Tomb fight spreads to warlord's arch-rival

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 January, 2010, 12:00am

No sooner has the dust settled on a claim by Henan authorities to have found the tomb of fabled ancient warlord Cao Cao than a new controversy has flared.

This one concerns a claim surrounding the tomb of Liu Bei, who established a rival state.

More than a dozen villagers in Lianhuaba, in Pengshan county, Sichuan, have written to heritage authorities calling for excavation of a royal tomb in the village. They hope the work will verify the site is that of Liu's tomb, the Chengdu Economic Daily reported.

Liu (AD161-223) established the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms Period, which conquered a large swathe of present-day China - including Sichuan, Guizhou and Hunan , as well as part of Hubei and Gansu in rival Cao's Han state.

The classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms portrays Liu as an idealistic, benevolent and humane ruler who cared for his people and selected good advisers for his government. The petition by the villagers to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the provincial Bureau of Cultural Relics revived a feud among historians from Chengdu and Fengjie county in Chongqing, who have been locked in a protracted battle over Liu's grave.

Rival claims on sites of historic significance, including the tombs of legendary figures, have become a phenomenon in recent years as regional authorities try to cash in on the fame of such sites. With government investment in infrastructure, they can generate high tourist income.

Jiangyou in Sichuan and Anlu in Hubei both claim to be the hometown of Li Bai, a Tang dynasty poet. The Anlu government took out an advertisement on China Central Television in August identifying the city as the poet's home town. This angered the Jiangyou government, which had registered a trademark as being 'the hometown of Li Bai, the city of Chinese poems' in 2003.

The announcement late last month by the Henan Bureau of Cultural Relics that it had found Cao's grave in the village of Xigaoxue in Anyang county was challenged by historians from Handan, Hebei - a nearby city - and Haozhou in Anhui, who dismissed the finding as premature, citing a lack of evidence.

Sceptics have also questioned the motive behind the high-profile announcement, after authorities in Anyang were reported to have earmarked 6 million yuan (HK$6.8 million) for excavation work. A road was also on the drawing board to link Xigaoxue to a major national highway for the first time.

Determined to substantiate the claim, Anyang authorities offered up to 100,000 yuan in rewards for information on items stolen from the purported grave of Cao, and police also promised leniency for tomb thieves if they turned themselves in.

Dismissing the call for excavation to determine the authenticity of Liu's tomb as wishful thinking, Professor Li Jianmin, a Beijing archaeologist, said the petitioners apparently drew their inspiration from the media frenzy surrounding the excavation of the grave.

Li said the state cultural heritage authorities had made preservation the top priority, while saying that archaeological work should be carried out mainly to save sites that were under threat from theft and development.

He said the decision to excavate a historical site should be based on a consensus of archaeologists assessing the need for research.

'You can't just say we believe we have somebody's tomb here and let us dig it to find out,' he said. 'How chaotic that would be if that were the case.

'Archaeological excavation, particularly, should not be hijacked by financial consideration and public opinion.'