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Yellow Emperor Remembered
Over the past 2,000 years, the Huangdi Mausoleum, located in Huangling County which is about 180 kilometres north of Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, has been a sacred place for Chinese people from all over the world.

On the Qingming Festival which falls on April 5 every year, Chinese people from home and abroad flock to the mausoleum in order to pay homage to Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor, who was the legendary ancestor of the Chinese nation and the symbol of Chinese civilization.

Known as the most important ancient grave in China, the Huangdi Mausoleum has long been attractive to me.

I can still remember my first trip to the mausoleum during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) although several decades have passed since then.

In 1969, I left Beijing and headed toward Shaanxi Province to receive "re-education" in the rural area, as most young people did in the country.

It was a snowy day and I was on my way to Huijiahe Village in northern Shaanxi. The bus made its way on the bumpy and winding road flanked by perilous cliffs and precipices. The trip was really tiring and frightening.

Suddenly, someone on the bus cried out: "That's the Huangdi Mausoleum!" I looked out of the window and was immediately impressed by the scene - a hill standing in a patch of deep green in the ravines of the Loess Plateau; green branches swaying in the snow; the mausoleum was seen dimly amid the cypress trees on the top of the hill.

Since the bus did not stop at Huangling County, I missed a chance to visit the mausoleum.

Fortunately, I made it up a few months later when I attended a meeting in Huangling County together with the horse keeper of the village - who turned up to be a perfect guide.

Although the old man, whose name I cannot remember after all of these years, could not read, he was a good story-teller and knew most of the tales concerning legendary Huangdi.

First Trip

Located about 1 kilometre north of Huangling County, the Qiaoshan Mountain was simple and magnificent with the Jushui River flowing at its foot. A carpet of evergreens and luxuriant ancient cypress trees covered the hill, extraordinarily prominent on the vast yellow stretch of earth.

At the foot of the mountain was the Xuanyuan Temple (Xuan Yuan was another name for Huangdi).

According to historical record, the temple was first built at the western foot of the mountain during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Later in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it was restored and over 1,000 cypress trees were then planted in the temple.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), however, the temple was badly damaged by flooding. Emperor Taizu ordered the moving of the temple to the eastern foot of the mountain where it now stands.

In the following dynasties, the temple was restored many times.

The cultural relics were neglected during the "cultural revolution,", which made it survive those turbulent years.

When entering the gate of the temple, I was surprised to see a huge cypress. It might take seven or eight people to encircle the tree with out-stretched arms. No wonder, many researchers regarded it as the "father of world cypresses."

"Legend has it that the tree was planted by Huangdi himself, which would make it over 4,000 years old," the old man told me.

Above the door of the magnificent main hall was a large horizontal tablet with a four-character inscription: renwen chuzu - founder of human civilization.

The door of the hall was locked. I tried to take a look from the crack of the door. The hall was full of cobwebs and up on the wall was a relief sculpture of Huangdi. In my eyes, he looked more like an ordinary farmer than a legendary figure.

After visiting the temple, the old man took me to the Huangdi's tomb located on the top of the Qiaoshan Mountain.

We strolled along the path up to the mountain. The old man pointed at a stone tablet lying on the path and said: "From here, anyone - no matter officials or common people - should go on foot to pay their respect to Huangdi."

The mausoleum looked like a huge hump overgrown with weeds. In front of the mausoleum was an ancient pavilion where the memorial ceremony used to be held. Obviously, the pavilion was in need of renovation, expect for the well-preserved tablet of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The tablet was inscribed with four characters "qiaoshan longyu" meaning "Riding a dragon over the Qiaoshan Mountain."

Mystic Legends

The story goes that when Huangdi was 110 years old, a yellow dragon appeared in the sky, summoning the emperor to heaven. When the emperor riding on the back of the dragon was about to leave, his subjects, who were reluctant to let him go, tried to drag him back by his clothes. However, all that was left were some of the emperor's clothes and his hat.

In commemoration of Huangdi, his descendants buried his remains at the Qiaoshan Mountain, where they built a mausoleum in honour of Huangdi.

Another well-known legend was about the construction of Qixiantai (the praying stage) in the mausoleum.

It was said that Emperor Wudi (Liu Che) of the Han Dynasty leading an 180,000-strong troop made an inspection tour to the border and passed by the Qiaoshan Mountain in the autumn of 110 BC.

He was fascinated by the legends of Huangdi and decided to hold a ritual praying for longevity and a lasting reign.

He ordered the soldiers to construct a praying stage in front of the Huangdi's tomb. Thus, 180,000 soldiers piled up the earth and completed a 20-metre high stage within a night.

Emperor Wudi's dream did not come true. But the praying stage has survived and become a significant relic site in the mausoleum.


Since I left Shaanxi over 30 years ago, I have paid several return visits to Huangling.

Increasing attention has been given to the renovations of the Huangdi Mausoleum over the past few decades.

Now the cultural relics have taken on a new look. The tablet corridor in the Xuanyuan Temple has become one of the biggest attractions.

Tablets dating back to the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties have recorded many historical events in the country and significant rituals taking place in the mausoleum.

The history of modern China is also highlighted in the tablets. For instance, the victory of the Revolution of 1911 (the Chinese bourgeois democratic revolution led by Dr Sun Yat-sen which overthrew the Qing Dynasty) and Hong Kong and Macao's return to the motherland in the late 1990s.

The praying stage built during the Han Dynasty has been renovated. The newly completed stone steps and railing have made it much easier for visitors to climb on the stage where they could have a bird's-eye view of the boundless forest of cypress.

Back in the 1930s, the local researchers had once counted the cypress trees in the mausoleum and found there were 61,286 in total. Over the past few decades, most of these trees have survived and the number has so far increased to 80,000.

Like a troop of guards protecting the ancestor's mausoleum, the cypress trees have added a lively touch to the cultural relics.

The article first appeared in the issue of Chinese National Geography published in April, 2003.

(China Daily May 14, 2003)

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