Discovery of Cao Cao’s tomb turns focus onto search for Chinese warlord’s rivals

Archaeologists may have confirmed the final resting place of one great general, but where his adversaries, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, were buried remains a mystery 

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2018, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 1:48pm

After archaeologists confirmed they had found the remains of the celebrated Chinese warlord Cao Cao, the focus immediately shifted to the long-standing mystery of where his two great rivals are buried.

Cao and his adversaries Liu Bei and Sun Quan carved up the country between them 1,800 years ago and they remain household names in China and beyond, thanks to the prominent role they play in the classic 14th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and numerous other artistic works. 

As the Han dynasty’s empire disintegrated, they spent years battling each other before eventually dividing the country into three separate realms.

Late last month, experts from the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology concluded that the remains of a man, who had died in his sixties, found at an ancient tomb in the province was Cao, a central figure in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280).

The location of his tomb was shrouded in mystery for centuries, until 2009 when a burial plaque found in a grave in Gaoxixue village in Anyang county said it marked the last resting place of King Wu of Wei – Cao’s posthumous title.

Excavations at the site found that, in apparent defiance of his father’s ban on ostentatious burial sites, his son and successor Cao Pi had built a grand mausoleum to honour him.

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Adding to the mystery, the structure was later dismantled, perhaps on the orders of Cao Pi and out of fear it would be targeted by tomb robbers or his many enemies.

After years of digging at the site, the archaeologists became convinced that the body in the main tomb must have been Cao’s. 

The great warlord’s legacy has been a controversial one for almost 2,000 years. He was an ambitious politician who united the war-torn northern regions of ancient China under his rule into the Wei kingdom, the most powerful of the era, and was an accomplished poet and calligraphist.

But artistic tradition usually casts him as a cunning and murderous villain. He was chancellor to the last Han emperor but has been portrayed as disloyal and accused of reducing his master to the status of a puppet.

In traditional Peking Opera, Cao is usually depicted as a figure with a white face, suggesting he is treacherous and crafty.

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Compared with Cao, Liu received a far better write-up, being portrayed as benevolent and just. Liu was born into a poor family, although he claimed to be the offspring of a member of the Han dynasty. 

In his early days, he sold straw shoes on the streets before entering government service. 

Although he lacked the extraordinary military or literary tales of Cao, through force of personality he is said to have united capable administrators and generals to serve under him and set up the state of Shu in southwestern China.

Sun has received less attention than Cao or Liu in literature, but he inherited the resource-rich regions of southeastern China from his elderly brother. After defending his territory from his rivals, his state, called Wu, established its independence and prospered under his rule.

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Any search for Liu and Sun’s tombs will be hampered by the lack of solid evidence, although folk legends provide some guide. There are at least three accounts of where Liu was buried.

According to The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he was entombed alongside his right-hand man Zhuge Liang in Wuhou Shrine in Chengdu, the capital of his Shu state and also modern-day Sichuan province.

But some experts disagree, pointing out that Liu died in the summer in Fengjie county, in what is now the municipality of Chongqing, over 600km (375 miles) from Chengdu.

It would have taken a month to transport his body to the city by water, by which time it would have badly decomposed in the hot, humid weather.

So they believe Liu is more likely to have been buried where he died, near the banks of the Yangtze River.

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But tradition in Pengshan county, about 60km to the south of Chengdu, has it that a local mountain named Muma is the true site of Liu’s grave.

According to this account, the mountain, which is surrounded by nine hills that form the shape of a lotus flower, was chosen because this natural feature makes it an auspicious place for royal burials.

Although no ancient tombs have been discovered in the mountain, local authorities named Muma Mountain as a heritage protection site in the 1980s and West China City News has reported that it is frequently targeted by tomb robbers.

Finding Sun’s mausoleum may prove easier as historic texts record that he was buried on Meihua mountain near Nanjing, capital of the eastern province of Jiangsu – but the exact location is not known.

In the early 2000s the local authorities sent a team of archaeologists to find the tomb.

The experts, equipped with magnetic surveying equipment, found a large underground tunnel that they thought might be the burial site, but their research did not go any further.

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One problem was that the authorities refused to allow excavation work at the site, He Yunao, a historian from Nanjing University, said.

“Our country has an unwritten rule that we will not do an archaeological dig unless a heritage site is at risk of being destroyed,” he said.

The area where Cao’s mausoleum was found had been targeted by tomb robbers before, which was why archaeologists were allowed to start digging.

Qi Dongfang, a professor at Peking University’s School of Archaeology and Museology, said that authorities sometimes gave the green light for digs ahead of the development of infrastructure projects that might pose a threat to underground sites.

“Archaeological excavation is unpredictable,” he said. “Significant discoveries are quite accidental.”