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Reflections: tomb raiders

Wee Kek Koon

 

 

Last month we learned that King Richard III of England (1452-1485) had been found in a car park in Leicester. Much maligned in history and literature, he was the last English king to die in battle. His battered corpse was displayed naked for two days before it was hastily thrown into the ground, where it remained undisturbed for 500 years.

By contrast, the Empress Dowager Cixi, whose funeral was conducted with eye-popping pomp and ceremony, was allowed scarcely a decade of repose after her burial. Cixi died in late 1908 and was laid to rest a year later in a purpose-built tomb on the outskirts of Beijing. There are no verifiable records of the objects that were placed inside her sarcophagus and tomb, but unsubstantiated accounts mention copious quantities of precious stones and pearls, one of which was reportedly as large as a chicken egg.

When the last Qing emperor formally abdicated, in 1912, the provisional republican government was bound by treaty to maintain and protect the Qing imperial tombs in perpetuity. The country fell to pieces shortly afterwards, however, and the tombs, widely assumed to be filled with treasure, offered rich pickings for warlords and bandits. Only a few tombs were actually raided, but one of them was Cixi's.

In July 1928, a minor warlord, Sun Dianying, blasted open her tomb, pried open her coffin and dragged her carcass out. His minions left nothing behind - not even the clothes she had been buried in.

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