Tucked away in the vast expanses of Xi’an’s lands lie tombs that tell tales of opulence, power, and a unique connection between humanity and nature. With the recent unearthing of Emperor Wen of Han’s Baling Tomb, the world now stands witness to a stunning testament of China‘s rich past. Highlighting the bond between the living and the deceased, and the depiction of an entire ecosystem through the entombed creatures, these tombs offer fascinating insights into the royal gardens of the Western Han Dynasty.
Unearthing China’s Majestic Past
December 14, 2021, marked a pivotal moment in the annals of archaeological history. The unveiling of the true location of the Baling Tomb – a debate that spanned seven centuries – offered more than just closure to historians and archaeologists. It revealed a rich tapestry of life from an era gone by, a world filled with animals that once roamed China’s landscapes, and some that perhaps tread its grounds only in the confines of royal gardens.
The tombs, with their vast expanse, stand as silent sentinels guarding the legacies of emperors and empresses. Their proximity to each other – the tomb of Empress Dou, the Nanling Tomb of Empress Bo, and the previously mistaken site at Fenghuangzui – hint at a central heartland of power, echoing the might of the Western Han Dynasty. The artifacts, ranging from pottery and ironware to gold and silver objects, serve as silent testimonies to a bygone era’s artistic and cultural zenith.
But perhaps the most intriguing of all are the sacrificial pits. With the remains of animals like horses, sheep, pigs, and even rare wild creatures such as tigers, yaks, and Indian bison, the pits offer a glimpse into the biodiversity of the time. Notably, the Malayan tapir, now extinct in China, was found here, its presence connecting dots with mentions from various historical texts and relics, and shedding light on its existence in northern China during the Han Dynasty.
Echoes from a Lush Garden
The animal remains unearthed beckon one to imagine the royal gardens of the Western Han Dynasty. Unlike anything seen before, these buried animals weren’t just for ritualistic purposes. They symbolized the intricate relationship between humans, especially the royalty, and nature. They offer clues to the extensive gardens mentioned in historical texts, bringing to life ancient literature’s pages.
The presence of animals like Malayan tapirs and Indian bison speaks volumes about the time’s climatic conditions. It hints at a period marked by warmth and humidity, providing a natural habitat for a myriad of creatures. The range of animals, from tigers and giant pandas to roe deer, points to a biodiverse ecosystem, painting a picture of China’s earliest opulent royal botanical garden.
Some of these animals, no longer seen in the region, trace their absence to various ecological changes, human interventions, and climate fluctuations. The findings also address a long-standing academic debate, reinforcing the distinctiveness of the tapirs and giant pandas during the Western Han Dynasty.
“The close association between royalty and the animals, especially Emperor Wen’s fondness for hunting, gives an intimate look into personal predilections and choices,” remarks renowned historian Liu Xiang. “It’s not just about the animals; it’s about understanding the pulse of an era.“
Treating the Dead as the Living
Deeply rooted in Chinese culture, the concept of providing the deceased with amenities they enjoyed in their life reaffirms beliefs in afterlife continuity. This practice, especially prevalent after the Qin Dynasty and during the Western Han Dynasty, sought to bridge the divide between life and death. The rare animals buried alongside the emperors and empresses echoed their significance in royal lives. Whether as part of their gardens or their hunting expeditions, these animals played crucial roles.
Moreover, the discovery has expanded the horizons for comparative studies, offering a treasure trove of specimens from extinct animal species. For museums worldwide, these findings are a boon, enriching their exhibits and allowing visitors to journey back in time.
As the sun sets over the Bailu Plain, it casts a golden hue over the tombs, seemingly connecting the past with the present. The tombs and the treasures they house – especially the rare beasts from the royal gardens – serve as a poignant reminder of China’s illustrious history, waiting to be explored, understood, and appreciated. The silent garden of the Han Dynasty, once echoing with the sounds of life, now resonates with stories and secrets, whispering tales of a time when humans, in all their imperial might, stood in awe of nature.
Source: China Social Sciences Network
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