Of tombs, traps and the intrepid

Updated: 2012-08-03 07:57

By Duncan Poupard (China Daily)

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 Of tombs, traps and the intrepid

The Luoyang shovel allows users to extract a long section of earth while preserving the soil structure. Zhang Xiaoli / For China Daily

The secret language of grave robbing stories

Archaeology is mostly about taking soil samples. At its most exciting, it involves poking about in a wet ditch looking for bits of broken pottery. But don't despair just yet, for there is a black sheep in the extended archaeological family: grave robbery.

Conducted under the cover of darkness, grave robbery is a dirty (both spiritually and physically) and highly illegal profession. Yet it has become wildly popular in China, thanks to a couple of pulp serials: Grave Robbers' Chronicles (《盗墓笔记》Dàomù bǐjì) and Ghost Blows Out the Light

(《鬼吹灯》Guǐ chuīdēng). Published over the past decade, these adventure-horror series have quickly become known as the Indiana Jones stories of China - only with fewer fedoras and bullwhips, and more Mao caps and feng shui compasses.

The link with archaeology remains, however: Chinese grave robbers like to refer to themselves in polite company as "hobbyist archaeologists" or kaoguxue aihaozhe (考古学爱好者).

The Chestertonian paradox that thieves have a great respect for private property has never been more true than for grave robbers. These are people who pride themselves on liberating long-forgotten treasures, be it for public good or personal gain.

Grave robbers also learn to respect the inhabitants of the tombs, and the treasures that they contain, for not to do so can lead to unpleasantness. It is said that grave robbers from a certain tradition have a custom of lighting a candle in the southeast corner of a tomb upon entering. If the candle is extinguished, it means that the spirits within do not welcome the intrusion, and the grave robbers are obliged to leave empty-handed - hence the title of the book: Ghost Blows Out the Light.

Grave robbers' parlance

Chinese authorities estimate that as many as 100,000 grave robbers could be roaming the country, searching for ancient tombs to pilfer. Naturally, an illicit subculture of this size has its own argot, not unlike medieval thieves' cant.

Though the following vocabulary has been adapted from the aforementioned novels, a hobby archaeologist friend confirms that the language is used in the actual communities.

As with all sexy black market terminology, the grave robbers' parlance was essentially designed to obfuscate potentially incriminating details: valuable scrolls of calligraphy or paintings are nonchalantly referred to as "paper" (纸儿 zhǐr), while precious jade artefacts are simply "stones" (石头 shítóu).

Grave robbers themselves call their profession daodou (倒斗), or "emptying the ladle", because a tomb resembles the shape of an inverted ladle.

The novels are supposedly written by ex-grave robbers, and the narrative conceit is that they are true tales (or at most lightly embellished stories) of their exploits. It is important to separate fact from fiction. In the books there are plenty of supernatural goings-on.

In ancient China, people believed that death was merely the end of the physical body, and that the spirit lived on. Grave robbers have stories of the inhabitants of the tombs - the corpses - springing to life and chasing after intruders, driven by a blind hunger for the very breath of the living, the invaluable life force known as yangqi (阳气).

Naturally, there are words to classify different kinds of corpses in varying stages of decay. Fleshy, well-preserved corpses are named after the sticky triangular rice cakes known as zongzi (粽子), probably because naming corpses after a tasty snack of gloopy rice, itself embalmed in leaves of bamboo, is quite a delicious irony.

Decayed corpses that are little more than piles of bone are gan zongzi (干粽子) or "dry zongzi", while rou zongzi (肉粽子), "meaty zongzi" refers to corpses that are adorned with valuables. What all grave robbers wish to avoid are the da zongzi (大粽子), the "big zongzi", which are the re-animated corpses out for blood, breath and brains.

Tools and traps

Information that may be of use during those unfortunate moments in life when one finds oneself trapped 10 feet underground in the antechamber of a labyrinthine Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) mausoleum.

Luoyang shovel (洛阳铲 luòyáng chǎn) : Invented in 1923 by a grave robber from Luoyang, the shovel is the one article of archaeological equipment that no self-respecting grave robber should be without. A U-shaped cylinder some two inches in diameter, the Luoyang shovel allows the user to extract a long section of earth while preserving the soil structure. Thus the grave robber can analyze the soil for any evidence of underground structures.

Where there are grave robbers, there are countermeasures, which most commonly take the form of traps designed to catch intruders unawares. A few of the most common are:

Crossbow trap (暗弩 ànnǔ): The bread and butter of tomb-based anti-theft devices, the crossbow trap is triggered by tripping a cord or stepping on a mechanism that shoots a crossbow bolt from a hidden alcove. Legend has it that the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, is rife with crossbow traps.

Sand trap (流沙 liúshā) : In fiction, the sand trap involves a complex mechanism that, when triggered, drops a heap of sand on the unsuspecting intruder from above, thus burying them alive. In reality, tombs have been discovered in which the entire burial chamber is filled with fine sand.

Revolving floor panel (连环翻板 liánhuán fānbǎn): A favorite device in grave-robbing fiction, the revolving floor panel is a wooden floor board that covers a pit some 3 meters deep. The board is designed to give way when pressure is applied, before returning to its original position. The unfortunate trespasser is cast into the pit below, where sharp spears or wooden stakes await.

Grave robbers' mantra

The techniques of grave robbing can be summed up with the four-character mantra: 望闻问切 (wàng wén wèn qiè), "look, smell, ask and feel". The same four-character formula (with understandably different explanations) is used in Chinese medicine as a method of diagnosis.

Look (望 wàng) means practicing feng shui, or examining the layout of the landscape (according to things like geographical features and cardinal directions) to locate the most auspicious spot where a tomb is likely to be located. Experts in this art can find the locations or hunt down tombs simply by taking a close look at the terrain.

Smell (闻 wén) is the art of using one's nose to smell the surface soil above a tomb to determine its age and whether or not the grave has already been robbed. It is said that the most skilled in this art can detect slight differences in odor between the earth excavated from tombs of the Han and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties.

Ask (问 wèn) is the method of casing an area by talking to the locals, especially the elderly, and finding out information about the location of nearby tombs, and the wealth of those buried therein. Grave robbers skilled in this technique normally dress like a wandering feng shui master, and are blessed with the gift of the gab.

Feel (切 qiè) is the art of finding the quickest and most direct route from the surface to the coffin chamber. It also entails finding the most valuable items in the tomb by opening the coffin and examining the corpse, including its various bodily orifices (corpses of female nobility often contained precious jade in the mouth cavity).

Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchinese.com

The World of Chinese

(China Daily 08/03/2012 page19)