Recently I came across this news article in the Chinese news about restoration plans for the Eastern Qing Tombs. I’ve visited the Ming Tombs several times and always enjoy traveling to mountains outside of Beijing spending the day walking around the green site. The Eastern Qing Tombs however are much less accessible from the Beijing city centre and so aren’t as well known as their earlier Ming counterparts. I therefore thought it would be a good opportunity to learn more about these comparatively lesser known tombs and take a look into how a state organisation goes about implementing such a restoration project.
The Eastern Qing Tombs 遵化县
The Eastern Qing Tombs are an imperial mausoleum complex located in Zunhua (遵化), Tangshan City (唐山市); 125 kilometers northeast of Beijing. The Qing Dynasty tombs are one of the largest imperial tombs found in China, with a total number of fifteen within the area. Altogether these tombs hold 161 individual burial sites, including those of 5 emperors, 15 empresses, 136 imperial concubines, 3 princes and two princesses. Some of the famous emperors and empresses buried at Eastern Qing Tomb include:
- – Emperor Shunzhi 顺治 (1638–1661);
- – Emperor Kangxi 康熙 (1654–1722);
- – Emperor Qianlong 乾隆 (1711–1799);
- – Emperor Xianfeng 咸丰 (1831—1861);
- – Emperor Tongzhi 同治 (1856—1875);
- – Empress Dowager Ci’an 慈安 (1837—1881);
- – Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧 (1835–1908).
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties the more mountainous area north-east of Beijing was favoured as a hunting spot and rural retreat for royalty, looking to escape the oppressive heat of the city during the summer months. Four main mountains surround the Eastern Qing Tombs site, creating some striking scenery and – more importantly – favorable Feng Shui conditions for the mausoleums and individual tombs.
Built after the death of China’s first Qing Dynasty Emperor Shunzhi, construction on the tombs first began in 1661 and was completed in 1879. Shunzhi’s Xiaoling Mausoleum is located in the centre of the tomb complex, right underneath the peak of Mount Changrui, the most northerly positioned mountain, with the other four emperors buried in encircling mountains either side of Changrui. The Xiaoling Mausoleum Spirit Way is the longest and the most spectacular spirit way of the Eastern Qing Tombs, running from south to north and ending at Shunzhi’s Mausoleum.
The Eastern Qin Tomb’s historic and heritage value earned the site national AAAA level protection by China’s National Key Cultural Relic Protection Unit in addition to being listed (in conjunction with the Ming Tombs) as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2000.
The Two Robberies of the Eastern Qing Tombs
During its history, the Eastern Qing Tombs have fallen victim to two major raids of its cultural relics.
The first was in 1928, when Sun Dianying (孙殿英 1889—1947), the then commander of 12th corps from Kuomintang plotted the notorious looting of the tombs. Amongst the tombs robbed were Empress Dowager Cixi’s and Emperor Qianlong’s tomb. The robbery was staged as a military drill during the night of the 8th of June. Guards were stationed around the site, the mausoleum entrances were blasted open and Sun’s army looted anything of value, including all the treasures within the coffins and even the clothing from the corpses.
The second round of robberies was by local bandits Wang Shaoyi and Zhang Jinzhong of the Eighth Route Army, who led over a thousand people between 1945 and 1946 to pilfer the tombs. Propelled by popular slogans of their time, such as “help the masses through the famine” and “fight against the exploiter emperors and landlords” the locals robbed 14 tombs in total, with only Emperor Shunzhi’s tomb surviving the raids due to a rumor that it contained no treasures.
As these tombs were built using solid masonry construction explosives were used to gain access to the valuables hidden inside, which left irreparable damage to many parts of the tombs. In addition to the scars left by explosives, the two lootings resulted in countless treasures being stolen including jewelry, jade, gold, paintings, calligraphies, and silks. Many of these lost treasures have yet to be found.
The Plan for Restoration and Preservation
After the People’s Republic of China was founded (1949), several small repair projects were conducted at the Eastern Qing Tombs, but the effects were never long-lasting. Below are some of the key dates that played a role in the ongoing preservation of the tombs:
- – 1952 the Eastern Qing Tombs Heritage Management Office was founded.
- – 1961 Eastern Qing Tombs were listed in the first batch of National Level Key Cultural Relics Protection Units.
- – 1996 A comprehensive study was conducted on the scenic surroundings resulting the planting of tens of thousands of new trees. This was the first time such a survey had been conducted since the tombs were discovered, and as a result, a lot of people who had moved into the site to farm the land along the spirit way had to be relocated. (A similar situation occurred with the Old Summer Palace, where decades of neglect encouraged local farmers to take advantage of the land and free building materials littering the site.)
- – November 2000 the 24th session of the World Heritage Committee listed the tombs as World Cultural Heritage.
- – 2001 the tombs were listed as part of China’s National AAAA Level Scenic Spot.
- – December 2014 the Department of Cultural Relics announced the launch of a RMB710 million restoration and preservation project. This will be the largest such project in the tombs’ history. Completion date is targeted for the end of 2017.
The latest plans are for a RMB710 million investment divided into 49 individual projects which will include the restoration and preservation of damaged tombs and other relics, repairing parts of the mausoleums, fire and lightning protection and security improvements for the site. Among the top priorities will be the restoration of Emperor Qianlong’s Mausoleum, Empress Dowager Ci’an’s Mausoleum and Empress Dowager Cixi’s Mausoleum.
Authorities and Processes
As these restoration plans do not all fall under a single project but are rather divided into 49 projects, all of the repair projects had to be submitted for approval to China’s National Heritage Board as well as China’s Financial Sector. By May 2015 most of the projects had received approved funding and the Management Committees for the Eastern Qing Tombs started bidding for potential construction sites. The Management Committees will then invite A-grade ancient architecture and construction teams to work on the project. Restoration projects will aim to repair the “old with old”, meaning traditional construction techniques will be used to further preserve the integrity of the buildings.
In one news article about how the restoration works would be conducted, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage was quoted as saying they would ”not change the historic condition” and use “minimal intervention”.
Construction Companies and their Roles
|Beijing Huairou Ancient Technology||Restoration of Emperor Qianlong’s Yu Mausoleum|
|Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage||Water leakage problems in underground areas|
|Jinzhou Heritage Centre||Coffin repairs|
|China’s Silk Museum||Cixi’s blanket restoration|
Methods and Materials
According to Wang Zhaohua, the deputy director of the Eastern Qing Tombs Heritage Management Office, there is a rigorous selection processes for materials that are used during each restoration project. The replica materials have to be produced by manufacturers who hold reliable licenses and who have participated in previous world culture heritage restoration and preservation projects.
Major restoration items include:
Xiaoling ‘five-hole bridge’ was repaired with the same bricks that were used when the bridge was first built. According to a representative from the same office, each brick weighs around 20kg, and all were fired at a local brickyard. Repairs on the bridge façade were completed in November 2014.
Dabei Tower stands in front of Emperor Kangxi’s Mausoleum, with inscriptions listing the emperor’s achievements during his reign in both Han Chinese and the Manchu language. The Dabei tower has high historic value for the study of Qing Dynasty and ancient mausoleum architecture. In 1952, the tower was struck by lighting and many inscriptions were lost to the ensuing fire.
The tower weighs 3,000 tons, each pillar bearing a weight of 700-800 tons. As the main body of the supporting structure was built using traditional wooden construction, priority repairs due to fire damage were required for certain sections of the building. For these repairs the construction team used the same wooden components; four 12 meter wooden pillars 90cm in diameter, to replace damaged ones in the structure. Difficulties sourcing these pillars lead to importing the wood from Africa, as the Chinese timber market does not support timber of this scale. Repairs on the Dabei Tower finished in December 2014.
Eight Coffins (including Emperor Qianlong and Empress Dowager Cixi’s) will be repaired as part of the restoration plan. Moisture in the tombs is an ongoing problem, rotting much of the woodwork. Many coffins were further damaged during the two raids. Approximately 15 million RMB will be allocated for this part of the project which will use dehumidifying technology and traditional carpentry techniques to restore and preserved the coffins.
Silk Cloths found in the tombs are entrusted to the Chinese National Silk Museum, where Cixi’s Blanket will be sent in June. Cixi’s Blanket is a burial blanket that was used to cover Empress Dowager Cixi’s body, which turned out to be the most valuable treasure found in her tomb. Managing to avoid attention from the tomb robbers in 1928, the blanket was mistakenly valued as worthless, only the 820 pearls and treasures under the blanket were stolen. However, the blanket itself was woven with twisted gold wire, is 3 square meters in size, coloured bright yellow and decorated with sutra, Buddha, and stupa images, representing both Buddhism and the royal majesty. In its restoration, it is estimated that the blanked will take half a year to repair, using the exact same materials and techniques originally used to weave the blanket.
Challenges of this Project
There are a lot of technical challenges to restoring old tombs. Wang had this to say on the matter:
Heritage restoration processes are different from modern architectural crafts. Use painting as an example, we can not use the chemical paints readily available on the market, but instead use traditional biological paints that are specially created for ancient architecture instead… For example, Emperor Qianlong’s underground tomb has serious water seepage problems. Stone forms on its arched roof started to deform due to its uneven force, cracks appeared between joints, and rocks started falling off the walls… Modern Anti-leakage technology is mature enough, however, considering how to best restore historic appearance, the final plan is still undecided.
As with any such project public opinion is always strongly divided. Whilst many people can see the importance of protecting their historic heritage, many also feel that the money could be allocated better and to different areas. One Chinese citizen had this to say in the comments section:
China still has so many civilians that are in poverty, kids who can’t afford to get basic education, and classrooms in dangerous conditions. And the government is investing this huge amount of money to restore the tombs of dead people, and they’ll probably raise the ticket price when it’s finished. So how is this benefitting us exactly?
A further public concern which always encircles China is on corruption and bribing within the government, especially concerning the construction industry, leading to a loss of funding as money changes hands.
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