World

Tomb robbing makes comeback in China

A tomb in Henan Province became known to authorities after its stone tablets were seized from thieves. Photo: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A chariot was discovered in the grave of an aristocrat during an excavation in Henan Province in 2005. Photo: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Published: 3:06 PM, July 17, 2017
Updated: 4:13 PM, July 17, 2017

BAOLING VILLAGE (China) One day last November, Mr Yang Mingzhen received a tip: Construction workers digging on his family's land had discovered an ancient tomb.

That night, Mr Yang and his father and uncle sneaked down to the tomb, in a barren dirt field just outside the entrance of Baoling Village, on a dusty hilltop in Shaanxi province.

Early the next morning, a worker found the bodies of Mr Yang and the two other men. Sometime in the night the centuries-old tomb had collapsed, and they had been buried alive.

Village residents were shocked. "He wouldn't have even dared to steal his neighbor's carrots," said Mr Yang Yuansheng, 62, the village accountant, referring to Mr Yang Mingzhen. "Who would have thought he would risk his reputation to go rob a tomb?"

Such are the extreme allures and perils of grave robbing, an ancient practice that has made a roaring comeback as the global demand for Chinese antiquities has surged.

With prices for some Chinese antiquities reaching into the tens of millions of dollars, a flood of amateur and professional thieves looking to get rich quick has hit China's countryside.

While accurate figures are difficult to come by, the looting has resulted in the permanent destruction of numerous Chinese cultural heritage sites. In 2016, China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage reported 103 tomb-raiding and cultural relic theft cases.

Experts believe many more cases have gone undetected. Between ancient and modern thieves, they say, up to eight out of every 10 tombs in China have been plundered.

Provinces rich in Chinese imperial cultural heritage, like Henan, Shaanxi and Shanxi, have been especially hard hit.

"Henan has pretty much been emptied," said Mr Ni Fangliu, the author of several popular books about tomb raiding. "There's nothing left to steal."

China, under President Xi Jinping, has shown a growing desire to embrace traditional culture.

The government which asserts ownership over all ancient tombs and underground cultural relics has sought to combat the tomb-robbing problem through lawmaking, increased surveillance and monetary rewards for people who turn in relics.

But officials say the problem is so pervasive that it has become nearly impossible to eliminate.

"It's just like drugs in the United States," said Mr Zhou Kuiying, deputy director of the Shaanxi provincial bureau of cultural heritage. "Even though the government bans tomb robbing, there are still many people who do it."

For more than 3,000 years, Chinese rulers and aristocrats adhered to elaborate funerary rituals, including the practice of burying the dead with objects to use in the afterlife.

Depending on the era and the rank and wealth of the deceased, the burial goods could include everything from jade discs and bronze vessels to lacquer boxes and glazed pottery figurines.

Grave robbing in China has a history that is perhaps as long. In the second century BC, tomb robbing was so widespread that the Lushi Chunqiu, a classic Chinese text compiled around 239 BC, advocated frugal burials to deter looters. Even the mausoleum of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, which is guarded by his famous Terracotta army, is rumored to contain a series of booby traps intended to ward off potential robbers.

It wasn't until centuries later, during the post-Mao opening of China in the 1980s, that this practice became an epidemic.

Farmers, whose families had for generations been charged with safeguarding local tombs, began moving off the land and into cities. Vast areas were turned over to make way for subway tunnels, apartment buildings and highway networks.

Construction sites doubled as archaeological pits, and countless tombs and historical relics were unearthed in the process.

Along the way, many Chinese, buoyed by rising incomes, developed a new appreciation for relics, giving rise to a new class of Chinese collectors who rival even longtime Western collectors of Chinese antiquities in their knowledge, enthusiasm and purchasing power.

As the market for Chinese art and antiquities exploded, so too did the number of forgeries.

The problem became so rampant that some collectors even began quietly seeking out recently looted objects to avoid the risk of buying fakes.

For tomb robbers, the appeal is clear. "One nice bronze from the Qin or Han dynasty can buy you a big house," Mr Ni said.

But there is little romance to the grave-looting life. In China, most grave robbers are migrant workers and farmers.

Some are like Mr Yang Mingzhen – amateur thieves equipped with only basic tools. Others, however, are part of professional trafficking networks that make use of everything from high-tech probing devices to traditional feng shui masters.

The task is dirty and dangerous, requiring workers to crawl into small tunnels, handle explosives and inhale stale air - all while evading detection.

When raids are successful, the objects are often passed through a shadowy, cross-border network of middlemen, smugglers and dealers before reaching the display cases of wealthy collectors and museums in China and abroad.

Even so, tomb robbing has become a pop culture phenomenon.

The online fiction series Grave Robbers' Chronicles by Nanpai Sanshu, about a young man's tomb-robbing adventures, became a sensation after it first appeared in 2006.

Since then, numerous television shows and movies have also been made about tomb robbing, including Wuershan's Mojin: The Lost Legend and Lu Chuan's Chronicles Of The Ghostly Tribe.

"There's a natural curiosity about the supernatural, fantastic or unknown world," said Mr Lu, the film director, about the public's fascination with tomb robbing.

As part of research for the film, Mr Lu met with tomb robbers who told him about their looting techniques.

The discussion was so off-putting, Mr Lu said, that while making "Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe", he purposely avoided depicting scenes of tomb raiding in action.

"I thought to myself, 'This is just plain robbery,'" Mr Lu said. "It's not romantic at all, and they are not heroes."

Some officials and cultural preservationists worry that the popularisation of tomb robbing has encouraged amateurs to dip their toes in the trade.

In a case from 2015, for example, a looter surnamed Luan told police that he and associates planned to rob a tomb in Zhejiang province after first discussing the idea in an online fan group for Grave Robbers' Chronicles, according to a local news outlet.

The rise in amateurs has added to the headache for officials trying to crack down on the practice.

After reaching a peak in the early 2000s, officials say instances of tomb robbing at major heritage sites have decreased sharply in recent years.

But the downside to having a civilization more than 5,000 years old is that cultural heritage sites are everywhere, making comprehensive protection all but impossible.

In 2015, police broke what they called the biggest antiquities trafficking case since 1949, arresting 175 people across six provinces for stealing and trafficking objects worth an estimated $80 million.

"It's a constant battle between us and the criminals," said Mr Wang Jinqing, head of cultural relics protection in the Shaanxi provincial bureau of cultural heritage. "There are so many small tombs that we don't know about, it's impossible to protect them all."

Despite all the looting and destruction, some say there has been one small silver lining.

When it comes to unopened tombs, Chinese cultural officials typically take a more conservative stance, opting to protect rather than excavate. As a result, tombs that have been opened by tomb raiders have become gold mines for archaeologists.

"Many of China's major archaeological discoveries have been made in plundered tombs," said Mr Wang Genfu, an archaeology professor at Nanjing Normal University. But, he added, the condition of the looted tombs is often so poor that "archaeologists are still missing a lot of historical information."

With robbers turning their attention to the large number of untouched tombs in northern and western China, experts say that more action needs to be taken to protect those sites. But fully resolving the problem, they say, will ultimately come down to the people at the other end of the looting chain: the collectors.

"No one would risk their life to loot a tomb if there wasn't a market for the stuff," said Dr Donna Yates, an archaeologist at the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. "No demand, no looting." THE NEW YORK TIMES