China is well known for its history defined by the rise and fall of powerful dynasties. Each dynasty left its own unique legacy. Many immortalized themselves with great military and amazing cultural achievements. The great pyramids in China’s “Valley of the Kings” attest to all these achievements.
These massive mausoleums were built by China’s early emperors in the belief that they would live on forever in the grave and therefore needed to reproduce their earthly lives in their tombs.
The first of these tombs, and believed to be the most splendid, was built by China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi.
In 221 BC, he united warring kingdoms into a nation that still exists today and to memorialize his achievement he built one of the biggest mortuary complexes ever built on earth.
According to ancient accounts great riches were buried inside, but the man- made necropolis remains unexcavated.
The first emperor spared no expense to create his tomb. But tragically, part of its price was thousands of human lives, as tomb workers died from overwork, malnutrition, and ill-treatment, which in the end, brought down China’s Qin Dynasty. Today, archaeologists read the sad tale of their suffering from their excavated bones.
The next dynasty, the Han, succeeded in building huge tombs and staying on the throne. Their tombs still stand in a line near the site of their ancient capital city (near modern Xian). None has ever been excavated, but burial pits opened near one imperial tomb reveal that Han emperors took everything they needed in life with them to the afterlife.
Although no Han emperor’s tomb has been opened, the tombs of lesser Han aristocrats have revealed complete underground palaces (including kitchens and toilets) and at least one corpse so amazingly well-preserved that some believes that Han tomb-builders knew how to “engineer immortality” by, among other things, wrapping tombs in layers of charcoal and clay to keep out water and air.
But another threat - tomb robbers - was harder to thwart. Most tombs were robbed, leaving the Tang Dynasty, hundreds of years later, to design their tombs differently. They tunneled simple shaft-tombs into natural mountains, and - knowing that robbery was inevitable - filled them with small and inexpensive items that symbolized, rather than reproduced, the perfect afterlife.
For hundreds of years these tombs remained tightly sealed but the archaeological evidence so far provides a tantalizing glimpse of what these pyramids would have been like during China’s golden age.
But returning them to their former glory is a painstakingly slow process and the secrets that they have been hidden for centuries, may remain hidden for many years still to come.