Qianling Mausoleum

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The Qianling Mausoleum is unique in that the main tomb has not been looted by grave robbers nor has it been excavated, meaning it has remained sealed and untouched for over 1,300 years. Thus, of the 18 Tang Dynasty Mausoleums, the Qianling Mausoleum is considered to be the most well-preserved. The main tomb houses one of China’s most controversial royal figures, Empress Wu Zetian, who was the only woman to have ever formally ruled China. She is also the only Empress to have been buried alongside her husband, the Emperor. The tomb itself follows the same structural pattern as Zhaoling Mausoleum in that it has been built into the side of a mountain. Only members of the imperial family were allowed to build their mausoleums into natural mountains and, of the 18 Tang Dynasty emperors, 14 of them chose to have mountains serve as their burial mounds. Though in scale Qianling Mausoleum may not be as impressive as the colossal Zhaoling Mausoleum, in terms of artistic beauty it is unmatched. Littered throughout the mausoleum you’ll find statues, murals and painted pottery, all a tableau of ancient China frozen in time. From the haunting stone funeral procession that leads to the Emperors tomb to the underground tombs of Princes and Princesses that have now been opened to the public, the Qianling Mausoleum takes you back to a time when men were gods and built monuments so as to be remembered for time immemorial.

Qianling Mausoleum is located on Mount Liang, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Xi’an, and was built in 684 A.D., a year after Emperor Gaozong suffered the debilitating stroke that killed him. With the Leopard Valley to the east and the Sand Canyon to the west, the Mausoleum on Mount Liang is the perfect scenic spot to enjoy the diversity of landscapes in China. On the surface of the Mausoleum there were once 378 magnificent buildings, including the Sacrificial Hall, the Pavilion, and the Hall of Ministers. Sadly these surface buildings have all but disappeared, leaving only their underground counterparts. Aside from these surface buildings, which were relatively common among Tang Emperor’s tombs, Qianling Mausoleum has several features that make it unique among the other mausoleums. The burial mounds on the southern peak of Mount Liang each have towers erected at the centre of each mound and are thus named “Naitoushan” or “Nipple Hills” due to their resemblance to breasts. These Nipple Hills form a sort of gateway into the Mausoleum, creating a visual effect that is both stunning and exclusive to Qianling Mausoleum. The main imperial tomb, however, is located on the northern peak. There you’ll find the tallest burial mound and a 61 metre (200 ft.) long, 4 metre (13 ft.) wide tunnel carved out of the mountain that leads into the inner tomb chambers. This is the final resting place of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian, which has remained unopened to this day.

Qianling Mausoleum 02The most magnificent and otherworldly feature of Qianlong Mausoleum are the stone statues that have braved the elements and remained suspended in time for over a thousand years. If you follow the Spirit Way that leads to the Emperor’s tomb, you will undoubtedly discover the 124 stone statues that serve as his funeral procession. These include statues of horses, winged horses, horses with grooms, lions, officials, foreign envoys and, most bizarre of all, ostriches. The first ostrich was presented to the Tang court by a khan of the Western Turks in 620 A.D. and the Tushara Kingdom sent another one in 650 A.D. It is believed that early Chinese representations of phoenixes were based on these ostriches. The ostriches at Qianling Mausoleum serve as a symbol of the Tang Dynasty’s power and influence over its foreign neighbours.

Similarly, the sixty-one stone envoys that perpetually mourn Emperor Gaozong’s death were directly commissioned by Empress Wu Zetian and designed after the sixty-one foreign envoys that were physically present at Emperor Gaozong’s funeral. Each figure is wearing a long robe with a wide belt and boots and, if you look closely, you’ll find the name of each individual and the country he represented carved on his back. These foreign envoys were constructed to further symbolise the Tang Dynasty’s far reaching influence and powerful empire. Tragically, for reasons unknown, these sixty-one statues have been decapitated.

Surrounding the main tomb, archaeologists have also recovered four gates, parts of the inner wall, and parts of the outer wall that guarded the tomb, along with remnants of houses that once belonged to workers charged with maintaining the tomb. The four gates are called Zhu Que Men (Rosefinch Gate) to the south, Xuan Wu Men (Mystical Power Gate) to the north, Qing Long Men (Black Dragon Gate) to the east, and Bai Hu Men (White Tiger Gate) to the west. Near the main tomb you’ll also find the magnificent Qijie Bei or “Tablet of the Seven Elements”, which is so called because it symbolises the Sun, Moon, Metal, Wood, Water, Earth and Fire, the seven elements in ancient Chinese philosophy. This tablet carries an inscription describing the achievements of the Emperor, which was composed by the Empress Wu Zetian and written in the calligraphic style of Emperor Zhongzong (Emperor Gaozong’s son). Interestingly, near the Tablet of the Seven Elements, there sits the Blank Tablet, which has dragons and oysters carved upon it but no inscription. It is the only blank tablet to be found in any royal mausoleum in China and was erected by Empress Wu Zetian, who stated in her will: “My achievements and errors must be evaluated by later generations, therefore carve no characters on my stele[1]”. This may seem like an odd thing for anyone to say, particularly from the only woman to have ever ruled as Emperor, and it shines a light directly on the controversy surrounding Wu Zetian.

Qianling Mausoleum 01Although the Emperor’s tomb has not been excavated, the tombs of Crown Prince Zhanghuai, Prince Yide and Princess Yongtai have all been unearthed and opened to the public. The one thing these three royal figures had in common was that they were all put to death by their mother and grandmother respectively, Wu Zetian, when they were still young. These three unfortunate youths, who suffered tragic deaths, were not even honored with imperial tombs until Empress Wu Zetian finally died in 706 A.D and their brother and father respectively, Emperor Zhongzong, was finally allowed to give his brother and children a proper burial. Wu Zetian was not only implicated in the deaths of these three relatives but also in the deaths of two of her other children and several other family members, friends and officials that either displeased her or threatened her claim to the throne. Thus you can understand why, in light of all these nefarious deeds, Wu Zetian’s tombstone has remained blank for over a thousand years. Though Wu Zetian’s reign of tyranny has long ended, her exploits have not been forgotten.

If you visit the tombs today, you’ll find a much more positive representation of ancient China. The three tombs that have been opened up to the public are covered in stunning murals of typical scenes in the Imperial Court, including beautiful maidservants, nobles playing Polo on horseback and royals receiving their foreign guests. Though these paintings have been worn by time, the exuberant colours and vivid facial expressions of the characters within them still evoke a real sense of how extravagant life must have been during the Tang Dynasty. Princess Yongtai’s tomb has been converted into a museum, where you’ll find a collection of the 4,300 historical relics that were exhumed from the three tombs. From the delicately carved jade funeral eulogiums to the painted figures of riders with their horses gilt faced, inlaid lavishly with gold, we’re sure you’ll find a trip to Qianlong Museum and Qianlong Mausoleum both rewarding and fascinating. From the outset, it is truly a feast for the eyes.



[1] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.


Zhaoling Mausoleum

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So utterly stunning is the site of Zhaoling Mausoleum that it has been the subject of Chinese poetry throughout the ages, from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) right through to the present day. The mausoleum itself has been carved into Jiuzong Mountain, about 83 kilometres (52 miles) away from Xi’an city centre. It is sometimes referred to simply as Zhao Mausoleum but is not to be confused with the mausoleum of the second Qing Emperor Huang Taji which shares the same name. Zhaoling Mausoleum was the final resting place of Emperor Taizong, the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, and his wife, Empress Wende. It is phenomenal in its design, monumental in its scale and it completely revolutionised the way tombs were built during the Tang Dynasty. It is not only the largest Tang Mausoleum in China but is also the largest known royal mausoleum in the whole world. In its former glory, it was once a place that seemed almost ethereal in its grandeur. Nowadays, though it has suffered from the blows of time, it still provides a fascinating insight into the feudal system that led to modern China as we know it today.

Building of the mausoleum began over 1,300 years ago, in 636 A.D., and, although it only officially took 13 years to complete, it was added to and renovated over a period of 107 years. It was the first royal mausoleum to have been built into a mountain face, as oppose to the traditional burial mound on flat land. Supposedly the idea for building the mausoleum on Jiuzong Mountain came when the Empress Wende, being well-known for her humility, was on her deathbed and asked for a simple and frugal burial, saying “please bury me on the mountain and do not heap the grave”.

This gave Emperor Taizong a brilliant idea. He realized that the mountain, which is 1,188 metres above sea level and surrounded by the Jingshui River at its front and the Weishui River at its rear, was not only a magnificent place for a mausoleum but was also acted as a natural protective barrier against thieves and looters. Thus Emperor Taizong masterminded the building of his mausoleum and enlisted the help of the famous Tang technicians and painters Yan Lide and Yan Liben in its design. The mausoleum stretches over 200 square kilometres (88 square miles) and is split into sections above and below ground. The tomb passage alone, which leads to the tomb of Emperor Taizong, is 230 metres long and is guarded by five stone gates. In order to further deter looters from his tomb, Emperor Taizong even went so far as to write an inscription on the outside of the mausoleum which states: “A ruler takes the whole land under Heaven as his home. Why should he keep treasures within his tomb, possessing them as his private property?”. The implication was that the tomb was empty, as Emperor Taizong saw no reason to take his worldly goods to the grave, but this is in fact very far from the truth.

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The mausoleum has nearly 200 satellite tombs that house famous ministers, members of the royal family and high ranking officials, but these satellite tombs are all further down the mountain than the Emperor’s tomb to symbolise his authority over them. It is the only mausoleum that exhibits the five styles of satellite tombs. Each tomb represents the relationship that the deceased had to the emperor. For example, the tomb of the princesses, the daughters of Emperor Taizong and Empress Wende, are located near to their father’s tomb and have either paired mounds at one end or are topped by a mound in an inverted dipper shape with four earthwork mounds. By contrast, daughters of Emperor Taizong born of concubines are further away from their father’s tomb and have a much simpler structure. This diversity creates a stunning yet surreal landscape that Tang Dynaty poet Du Fu described in his poem “Revisiting Zhaoling Mausoleum” as such:

“A line of tombs winds skyward up the slope

Where mountain beasts keep to their leafy lair;

I peer along a pine and cypress lane

Only clouds of sunset hanging in the air.”


Yet these satellite tombs are just the beginning of what was and still is a very lavish affair. Above ground, there once stood a complex that was unmatched in its splendour, including the Xuanwu Gate on the north side, the watchtower, the Zhuque Gate, Xian Hall and the sacrificial altar. This complex was once referred to as a miniature “Imperial City” because of its sheer size. Now all that remains are the Six Steeds of Zhaoling, the base of the sacrificial altar and a stone sparrow ornament from the ridge of the Xian Hall’s roof that is 1.5 metres in height. The size of this stone ornament alone gives you an idea of the scale of the building that once supported it.

The cemetery itself is still covered in the rich green pines, cypresses, huge Chinese scholar trees and poplars that earned it the name “the City of Pines”. The late Tang poet Liu Cang once wrote: “Entering the site of the underground palace along the mountain ridge, you will feel the chill of shady pines as if at midnight”. In this one sentence, Liu Cang captures the otherworldly nature of the mausoleum that makes it a site of such intrigue, even to this day. Though the surface buildings are gone, the mausoleum and the City of Pines still remain, untouched and unfaltering in their surreal majesty.

Zhaoling Mausoleum01Only 37 of the satellite tombs have been excavated, but most of the artifacts that were found in these tombs are exhibited in the Zhaoling Museum. There you will find gorgeous Chinese porcelain, red Chinese pottery, painted pottery, glazed pottery, and tri-coloured glazed pottery from the Tang Dynasty. This pottery often takes the form of figurines, some of which, such as the figurines of ethnic minorities, demonstrate the close relationship that Emperor Taizong had with various ethnic minority groups during his reign. There are even a few glazed camels carrying silk cloth, as they would have done along the Silk Road over a thousand years ago. You’ll also find brightly coloured ancient paintings and murals depicting nobles and their life styles, from their frequent business trips to their leisure time spent singing, dancing and playing games, from ladies-in-waiting to courtiers. The museum houses one of three special official hats, personally made by Emperor Taizong, that were only awarded to the most distinguished courtiers and are incredibly rare.

The Mausoleum and the Museum together present the chance to witness a true tableau of life in Feudal China. To witness the tombs snaking their way up the mountains, to feel the haunting chill of the pine tree cemetery, to gaze upon ancient tombstones hand-written by famous calligraphers, now also in their tombs, is an opportunity that can’t be missed. If you want to embed yourself in history and feel the thrill of living in a time when Emperors ruled and true heroic exploits breathed life to legends, then Zhaoling Mausoleum is the place for you.

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army is commonly regarded as one of the Eight Wonders of the Ancient World and has received great international fame and praise throughout the years. In 1987 it was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and has remained one of the most culturally significant sites in China since the day it was first discovered. The Terracotta Army is located 37 kilometres to the east of Xi’an city in the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses. The Army was established as part of the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China and the first person to unify the regions that make up modern day China. The history of the Terracotta Army is delicately intertwined with the history of China itself. A trip to the Terracotta Army rewards the visitor with a surreal, almost chilling, insight into what coming face to face with Qin Shi Huang’s formidable army would have been like.

Historian Sima Qian[1] recorded that the building of Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum began in 246 B.C., when the Emperor was only 13 years old, and supposedly took over 700,000 labourers and 11 years to complete. Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum was built on Mount Li because, with its rich gold and jade mines, it was considered a particularly auspicious location. The mausoleum was designed to protect the Emperor and provide him with everything he would need in the afterlife. Thus the mausoleum is a necropolis, an immemorial, stone representation of the palace that Qin Shi Huang occupied in life, with offices, halls, stables, towers, ornaments, officials, acrobats and, most importantly, a lifelike replica of his army. The presence of the necropolis was corroborated by Sima Qian, who mentions all of the features of the Mausoleum except, rather bizarrely, the Terracotta Army.

After the death of the Emperor in 210 B.C., the Mausoleum was hermetically-sealed and remained unopened for nearly 2,000 years. It wasn’t until 1974, when some farmers were attempting to dig a water-well near Mount Li, that Pit one of the Terracotta Army was accidentally unearthed. Archaeologists flocked to the site and began excavating the area, eventually discovering three more pits of Terracotta Warriors in the process. The warriors were all found arranged as if to protect the tomb from the east, which is where all of the states that were conquered by the Qin Dynasty lay. To date, approximately 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses have been uncovered from these pits.

Pit one of the Terracotta Army is still by far the most impressive, boasting 6,000 figures arranged in their original military formation. Pit two contains the cavalry and infantry units, as well as a few war chariots. It is thought to represent a military guard. Pit three is thought to be the command post since it contains high-ranking officers and a war chariot. Pit four has been left empty for unknown reasons, although it has been posited that perhaps it was simply left unfinished by its builders. Other non-military terracotta figures have been found in other pits, such as officials, acrobats and musicians, but these pits are not arranged in the same way as those containing the Terracotta Army.

What makes the Terracotta Army so brilliantly unique, on top of its impressive size, is the fact that every single figure is different. Their height, uniform and hairstyle are all different, depending on military rank, and the face of each warrior has been uniquely moulded based on a living counterpart. Originally the figures were all beautifully painted and held real weapons but tragically most of the paint flaked off when it was exposed to dry air during the excavation and the weapons had almost all been looted long before the site was excavated. In Pits one and two there is evidence of fire damage and it has been posited that Xiang Yu, a contender to the throne after the death of the first Emperor, may have looted the tombs, taken the weapons and attempted to destroy the army. Many of the current warriors on display have been pieced together from fragments as they were badly damaged when the roof rafters collapsed during the fire.

In spite of this unfortunate damage, some of the figures have maintained their colour, such as the famed Green-Faced Soldier[2] of Pit two, and some weapons, such as swords, spears, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows, and arrowheads, have been recovered from the pits. Some of the weapons were coated with a layer of chromium dioxide, which has kept them rust-free for nearly 2,000 years. Some are still sharp and carry inscriptions that date manufacture between 245 and 228 B.C., meaning they were used in combat before they were buried here.

It is important to note that each warrior was not moulded and fired as it is now but was crafted as part of the first known assembly line to have existed in the civilised world. The heads, arms, legs, and torsos of each warrior were created separately at separate workshops and then assembled later on. It is believed that originally only eight face moulds were used and then clay was added and sculpted onto the face after assembly to give each warrior their individual facial features. During the time these figures were being mass produced, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on whatever part it had made, which is how we know that each part of the warriors and other figures was manufactured separately.

When the British Museum held an exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors from 2007 to 2008, exhibiting a small selection of real figures from the excavation sites, it resulted in the most successful year they had since the King Tutankhamen exhibition in 1972. So popular and stunning are the Terracotta Warriors that they have attracted attention worldwide, bringing about some of the most successful exhibitions in the world, including one at the Forum de Barcelona in Barcelona and one at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. If the possibility of seeing them individually has managed to generate this much hype, imagine what it must be like to see them altogether, in military formation, in almost the exact same positions they were in when they were originally placed in their tombs.

The Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses and the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum have now been incorporated into one tourist attraction known as Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Park. There you’ll find regular free shuttle buses that will take you from the site of the Terracotta Army to Lishan Garden. Lishan Garden acts as the perfect complement to the Terracotta Army as it contains Qin Shi Huang’s burial mound, ritual sacrifice pits, the Museum of Terracotta Acrobatics, the Museum of Terracotta Civil Officials, the Museum of Stone Armour and the Museum of Bronze Chariots and Horses. The Museum of Bronze Chariots and Horses is a wonderful exhibition of all the figures found throughout the pits that are crafted from bronze rather than terracotta. They loom out of their glass cases, lifelike in their shimmering skin. The other museums are based around pits where terracotta figures are still being excavated and present the perfect opportunity to watch a live archaeological dig. The chance to watch the Terracotta figures being unearthed and thus the opportunity to watch history being made is one that we know you won’t want to pass up. The only area that is not open to the public and has not been excavated is the main tomb, where the Emperor’s remains rest. In spite of an on-going debate as to whether the tomb should be opened or not, it is universally thought that it will remain undisturbed as a mark of respect to the Emperor.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted to build a monument to his achievements that would last throughout the ages. With his stunning Terracotta Army, whose popularity has not waned since they were unearthed, still standing in their original military formation as a testament to his prowess, I think you’ll agree that he achieved what he set out to do. Thanks to this incredible feat, China’s first Emperor has made himself truly immortal.

[1] Sima Qian (145–90 BCE): A Chinese historian whose most noted work was called “Shiji” or “Records of the Grand Historian”

[2] The Green-Faced Soldier: A single Terracotta Warrior whose face has inexplicably been painted green instead of pink

The Terracotta Army is one of the many wonderful stops on travel Explore the Silk Road in China and Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

The Ming Mausoleums

There are a total of 13 mausoleums for Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) here, so it is generally called the Thirteen Mausoleums. In fact, in the mausoleums you will find 13 emperors, 23 empresses, 2 princes, about 30 imperial concubines and even 1 palace eunuch, who were all cremated and placed in this group of tombs.


“Shendao” in Chinese means “the way of the spirit” or “the sacred way”. It is 7 kilometres long, and stretches from the Memorial Arch through to the gate of the main tomb, Changling Mausoleum (the mausoleum of Emperor Yongle).

The Memorial Arch is made of white marble and was built in 1540. It has 5 arches supported by 6 pillars, each with beautiful bas-relief carvings of qilin (Chinese unicorns), lions, dragons, other unusual animals and lotus flowers pared into them.

After the Memorial Arch, you’ll find the Great Red Gate, which was built in 1426. About 457 metres away from the Great Red Gate, there stands the Tablet House. A marble column, known as a Mubiao, stands at each corner of the Tablet House. A Mubiao was an ornamental column which was erected in front of a tomb, much like a tombstone. A huge tablet, which is 6.5 metres high, stands in the middle of the Tablet House and rests on the back of a marble tortoise.

The most distinctive work of art in the mausoleums is known as the “avenue of stone animals and statues”. Avenues of stone animals and statues can often be found at the entrance to imperial mausoleums from the Han Dynasty (206 BD— 220 AD), but none of them are as famous as this one.

The avenue, which boasts 36 stone animals and statues, has two columns (called wangzhu in Chinese) on either side of the entrance. They are hexagonal, with a cloud design carved into them, and the top of them is shaped like a cylinder. The animals included in the avenue were specifically chosen because culturally they are all symbolic. There are lions, which were symbols of power. There are xiezhi, which were mythical feline beasts that were said to be able to distinguish right from wrong and thus were symbols of justice. There are camels, which were symbols of transportation, and elephants, which were symbols of peace. There are qilin, another mythical animal with a scaly body, a cow’s tail, deer’s hooves and a horn on its head, which were also symbols of peace. And finally there are horses, which were symbols of expedition. There are 24 stone animals in all. These beasts are followed by a group of 12 human statues (officials), which symbolize the funeral cortege of the deceased emperors.

Dingling Mausoleum

Dingling Mausoleum is the only one of the Ming mausoleums that has been excavated so far. The excavation lasted more than two years and took place from 1956 to 1958.

定陵It is the mausoleum of the Emperor Wanli (1563-1620) and his two wives – Empress Xiaoduan and Empress Xiaojing. Empress Xiaoduan died only a few months before his death. Empress Xiaojing died in 1612, eight years before the emperor’s death, and was buried in a nearby tomb reserved for imperial concubines. Since Xiaojing did not hold the title of Empress at the time of her death, she wasn’t initially permitted the privilege of sharing the emperor’s tomb.

Xiaoduan never bore the Emperor a son, whilst Xiaojing gave birth to one son, who then became the emperor after Wanli’s death. Although Xiaojing’s son was only emperor for 29 days, he left the throne to his son. When Xiaojing’s grandson ascended to the throne and became the emperor, he promoted his grandmother to the rank of queen dowager and it was decided that her body should be moved into the imperial mausoleum.

The construction of the mausoleum started in 1584, when Emperor Wanli was only 22 years old. The mausoleum was finished when he was 28, and he had to wait another 30 years to finally use it.

When the Ming Dynasty collapsed in 1644, the tomb was damaged in a peasant uprising led by Li Zicheng and was not restored until the reign of the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795).

The underground palace is 27 metres below ground level and has a total surface area of 1,195 square metres. It is divided into 5 chambers – the antechamber, the middle chamber, the rear chamber and the left and right annex chambers. The vaulted chambers are built of stone, without employing a single beam or column. The antechamber and central chamber form a long passageway, at the end of which is the rear chamber, with the two annex chambers set at right angles to it forming a T-shape.