Qing Tomb Relics Resurrect History

Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908) craved eternal youth, but not only did she grow old, she wasn't even able to rest quietly in her tomb. In 1928, grave robbers blasted the tranquility of the imperial Qing families, stealing untold relics and revealing the secrets of their tombs' interior.

An exhibition, jointly organized by the management office of the Eastern Qing Mausoleum (1644-1911) and the Shanghai Municipal Archives, displays 115 pieces of the treasures from the tombs. They include articles for daily use in palace, historical records of the emperors, empresses and imperial concubines, as well as scale models of some of the tomb buildings. "The Eastern Qing tombs lie about 120 kilometers from Beijing's Forbidden City. But the exhibition here will introduce visitors to the burial site for five emperors, 15 queens and 136 imperial concubines," says Xu Guangyuan, director of the imperial tomb site's research office.

A life-size wax figure of Kangxi (1654-1722), China's longest reigning emperor, sits serenely on his throne, greeting visitors to the exhibition hall as if he still ruled the land. Visitors can see a large model of the Eastern Qing Mausoleum that focuses on "feng shui." "The ancient Chinese believed that the spirit lived on after death, thus the placement of the tomb was crucial to the prosperity of the descendants - a concept that was magnified a hundred times when it came to the royals," explains Xu. "According to the principles of 'feng shui,' the site of the Eastern Qing Mausoleum, surrounded as it is by mountains and rivers, is perfect."

Unfortunately, ideal geomancy wasn't able to protect either the imperial family or the tombs from ultimate destruction. But while the grave robbers took some of China's greatest treasure, they weren't able to cart off the imposing buildings, which were included on the United Nation's World Heritage List.

Models and photographs offer visitors a glimpse of the ancient, luxuriously decorated tombs.

The highlight of the exhibition is, without a doubt, the notorious Dowager Empress Cixi, whose life was filled with power and lust for power. A concubine of Emperor Xianfeng, she took control when the emperor died in 1861, winning power from the eight ministers whom the emperor had trusted to jointly rule the empire until the crowned prince came of age. Her unquenchable thirst for power lives on in the marble slabs from her tomb, which are on display.

"Unlike the traditional patterns, where the dragon and phoenix travel side by side, Cixi's phoenix flies above the dragon," Xu explains.

But neither the flying phoenix nor the character for longevity embroidered on her shroud could save her from grave robbers who stripped her tomb of everything, even the pearls on her shrouds.

A photograph of Cixi at her 69th birthday is on display, as is the gauze robe she wore that day. The summer robe was inlaid with patterns of bamboo leaves and the Chinese character for longevity in gold filament.

The show also sheds light on another mysterious Qing Dynasty woman: Concubine Xiang, whose body was said to naturally emit a fragrance. Xiang was Uygur from today's Xinjiang Uygur region and was presented to Emperor Qianlong by her people.

"Xiang's story was largely assumed to be legend, but we proved her existence," Xu says, adding, "she was sent to the imperial palace when she was 27, and died at 55."

Xiang's only legacy is a grey-haired plait and a series of paintings featuring her in Chinese and Western costumes.

Compared with the colorful relics of the empresses and imperial concubines, the emperors' treasures are much drier: imperial decrees or calligraphy works.

Xu defends these, saying, "the history of Qing Dynasty was written by the hands who wrote the imperial decrees." Perhaps. But for a modern visitor, the summer gowns of a power-hungry empress and the mysteries of a fragrant concubine are much more compelling.

Time: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., through September 26

Venue: Shanghai Exhibition Center, 1000 Yan'an Rd. M.

( eastday.com August 2, 2002)