Li Cunxin clears away the mystery surrounding Emperor Liu He, who ruled 27 days, one brush stroke at a time

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 10:14pm

LI CUNXIN, a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), was part of the expert team excavating the Marquis Haihun mausoleum. He shares the thrills and trepidation his colleagues felt as they unearthed the tomb and ascertained its owner, Marquis Haihun, also known as Liu He. Li spoke with WENDY WU.

What is the most exciting part for you during the excavation of the cemetery of Marquis Haihun?

The evacuation is the largest archaeologic discovery in two decades in China, and it turns out to be the best-preserved royal tomb from the West Han Dynasty (202BC – AD8). More than 10,000 relics have been discovered since 2011, including gold coins, jade and bronze items, over ten tonnes of Wuzhu bronze coins and more than 5,000 bamboo slips with Chinese characters.

We found a jade seal in Liu He’s remains in the main coffin, bearing the inscription “Liu He”. It is the most persuasive proof that the owner of the tomb was Liu He, the first Marquis Haihun who was also grandson of Emperor Wu, the most famous ruler of the West Han.

The findings may help decode the life of Liu He, who ruled the empire only 27 days, the shortest reign in the dynasty, before he was dethroned by a royal clan member who criticised Liu He as lacking competence and morals. According to historical records, Liu He carried out 1,127 follies in less than one month. He was banished to what is now the current outskirts of Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province, and given the title Marquis of Haihun. There are several ways to interpret “Hai”. It could refer to an area of water, here, possibly Boyang Lake. “Hun”, literally sunset, could mean the west of the lake. Liu He, ill-fated, became emperor at 19 and died at 33.

What is the latest progress in discovering the Han dynasty crypt?

We discovered the north and east gates of the cemetery which covers over 40,000 square metres. There are eight tombs and one chariot burial in the cemetery. The academy sent a six-member team to the site of the Marquis Haihun cemetery. We are trying to locate the south and east gates and the wall surrounding the cemetery. A national laboratory costing 30 million yuan (HK$35 million) was set up there. It has an area of 1,000 square metres and has a constant temperature and humidity, allowing for better reservation. Relics unearthed there include jade ornaments, lacquer ware and silk fabrics. We have moved to the coffin in Tomb No 4, and will transfer it to the research institute in Beijing at a proper time in the future. I expect very rich findings inside.

We moved the interior coffin of Liu He into the laboratory in December last year. We were a bit worried about the weather as it had rained for quite some time. But we were very lucky to have a clear, blue sky on the day of the transfer. Teeth were found inside and we sent two back to the technology centre of our agency and Fudan University in Shanghai as well for DNA tests. The tests are aimed at uncovering any disease Liu He suffered and causes of death. We are stilling waiting for the results.

The structure of the cemetery is unclear. Except for five tombs inside that have not been excavated, affiliated areas holding relics of tomb guards need to be discovered. Further funds are expected to be deployed for further discovery in the area. There are still questions remaining, such as what is the meaning of the characters on the gold coins and why were sunflower seeds found in his stomach remains.

What are the challenges confronted archaeology in China?

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage forbids unearthing the tombs of emperors and marquises. It is mainly because the current archaeological techniques and preservation methods cannot completely satisfy requirements once the findings buried beneath the earth for thousands of years in isolated conditions are exposed. We cannot rush and we need patience to improve the archaeological methods. There is high risk that those findings would deteriorate or be ruined amid sharp changes in temperature and humidity.

It is inevitable that some information or relics were lost once the exterior part of Liu He’s coffin was opened at the excavation site without proper protection.

However, tomb raiders have remained a high risk for us. They are often the reason for official rescue-style excavations of ancient tombs, including the Marquis Haihun and another discovery in Xuyu in Jiangsu province, the tomb of Liu Fei, also known as Jiangdu Imperial, the half-blood brother of Emperor Wu.

I have been occupied with archaeology for more than 30 years and I carried out evacuation projects of tombs that have robbed by raiders. During the excavation, I do not make assumptions and do not assume how many questions I can solve. I just concentrate on discovering and collecting relics, offering material evidence for archaeological and historical research as much as I can.

What is your plan over the coming years?

I have participated in the project since 2012 and focused on laboratory archaeology, such as how to better unearth relics and preserve them. We have signed an agreement with the Jiangxi archaeology institute so our participation in the excavation of the tomb will last until 2017.

Besides the Marquis Haihun project, I have also participated in an project in Inner Mongolia to discover the ethnic origins of the Mongolians. Since 2013 we have unearthed about 20 tombs which can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618–907). There had already been many small Mongolian tribes before the establishment of the Yuan dynasty (1162–1227), and we are trying to identify the location of the tribes.