Diary of a Rambling Antiquarian

Monday, 22 August 2016

Western Xia Tombs

On Friday we visited the 108 Stupas 20 km south of Yinchuan, and over the weekend I attended (but did not actively participate in) a Tangut studies conference held at the Research Center for Tangut History and Culture of Beifang University of Nationalities 北方民族大学西夏研究所. Today is my last day in Yinchuan, and an excursion to the Western Xia imperial mausoleums has been arranged. There are over two hundred Western Xia tombs of various sizes located on the plain between the Helan mountains to the west and the city of Yinchuan (the erstwhile capital of the Western Xia empire) to the east. The nine biggest tombs have been identified as the final resting places of the emperors of the Western Xia, with their consorts and family members buried in smaller tombs nearby.

Location of Nine Western Xia Imperial Tombs

{Map data ©2018 Imagery ©2018 TerraMetrics}

Click on the image to open my Google Maps map showing the location of all 200+ Western Xia tombs Yinchuan.

(Image of map showing all Western Xia tombs)

Background Discussion of the Western Xia Tombs

The nine imperial tombs are designated "L1" through "L9" from south to north, as shown on the plan below ("L" stands for Líng 陵 "mausoleum"), and the minor tombs are designated "M1" through "M207" ("M" stands for Mù 墓 "tomb").

Plan of Nine Western Xia Imperial Tombs

Source: Xǔ Chéng and Dù Yùbīng, Xīxià Líng Fig. 1 on p. 7

For ease of discussion, the table below lists the Western Xia emperors, including the father and grandfather of the first emperor, who were posthumously given imperial titles.

Emperors of the Western Xia
No. Personal Name Imperial Name Posthumous Title Tomb Name Dates Reign
Lǐ Jìqiān
Shénwǔ Huángdì
963–1004 (990–1004)
Lǐ Démíng
Guāngshèng Huángdì
981–1032 (1004–1032)
1 Lǐ Yuánhào
Wǔliè Huángdì
1003–1048 1038–1048
2 Lǐ Liàngzuò
Zhāoyīng Huángdì
1047–1068 1048–1068
3 Lǐ Bǐngcháng
Kāngjìng Huángdì
1061–1086 1068–1086
4 Lǐ Qiánshùn
Shèngwén Huángdì
1083–1139 1086–1139
5 Lǐ Rénxiào
Shèngzhēn Huángdì
1124–1193 1139–1193
6 Lǐ Chúnyòu
Zhāojiǎn Huángdì
1177–1206 1193–1206
7 Lǐ Ānquán
Jìngmù Huángdì
1170–1211 1206–1211
8 Lǐ Zūnxū
Yīngwén Huángdì
1163–1226 1211–1223
9 Lǐ Déwàng
1181–1226 1223–1226
10 Lǐ Xiàn
"Last Emperor")
* ?–1227 1226–1227

* Lǐ Xiàn was posthumously titled Shidurghu ᠱᠢᠳᠤᠷᠭᠤ "simple, right, just" by the Mongols, and is referred to as Schidascou or Shidaskû in 18th-century European sources.

The imperial tombs were originally identifiable by steles with inscriptions in Chinese and Tangut erected to commemorate and eulogize the occupants of the tombs, but when the Western Xia was defeated by the Mongols in 1227 they burned the imperial tombs and smashed to pieces all the steles, so it is difficult to be sure who the tombs were built for. The imperial tombs each have the remains of two or three stele pavilions (only L1, L2 and L5 have three), which were built to house steles with Tangut or Chinese inscriptions, and about 60–70 of the minor tombs also have the remains of stele pavilions. Ten stele pavilions from four imperial tombs (L3, L5, L6, L7) and two minor tombs (M177, M182) were excavated during the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in the recovery of several thousand fragments of steles, some blank, some with decoration, and some with Chinese or Tangut text. The fragments with writing excavated from tombs L6, L7, M177 and M182 were published in Lǐ 1984. Some of the inscribed fragments from tombs L3 and L5 were published in Xǔ and Dù 1995. The second stele pavilion at L3 was excavated in 1998, resulting in the discovery of a further 711. Additionally, 111 Tangut and Chinese fragments have been found at various other locations at the Western Xia tombs site between 1971 and 2005, and 197 Tangut fragments are in the private collection of Jiǎ Jìngyán 賈敬顏.

Excavated Stele Fragments
Tomb Pavilion Date Excavated Fragments Language
L3 East 1987 360 fragments Tangut
L3 West 1998 711 fragments Tangut
L5 East (north) 1977 26 fragments Chinese
L5 West 1977 63 fragments Tangut
L6 East 1974 338 fragments (48 large characters; 290 small characters) Tangut
L6 West 1974 709 fragments Tangut (388)
Chinese (321)
L7 East 1975 510 fragments Chinese
L7 West 1975 1,284 fragments (including 19 fragments of seal script stele heading) Tangut
L8 West 1972 49 fragments Tangut (47)
Chinese (2)
M161 West 1972 18 fragments Chinese
M177 East 1977 81 fragments Tangut (55)
Chinese (26)
M177 West 1977 35 fragments Tangut (20)
Chinese (15)
M182 1975 361 fragments Tangut (133)
Chinese (228)
Elsewhere 1971–2005 111 fragments Tangut (29)
Chinese (82)
Jiǎ Jìngyán 197 fragments Tangut

Based on these stele fragments, Lǐ Fànwén 1984 was able to identify the occupants of tombs L6, L7, M177 and M182, although two of his identifications have not been widely accepted.

As there were ten emperors of the Western Xia, and there would be no tomb for the last emperor who was killed by the Mongols, Lǐ Fànwén postulated that the nine large-scale tombs are for the first nine emperors, from Emperor Jingzong (Lǐ Yuánhào) through Emperor Xianzong (Lǐ Déwàng). To fit with his identification of Tombs L6 and L7 as belonging to the eighth and fifth emperors respectively, he hypothesized that the tombs for the first six emperors were built from south to north away from the edge of the Helan Mountains (i.e. L1, L2, L3, L5, L7, L8 for Emperors Jingzong through Huanzong), and the tombs for the last three emperors were built from south to north along the edge of the Helan Mountains (i.e. L4, L6, L9 for Emperors Xiangzong through Xianzong).

However, this hypothesis has not gained acceptance, for two main reasons. Firstly, Lǐ Yuánhào made his father and grandfather posthumous emperors, and it is recorded that they were buried by the Helan Mountains. The two southernmost tombs (L1 and L2) are in the position of greatest respect, and are the only two tombs to have a tomb platform of nine steps (the other tombs only have seven or five steps), so according to Dù Yùbīng they should be the tombs of Lǐ Yuánhào's father and grandfather. Secondly, there would not have been enough time to build a tomb for Emperor Xianzong before the Western Xia was overthrown in the year following his death, and during this period of war there may also not have been enough time to build a tomb for Emperor Shenzong. Therefore, the currently accepted hypothesis is that the nine large-scale tombs were built for the grandfather and father of Lǐ Yuánhào (L1 and L2 respectively), and for the first seven emperors (L3 through L9), with the tombs zigzagging up the plain from south to north.

Identification of Western Xia Imperial Mausoleums
No. Old No. Occupant Role Death Tomb Plan *
L1 M15 Lǐ Jìqiān
Grandfather of 1st emperor 1004 Fig. 6
L2 M14 Lǐ Démíng
Father of 1st emperor 1032 Fig. 7
L3 M11 Lǐ Yuánhào
1st emperor 1048 Fig. 8
L4 M12 Lǐ Liàngzuò
2nd emperor 1067 Fig. 10
L5 M10 Lǐ Bǐngcháng
3rd emperor 1086 Fig. 12
L6 M8 Lǐ Qiánshùn
4th emperor 1139 Fig. 13
L7 M2 Lǐ Rénxiào
5th emperor 1193 Fig. 21
L8 Lǐ Chúnyòu
6th emperor 1206
L9 M1 Lǐ Ānquán
7th emperor 1211

* Tombs L8 and L9 were built over during the 1970s, destroying all of the tomb sites except for the two burial mounds. Tomb L7 has been partially built on, but most of the site is intact.

The imperial mausoleums all share the same basic plan, oriented south to north, as illustrated for Tomb L2 shown below. They have the following features:

Plan of Tomb L2

Source: Xǔ Chéng and Dù Yùbīng, Xīxià Líng Fig. 7 on p. 17

The minor tombs copy this general layout, but on a smaller scale. Most have a square or rectangular wall forming an inner enclosure, in northwest part of which the tomb mound and a fish-back ridge are sited. Some enclosures have two or three tomb mounds, presumably representing a family group. Some of the large tombs have an outer enclosure, and one or tw stele pavilions. A minority of tombs have no enclosure at all. The following six types of minor tomb layout have been identified:

Classification of tomb types

Source: Xǔ Chéng and Dù Yùbīng, Xīxià Líng Fig. 22 on p. 40

Tombs M177 (Type AI) and M182 (Type C) were excavated in the 1970s, and the diagram below shows the location of the burial chamber below the burial mound, and the sloping passageway that leads from the surface to the entrance to the burial chamber.

Photograph of Tomb M177 showing the excavated tomb passageway

Source: Xǔ Chéng and Dù Yùbīng, Xīxià Líng Plate IV.3

Cross-sectional view of Tomb M177

Source: Xǔ Chéng and Dù Yùbīng, Xīxià Líng Fig. 42 on p. 74

(Cross-sectional view of Tomb M182)

Stone horse excavated from Tomb M177

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Note on my Map of the Western Xia Tombs

My Google map of the Western Xia tombs is based on the maps and descriptions of the tombs given in the 1995 book by Xǔ Chéng and Dù Yùbīng (Xīxià Líng 西夏陵). The books divides the minor tombs into four geographical groups, based on their proximity to imperial tombs (there are no tombs in the vicinity of L4):

The maps in the book show the location of tombs M1 through M70, M72 through M77, M81 through M177, and M179 through M206. M71 is not shown on any map, but is described as being 128 m west of L3, so I have placed a marker for it between M73 and M74. M178 is not shown on any map, and is not described in the text of the book, so I have no idea where it is. Two tombs are labelled M200 in Fig. 26, but I am confident that the one at the top right is actually M207. M78 through M80 are not shown on any map, and it is explained on p. 53 that these three tombs formed a cluster located in a small coll called "Four Tombs" (四座坟), situated about 1 km south of L6, and that two of the three have been destroyed. M78 (which may or may not be the surviving tomb) was excavated between 1972 and 1975. I am unsure of the precise location of M78 through M80, but have put a marker for them about 1 km south-west of L6, on the edge of the mountains.

On my map the nine imperial tombs are marked with red labels. Minor tombs that are visible in the satellite images are marked with blue labels, but where I cannot recognize a tomb with certainty, I mark its approximate position with a light blue label. Multiple tombs in a single tomb enclosure are marked by a single label. In total the positions of 206 minor tombs are labelled on the map.

Bronze ox excavated from Tomb M78

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

A similar bronze ox, excavated from Tomb M177, is on display at the Ningxia Museum.

Back to Today's Visit

It poured with rain all last night, and it is still lightly raining as we gather for the minibus outside our hotel. Our hotel is in the Xixia District in the west of Yinchuan, so it is less than 10 km to the tombs, but it still takes half an hour to get there. Like most Chinese tourist attractions, we are met by a vast expanse of concrete paving stones, and rows of tourist shops either side of the entrance to the "Western Xia Tombs Tourist Scenic Area".

Entrance ticket for the Western Xia Tombs Tourist Scenic Area

Reverse is a postcard

Balancing in the space in front of the entrance gate is a gigantic reproduction of a stele fragment with Tangut writing inscribed on it. A rather poor calligraphic copy of the original Tangut text in my opinion, but I reluctantly (and with a rather too obvious look of disdain on my face) allow myself to be photographed standing next to it.

Giant Reproduction of a Stele Fragment

(See below for the actual piece on display in the museum)

When we got through the entrance our first stop was the Xixia Museum (Xīxià Bówùguǎn 西夏博物馆)on the right. The area in front of the museum is paved with floor tiles inscribed with the Tangut character 𗾟 meaning 'vast' or 'broad', probably intended to correspond to the Chinese character 博 in the word 'museum'.

Tangut floor tiles

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

The museum houses many Western Xia artefacts and Tangut-inscribed objects, and I spent a good hour looking around the museum. Among the objects on display I found the actual stele fragment I had been standing next to half an hour ago.

Stele fragment with Tangut inscription

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Three joined fragments [98XL³XB:293+296+372] (31.0 × 25.5 cm.) which were excavated from Tomb L3 in 1998

In the museum foyer there is a reconstruction of Tomb L3, showing how the bare earth tomb mound that we see today is merely the core for what was a complex architectural structure made from bricks, tiles and wood. Personally I prefer the simplicity of the bare earth mound to the gaudy reconstruction.

Reconstruction of Tomb L3 in the Xixia Museum

Close-up of the main structure

So now we make our way to see the actual tomb L3, which is believed to be the final resting place of Li Yuanhao, first emperor of the Western Xia, who died in 1048, nearly a thousand years ago. It is a dreary day, and the outlook for photography looks quite bleak.

Approach to Tomb L3 on a dreary rainy day

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

The first structures we reach are the gate towers on either side of the start to the spirit road leading to the tomb. Architectural elements and roof ornaments associated with Buddhist stupas were excavated near to the towers, so in fact they may actually have been Buddhist stupas rather than gate towers.

West Gate Tower

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

East Gate Tower

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

These are some photographs I took in the Xixia Museum of glazed pottery kalaviṅka (jiālíngpínjiā 迦陵頻迦), capricorn (mójié 摩羯) and sea lion (hǎishī 海獅) roof ornaments (some reconstructed from fragments) that were excavated from Tomb L3 in 2001. More photographs I took of roof tiles and other objects excavated from Tomb L3 that are on display at the Xixia Museum are available on Wikimedia Commons.

Kalaviṅka excavated from Tomb L3

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Capricorn roof ornament excavated from Tomb L3

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Sea lion roof ornament excavated from Tomb L3

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Proceding northwards we next encounter two stele pavilions (now just raised platforms), one on either side of the spirit road. The steles, with epitaphs to the dead emperor written in Tangut and in Chinese, were all smashed to pieces by the Mongols, but a number of strange anthropomorphic stele bases, unique to Tangut culture, were discovered intact when the platforms were excavated in 1987. The steles would have provided concrete evidence for who the occupant of this tomb is, but unfortunately none of the excavated stele fragments give us any clues as to which emperor is buried here. Nevertheless, based on indirect evidence (such as that this is the third tomb, and the first two should be for the first emperor's father and grandfather), it is widely accepted that this is the tomb of the first emperor, Li Yuanhao, who reigned from 1038 to 1048.

Patterned tiles on the sloped path up to the East Stele Pavilion

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Close-up of a single tile

Four stele bases on the East Stele Pavilion

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Three stele bases were discovered intact in 1987, with a space for a missing fourth stele base on the right (east) side. The archaeological plan for the east stele platform shows that the four stele bases were originally evenly-spaced in a straight line, which is not the case now. The original bases are in museums now, and these are reproductions.

Patterned tiles on the sloped path up to the West Stele Pavilion

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Stele base on the West Stele Pavilion

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

There is only a single stele base on the west side, which was discovered during excavations during August to October 1998 according to a stone tablet at the site. I assume that this is a reproduction.

Stele base from Mausoleum 7 on display at the Ningxia Museum

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

50 m east of the east stele platform there is cage 50 m long, 3 m wide and 1.5 m high running parallel to the spirit road. Inside the cage are tens of thusands of roof tiles that were found surrounding the tomb mound. There is an identical cage full of roof tiles 50 m west of the west stele platform. The huge number of roof tiles found near the tomb mound is clear evidence that the tomb mound is the core of a structure that originally had extensive roofs and eaves.

Some of the roof tiles caged on the east side of the tomb complex

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Next we reach the remains of the outer enclosure or "moon city" that guards the main entrance to the tomb enclosure. On the east and west walls of the outer enclosure four lines of stone statues of officals, generals, auspicious beasts, and animals such as horses once stood guard, but they must have been all smashed to pieces as only fragments of stone horses and stone officials have been found. A few fragments are carefully laid out on the ground in illustration of the information placard.

Fragments of stone statues

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

And finally the tomb mound itself. Nothing more to say.

View of the tomb mound from on top of the fish-back ridge

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Tomb robber's pit in the foreground.

View of the tomb mound from the west

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

View of the tomb mound from the south-east

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

The holes in the side of the mound held the wooden outer structure.

In front of the tomb mound

An Early Return

There are two more imperial tombs open to tourists, L1 and L2, believed to have been built for the grandfather and father of Li Yuanhao. They are about 4 km south of L3, and are reached by an electric tour bus. But today, we are told, they cannot be visited because the rain over night has flooded the road. It is a great disappointment, which only becomes worse when we discover from our driver that the afternoon's planned excursion to see the twin pagodas at Baisikou, about 30 km to the north, has also had to be cancelled due to the road being flooded, or possibly even washed away by flash floods. It does not seem very plausible to me, but there is no convincing the driver, so we return early to Yinchuan.

Tomorrow I set off on an expedition to Khara-khoto, but if there is time when I come back to Yinchuan I will try to come here again to explore more tombs. I just hope the weather will be kinder for me if I do have the opportunity to come here again.



Ningxia | Tombs | Western Xia

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