a tomb in Binghai Ancient Garden Cemetery, Shanghai, March 24, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)
Members of the imperial family and nobility were treated especially well. Often, they were buried alongside vast troves of valuables, most famously the terracotta armies made for Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty who died in the third century B.C., and whose clay warriors are thought to have been made to defend him in the underworld. Later, during the Han Dynasty, aristocrats were sometimes interred wearing jade suits laced with gold — believed to prevent their bodies from decomposing. Instead of preserving their occupants through the ages, however, such suits proved an attractive target for grave robbers, and they were usually stripped bare within a few decades of being buried.
Grave-robbing is an ancient pastime. Formal denunciations from the Han Dynasty even claim that the famed general Cao Cao established official grave-robbing teams who plundered the tombs of dynasties past in order to enrich their coffers. But robbers have always been morally and legally condemned for desecrating the graves of others, so much so that by the Qing Dynasty, the sentence for those who desecrated the grave of a commoner and exposed their cadaver was death by beheading.
Why has the act of disturbing the dead historically carried the same punishments as murder? The answer actually lies in the traditional concept of feng shui, according to which the location and orientation of a family’s ancestral tomb is thought to influence the fortunes of their descendants. Grave desecration destroys any “positive” feng shui the site enjoys; the act itself is seen as equivalent to declaring open hostility toward the descendants of the deceased.
Even today, desecrating the family grave is popularly thought of as the ultimate act of revenge taken toward another individual. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, it was common practice to exhume the remains of those accused of hostility toward socialism. Yet the practice has deep roots in imperial China, too: After acceding to the throne in the late 13th century, the rulers of the Yuan Dynasty notoriously permitted the desecration of the graves of their predecessors, the Song, as well as of the human remains within.
In today’s China, traditional views on burial remain widespread. Although official guidelines stipulate that people should favor cremation over burial in areas with dense populations and scarce arable land, people continue to bury their dead in secret, keeping their bodies intact. Even after cremation, many families insist on housing the ashes of the deceased in traditional graves.
The sanctity of the burial site also influences how some Chinese people view scientific undertakings like archaeological digs. Modern archaeology is largely a Western import; Chinese historians traditionally confined themselves to other activities, like deciphering inscriptions on ancient steles, bamboo slips, and historical texts. The vast majority of historians dared not break the law by digging up ancient tombs and, somewhat ironically, grave robbers sometimes boasted a far greater knowledge of ancient history than scholars themselves.
Modern Chinese archaeology only dates from a century or so ago. Back in 1916, Ding Wenjiang, a graduate of the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom, founded the Geological Society of China, the first organization with the express purpose of excavating the country’s prehistory. Its work was guided by Western archaeological principles, which apply systematic methodologies to unearthing, recording, and researching historical artifacts — a far cry indeed from tomb-raiding and grave-robbing.
But a century spent embedding in Chinese culture has not allowed archaeology to challenge beliefs that have been entrenched for millennia. The state is involved to some extent in every archaeological dig in China, a phenomenon that leads traditionalists to claim that the science is merely state-sponsored grave-robbing. The widespread notion that excavations carried out for research purposes will disturb a grave’s occupants has frequently made archaeology a target of public scorn.
Most of today’s excavations in China clean up graves that have already been damaged, or excavate tombs that appeared unexpectedly during engineering projects. - Zhang Jizhou, writer
The advent of the internet has encouraged archaeologists to educate people about the differences between their academic discipline and grave-robbing, emphasizing that archaeology is legal, ethically performed, and respectful of the dead. Whereas the former is a systematic attempt to record and research the past, they say, the latter is nothing more than wanton plundering and destruction, carried out for profit.
In practice, most of today’s excavations in China are so-called rescue digs to clean up graves that have already been damaged, or to excavate tombs that appeared unexpectedly during engineering projects. In all cases, the goal is to prevent further loss of cultural heritage. It is less common to see archaeologists push for the excavation of recent tombs — say, those built in the past few centuries, which might belong to famous historical figures or emperors.
This reluctance is due to more than just the continued prevalence of traditional beliefs. Past cases in which archaeologists caused irreversible damage have instilled the profession with caution. In 1958, backed by the famous scholar Guo Moruo and other leading academics, archaeologists excavated the Beijing-based mausoleum of the Wanli Emperor, who died in 1620 as the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Workers unearthed a large quantity of 400-year-old silks, but due to their lack of expertise, the fabrics oxidized on contact with the outside air, and either faded or disintegrated.
Fortunately, the risk of destruction posed by modern archaeological digs is quite low. And despite popular opposition to grave-robbing, the industry continues apace, despite legal penalties of up to 10 years in prison. If the country’s historic tombs have already been unearthed or robbed, why not allow archaeologists to salvage what they can, instead of risking further destruction? Surely the best way to honor the memory of a desecrated tomb’s occupants is to piece together a picture of what their lives were like before they died?
Recent developments in Chinese archaeology hint that, thankfully, the tide might be turning in the historians’ favor. In 2016, Zheng Jiali, an archaeologist based in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, publicized his notes from a dig at a tomb dating from the Southern Song Dynasty. When a descendant of the tomb’s occupants got word of the excavation, they rushed to the site of the dig — not to tell the archaeologists to back off, but to show them genealogy records that might help them in their work. It is my hope that in the future, such heartening tales will become commonplace.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.