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Imperial Tombs of Western Xia (1038-1227)

In the early 11th century, the Tuoba group of the ancient nomadic Dangxiangqiang tribe originally living in the mountainous area of China’s western plateaus gradually grew strong and set up the Xia regime known to historians as Xi Xia or Western Xia. In the early years of the Tang Dynasty, it acknowledged allegiance to the Tang and was awarded the surname Li, in the early Song Dynasty, it declared itself a vassal state of the Song and was awarded the surname Zhao. During the Tang and the Song dynasties, its people were allowed to settle in the northern part of present-day Shaanxi Province.


Later, it steadily grew in power and expanded westwards, occupying what is modern Ningxia, Gansu and other areas. At the zenith of its power, its sphere of influence included today's Ningxia, northern Shaanxi, western Gansu, northeastern Qinghai and a part of Inner Mongolia. Beginning from 1032 when Zhao Yuanhao assumed the imperial title, it was known as the Xia Kingdom. In 1227, Western Xia was conquered by Yuan emperor Tai Zu (Genghis Khan). The Western Xia had ten ruling emperors over a 190 year period. One time or another, the Western Xia regime was in rivalry or in alliance with the Song, the Liao and the Kin, becoming an independent kingdom in the northwest area.


Because the capital of Western Xia was in today's Yinchuan (then known as Xingzhou), Ningxia, the sites of the imperial mausoleums were chosen nearby at the east foot of the Helan Mountains, 25 kilometers west of Yinchuan City. The place is on the route from Yinchuan to the eastern fringe of the Tengger Desert and is in a gap in the north/south Helan Mountains.


With the Great Wall positioned on the mountains and the famous Sanguankou Pass located in the vicinity, the terrain provides an imposing setting. The Western Xia mausoleums are distributed on a gentle slope along the east base of the Helan Mountains. They are located in an area about 4 kilometers wider, east to west, and 9 kilometers up the slope, north to south, occupying an area of nearly 40 square kilometers.


According to historical records, the ten emperors of the Western Xia plus Li Jiqian and Li Deming (posthumously titled emperors) who had ruled before Zhao Yuanhao assumed the imperial title, made a total of 12 emperors, covering a period of more than 250 years, but there were only eight mausoleums, probably because the last few emperors, like those of successive dynasties, perished before they could built their tombs.


After Liberation, the cultural relics department of Ningxia carefully explored the Western Xia mausoleums and conducted preliminary excavations. These excavations bring to light eight imperial mausoleums and more than 70 attendant tombs in the mausoleum area.


On the southeast corner at the foot of the Helan Mountains are two large mausoleums, probably Jialing and Yuling mausoleums of Li Jiqian and Li Demin, who were posthumously designated Emperor Tai Zu and Emperor Tai Zong. The architectural arrangement of the mausoleum area makes these two mausoleums most prominent, followed by others built later.

Imperial tombs of the Western Xia


Like other imperial tombs, Western Xia mausoleums were composed of two architectural units, the mausoleum gardens above ground and underground palaces. All the mausoleum gardens faced south, and their architectural forms above ground have some unique characteristics, though they are quite similar to mausoleums of the Tang and Northern Song dynasties in Gongxian County.


Based on some excavations, each mausoleum had a unified layout, occupying an area of more than 100,000 square meters, surrounded by inner and outer walls. At each corner of the mausoleum gardens were watchtowers, providing visual indicators of the boundaries, serving functions similar to those of watchtowers of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) in Beijing. Mausoleum gardens were organized from south to north: Stone gates, tablet pavilion, outer city, inner city, hall furnished as an imperial bedroom and spiritual terrace.


In each of the four inner city walls was a gate; between the hall and terrace was an earth ridge shaped like a fish back, about 50 meters long. It was the earth covering of the tomb passage. The northern tip of the ridge was the highest point of the mausoleum garden, and was the mound above the underground palace. The mound, also known as the spiritual terrace, can be seen from some distance because of its height.


The unique characteristics of Western Xia mausoleums are clearly visible on the spiritual terraces. The mausoleum mounds of the Han, Tang and Northern Song dynasties are generally high, square-based packed earth mounds with tapering tops cut flat and gently sloped sides. Completely different, the mounds of Western Xia mausoleums look like squat Buddhist pagodas, round or octagonal and about 20 meters high. Examples seen today have five or seven stories, each of which is built with flying rafters overlaid with rows of tiles, richly decorated with an interspersing of glazed green tiles. The sides of the spiritual terraces are painted a deep red, the red walls and the green tiles providing a striking contrast, making it easy to imagine how magnificent the spiritual terraces must have been.


According to the single imperial mausoleum and three attendant tombs excavated by the Museum of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in 1972-1975, in front of the underground palace of the imperial mausoleum is a 49-metre-long sloping tomb passage. The under-ground palace is a square tomb chamber, narrow in front and broadening somewhat at the rear, about 23 meters deep and flanked by one chamber on each side. The tomb chamber was formed by digging out the yellow earth and using flat, earthen walls, not brick or stone. Only the front wall is built with adobe and whitewashed, with painted images of warriors. Inside the arched tomb gate, the chamber is floored with square bricks. Because the mausoleum was looted and vandalized centuries ago, identity of its occupant remains unknown.


However, important cultural relics were found in the wreckage, including ornaments on gold belts, gilt saddle parts, gilt amour plates, gilt silverware, bamboo carvings and others.


In front of the tomb chambers of the three attendant tombs are stepped tomb passages. The tomb chambers are also square and earthen. In these tombs were found bronze oxen, stone horses and other sacrificial objects.


The Western Xia was a dynasty which had close relations with the Han regime. At first it acknowledged allegiance to the Tang and the Song dynasties, but later it entered into rivalry with the Song and its rulers assumed the imperial title in confrontation with Song. Even more so, they mingled culturally and the Western Xia practiced the Tang and the Song political and economic systems, created its written language by using the basic parts of Chinese characters, and learned in other respects. One point worthy of attention is that in making use of, and learning from, the experiences of the Tang and the Song, the Western Xia were not indiscriminate but were selective and creative. This is demonstrated in the architecture of Western Xia mausoleums.

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