Kent Ewing: Tomb Warriors Battle in China

Roundup: Talking About History

[Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at]

The warlords Cao Cao and Liu Bei were fierce rivals in life, with their exploits vividly described in the classic historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the most revered classical novels in Chinese literature. Now, 1,800 years later, that rivalry has been renewed in death.

In a game of archaeological one-upmanship, two teams of tomb warriors claiming to have found the burial sites of the legendary generals are battling it out in the Chinese media to gain official recognition for their claims. So far, neither party has been successful and, indeed, both are possible perpetrators of fraud.

Truth and authenticity, however, are besides the point in this battle; publicity, false or not, is the weapon of choice, and with increased tourism revenue for the reward for the winner's province, along with public financing for new infrastructure that local officials say is needed to support the expected flood of visitors to such an important historical site. So it is no wonder that authorities in Henan and Sichuan provinces are pulling out all stops to stake their claims to the final resting places of Cao Cao and Liu respectively....

"Speak of Cao Cao and he appears" goes the Chinese proverb. That may explain how the warlord turned up in a tomb in Anyang, but it also reveals the Chinese perception of him as a sinister character, as in the English saying, "Speak of the devil."

A chancellor in the Eastern Han dynasty who went on to form his own state, Cao Cao was by most accounts a brilliant military and political strategist. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, however, the epic's author, Luo Guanzhong, fictionalizes some of the events of Cao's Cao's life, turning him into a cruel tyrant and villain.

On the other hand, Liu (AD161-223), who established the state of Shu Han, a rival of Wei, is portrayed as a kind-hearted ruler and is one of the heroes of the novel, subject of countless film and television costume dramas that have made its characters well-known figures in China's popular culture.

Perhaps the Pengshan villagers calling for an excavation team to be sent to their village were banking on Liu's reputation for benevolence to trump Cao Cao's legendary ruthlessness when they filed their petition with the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Sichuan Bureau of Cultural Relics, reviving a feud between scholars in the municipality of Chongqing and the Sichuan capital of Chengdu over the location of Liu's grave. Even if an archaeological team never visits the villagers, they may find a few tourists come their way.

The battle for tourism revenue does not stop with rival generals whose lives are romanticized in Chinese literature and the mass media. There are also dueling claims for the birthplace of Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, with both the Sichuan city of Jiangyou and the Hubei city of Anlu calling themselves Li's hometown. The Jiangyou government has gone as far as to register a trademark designating the city as Li's birthplace, prompting Anlu to launch an advertisement on China Central Television boasting that it is where the poet was born.

Among modern figures, China's biggest source of tourism income is, hands down, Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China. Mao's cult-like image as the Great Helmsman of Chinese politics may have dimmed since his death in 1976, but he remains a cash cow for his native province of Hunan. Shaoshan village, his birthplace, rakes in millions of dollars a year selling souvenirs to tourists making pilgrimages to honor the late chairman, and the Hunan Provincial Tourism Bureau has proposed that Mao's birthday, December 26, be declared a national holiday to allow more pilgrims to visit the province....

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