TRAVEL / Great Civilisations of the World: Guardians of the dead: 5 Imperial China: Warriors, deities and mythical creatures carved in stone preside over the tombs of Chinese emperors. Ann Paludan recalls her first glance of an enchanted kingdom

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A VISIT to a state-run agricultural commune in 1976 indirectly revolutionised my life. This was China before it was open, and the Chinese were reluctant to show foreigners antiquities. But our enthusiasm for modern agriculture had persuaded the politically correct young guide, Miss Liu, to overcome her disapproval of ruins and let us visit a nearby tomb. This, which was in fact our goal, was one of the most splendid sites of ancient China - the seventh-century mausoleum of the emperor Tang Gaozong and his wife, Wu Zetian.

There was little motor traffic on the way. We shared the narrow, dusty road with horse-drawn carts and bicycles. When we passed through villages, people came running, pressing their faces against the windows to see these big-nosed foreigners in their outlandish clothes. At first the way led through vast, flat fields of winter wheat, lined with narrow belts of poplars. But after several hours we turned up asmall dirt track into the hills.

Winding all the time, this narrowed until the steep loess cliffs nearly touched the sides of the car. It was a cold day and as we climbed the mist came down, heightening the feeling of driving into the unknown. Neither the driver nor Miss Liu had ever been to the site and, after half an hour of hesitant progress, it was with relief that the driver stopped and Miss Liu said firmly: 'You have arrived. This is Qianling, the tomb you wish to see.'

We could see nothing. The clouds had come right down and on either side we were hemmed in by steep banks. In front there seemed to be a path running at right angles to our own, and as we rounded the corner, a gigantic figure loomed out of the mist. Towering above us was a stone man, eyes forward and hands resting on a sword. Beyond him was the shadow of another, and as we turned into the avenue, yet another, and then another and another.

It was a moment I shall never forget - the swirling mist which lifted to show a figure and then hid it again, the apparent isolation (a rare phenomenon in China) and the complete silence. It was as if we had wandered into an enchanted world peopled with stone figures. A saddled horse with bells round its neck stood beside a headless groom. Further on, an ostrich on one leg looked down from a stone slab and a pair of magnificent winged horses gazed skywards. At this moment a breeze shifted the mist and, as if a curtain had gone up on the stage, the whole landscape became clear.

We were standing on the side of a mountain in a long avenue lined with stone statues. The lower end of the avenue was flanked by two rounded hills; at the other end was the mountain peak, a perfect cone rising 300ft above us, in which the imperial couple lay buried. Across the valley with its terraced fields, the sun shone on distant mountain ranges. The emperor had chosen his site well. Living in the 'Golden Age' of China's great Tang dynasty (AD 618-906), his capital had been the largest and most populous city in the world and his tomb reflected this imperial splendour. The Chinese believed that the spirits of their ancestors actively influenced their own lives - and that, if spirits were to be kept happy, they had to be treated as if they were still alive.

An emperor's tomb, for example, should resemble a palace, furnished with the luxuries to which he was accustomed. Expense was no problem - Han rulers in the second century BC were accused of using a third of the national income on their tombs - and the Tang, choosing entire mountains for their burial grounds, built some of the largest mausoleums the world has ever seen. Somewhere beneath the peak I was looking at, the emperor and his wife lay undisturbed in surroundings simulating those of a seventh-century palace.

None of the Tang imperial tombs has been excavated, but from royal tombs we know the walls were covered with exquisite murals depicting court life, while the wealth of the grave chamber can only be guessed at from the fabulous Tang treasures in the Xian museum. Around us, on the now barren hillside, had risen a tomb city built like the imperial capital, with high walls 25 miles long and crenellated corner and gate towers. Up the mountain and in the valley below had been halls with glittering yellow tiled roofs, and dwellings for the thousands of attendants who looked after the tomb and offered sacrifices to the deceased ruler. All that remain are a few earthen foundations and the majestic stone sculptures. As we walked up the avenue, however, between these towering figures over 12ft high, history seemedto come alive. There is a harmony between statues and site which brings the past into the present. Gradually we realised we were no longer alone. Hidden, until you looked right over the edge of the precipice, was a village of cave houses tunnelled into the terrace on which we stood. The windows and doors were bright with red paper decorations left from the Chinese New Year, and in the tiny courtyards old men chatted and smoked. At the upper end of the avenue, children peeped out from behind a colossal pair of lions and ran in and out of a group of stone foreigners. Bearing gifts, these chiefs and military commanders from China's border states bore witness to their links with the great Tang empire.

That day lit a flame in my heart which still burns. The impression made by the statues, their sheer size and number (125 still in place), raised a curiosity which had to be satisfied. Sculptures like this could hardly be mere decorations, but what purpose had they served? If closely associated with the emperor, why had they not been destroyed when the tomb was razed to the ground? I had seen a very different avenue of stone figures at the Ming Tombs near Peking. Was it possible such statuary had survived elsewhere in China? After four happy years, we were shortly to leave China for another post. Now I had a reason to come back. I was hooked on a search which year after year has led me off the beaten track to record, photograph and publish tomb statuary spanning more than 2,000 years of Chinese history.

The thousands of surviving statues show that each age chose subjects that were appropriate in some way. In the mountain passes of Sichuan, stone lions guard tombs from the time of the Roman empire; at Gong Xian, Henan, with more than a thousand figures in the imperial burial ground, foreign envoys, such as turbaned Arabs, bejewelled Indians and barefooted South-east Asians bearing ivory, still wait on the 11th-century Song emperors.

What had at first appeared scattered groups turned out to be the systematic expression of an unbroken tradition of sculpture going back to the second century BC. The statues, though erected for the rich, reflected beliefs common to all classes of society - and this explained their preservation. The stone figures, associated with immortality and thought to possess supernatural powers, had been created to help the living and the dead.

The breeze that lifted the mist that morning on Tang Gaozong's tomb unveiled a new source of knowledge about the fundamental traditionalism, as well as the variety, of China's imperial past. While pursuing my studies in the years since, I have often been reminded of the young Miss Liu. After that visit to Tang Qianling, she looked around her, smiled and said: 'Now I understand why people are interested in such a place.'

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Fly to Peking with Air China (071-630 0919) from pounds 480 return (minimum stay four days, maximum stay one year); Trailfinders (071-938 3366) fares from pounds 660 (no minimum/maximum stay); BA (081-8974000) Apex returns pounds 868 (book two weeks in advance, maximum stay one year).

TOUR OPERATORS: China Travel Service (071-836 9911); Globepost Travel Services (071-735 1879); Regent Holidays (0272 211711); Waymark Holidays (0753 516477); Explore Worldwide (0252 319448); Jasmin Tours (0628 531121).

FURTHER INFORMATION: China National Tourist Office, 4 Glentworth Street, London NW1 5PG (071-935 9427); visa inquiries to the Chinese Embassy, 31 Portland Place, London W1N 3AG (071-636 1835).

(Photographs omitted)

Comments