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Yongling Mausoleum of the State of Former Shu (907-925)

Near Sandong Bridge outside the West Gate of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, an earthen terrace rises from the flat ground. Although only slightly more than fifteen meters high, which is not considered tall, it is quite prominent on the flat land of Chengdu. For many years it has been known as Zither-Playing Terrace; some say it was Sima Xiangru, a famous man of letters of the Western Han Dynasty, and others say it was Zhuge Liang of the Three Kingdoms Period, who played the zither there. In the absence of reliable historical records of artifacts to serve as conclusive evidence, the riddle persisted for centuries.


In 1942, excavation by archaeologists finally solved the riddle. The mound is, in fact, not a Zither-Playing Terrace, but an ancient imperial tomb, the Yongling Mausoleum of Emperor Wang Jian of the state of Former Shu in the Five Dynasties period (907-960)

Tomb of Wang Jian


Also known by the courtesy name of Guang Tu, Wang Jian (847-918) was a native of Wuyang, Xuzhou (modern Wuyang County, Henan Province). In the early years of his career, he was a general of the Tang Dynasty. During the last years of the dynasty, the Central Plain was torn by war and the military governors set up separatist regimes; the Tang Dynasty was in a state of disintegration. Along with Tang Emperor Xi Zong, Wang Jian fled to Sichuan in 886 and was appointed Governor of Lizhou (modern Guangyuan, Sichuan). In 891, Wang Jian captured Chengdu, engaged in territorial expansion and gradually controlled Dongchuan, Xichuan and more than 40 other regions. In 903, during the reign of Tang Emperor Zhao Zong, he was made the Prince of Shu.


In 907, the Tang Dynasty perished and Wang Jian proclaimed himself emperor in Chengdu, titled his dynasty Great Shu (historically known as Former Shu) and was the founder of the state of Former Shu of the Ten States in the Five Dynasties period. The Former Shu had two emperors in two generations spanning 23 years, with jurisdiction over an area roughly corresponding to modern Sichuan, the southeastern section of modern Gansu and southern section of modern Shaanxi, and the western section of modern Hubei Province, a massive territory.


According to historical records, during the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten States, all China was disintegrating because of incessant wars. Because Wang Jian promoted in Sichuan a policy of exacting light corvee and taxes, and safeguarding the territory to ensure security for the people, the situation in the state of Former Shu was relatively stable, so agricultural production was able to develop.


What remains of the Yongling Mausoleum of Wang Jian after more than 1,000 year of weather and wear is only a 15-metre-high, rounded earthen mound whose surroundings have long been farmland. Although original descriptions of this ancient mausoleum and its surroundings are no longer available, the vast and prosperous land area Wang Jian governed and the fact that the state of Former Shu enjoyed many years of stability, suggested that the architectural scope of the mausoleum and park was probably quite impressive.


Accounts written during the Song Dynasty mention as many as 500 or more murals in the Yongling Mausoleum's palatial buildings above ground; this adds to the probability of architecture on quite a grand and magnificent scale. In recent years, the vicinity of the mausoleum has yielded parts of great stone statues of civil officials, similar in height to the stone statues at Qianling Mausoleums of Emperor Gao Zong and Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty. This confirms placement of stone human and animal statues in front of the Yongling Mausoleum.


It is noteworthy that under the mound of the mausoleum are foundations built of rectangular stone slabs, which served well to preserve the mound. This form of construction was not common in mausoleums of the Qin, Han, Tang and Song dynasties which preceded and followed this period, but it developed into tall baocheng, i.e., mounds surrounded by high, castle-like walls of imperial mausoleums in the much later Ming and Qing dynasties.


Wang Jian's underground palace is different from that of the mausoleums of the north in that it is not buried deep underground but only slightly underground with the bulk buried inside the mound above ground. Composed of fourteen sections of double stone arches, the Underground Palace is divided into Front, Middle and Back Chambers separated by wooden doors and measuring a total length of 23.4 meters. The Front Chamber corresponds in other tombs to the passage leading to the coffin chamber. In the second section, separated from other sections by double stone arches, are remnants of elegant colored paintings in patterns of bunches of lotus sprigs, typical ancient Chinese decoration. Gilded brass knockers of animals faces with tings in their mouths and gilded knobs on the vermilion gates are all original.

Domed chamber of Wang Jian's tomb


The Middle Chamber, larger than the others, is the main room in the Underground Palace. At its center is a "Sumeru throne" built of bluish-white marble and serving as the coffin platform, on which are placed Wang Jian's inner and outer coffins. On the east, west and south faces of the platform are exquisite sculptures of female professional dancers and musicians. On the south face are two carvings of dancers, and one carving of a pipa (a plucked string instrument with a fretted fingerboard) player and another of a clapper beater. On the east face are ten carvings of drum beaters, di (bamboo flute) players and others. On the west face are ten carvings of chi (single-tube transverse bamboo flute) and panpipe players and others.


These 24 superbly sculpted female professional dancers and musicians have full figures and plump, smooth countenances, exhibiting the distinguishing features of Tang Dynasty beauties. Their broad sleeves gently flowing, the dancers are lightly poised; and the musicians, with musical instruments in their hands, appear natural, vivid and lifelike; they epitomize an ensemble of palace dancers and musicians of the Five Dynasties period. This group of stone sculptures of dancers and musicians is not only a rare, exquisite work of art, but also important solid materials for research in the history of ancient music and dancing.

Musician carved on the coffin platform

Musician carved on the coffin platform

Musician carved on the coffin platform

Musician carved on the coffin platform

 At the base of the four sides of the coffin platform are twelve three-dimensional busts of warrior figures, appearing to emerge from under the ground. Helmeted, and with faces against the coffin platform, they appear to be concentrating their full strength in their hands which securely support the entire platform. Done with exquisite craftsmanship and with vivid expressions, they are indeed rare, excellent works of art.


In the Back Chamber is an "imperial bed" on which Wang Jian's stone statue is set. Ninety-six centimeters high, the statue sits upright, wears a folded head dress and a robe girdled at the waist with a jade belt. The hands are interlinked in the long, narrow sleeves. With deep-set eyes under heavy eyebrows, a high bridged nose and prominent cheekbones, and a solemn, serene countenance, the visage basically matches the image of Wang Jian depicted in historical documents.

Stone statue of Wang Jian


Apart from the underground palace architecture and stone sculptings preserved in the mausoleum, many important cultural relics were unearthed from the tomb, including a big jade belt, aice (flat jade pieces inscribed with the eulogy read at the sacrificial offering at burial of an emperor or empress), shibao (seal engraved with the posthumous title conferred on an emperor or empress), silver bowl, silver case, silver pig and others. They are precious materials for research in the histories and the arts of architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dancing and other facets of the Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties.

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