Thieves plunder tombs in China as demand for antiquities rises

The interior of a nearly 1,800-year-old tomb believed to belong to the legendary Cao Cao in central Henan, near the city of Anyang, where he ruled the Kingdom of Wei from 208 to 220.
The interior of a nearly 1,800-year-old tomb believed to belong to the legendary Cao Cao in central Henan, near the city of Anyang, where he ruled the Kingdom of Wei from 208 to 220.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BAOLING VILLAGE (China) • The ancient practice of grave robbing has made a comeback as the global demand for Chinese antiquities has surged. With prices for some Chinese antiquities reaching into the tens of millions of dollars, a flood of thieves looking to get rich quick has hit China's countryside.

While accurate figures are difficult to come by, the looting has resulted in the permanent destruction of numerous Chinese cultural heritage sites. Last year, China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage reported 103 tomb-raiding and cultural relic theft cases.

Experts believe many more cases have gone undetected. Between ancient and modern thieves, they say, up to eight out of every 10 tombs in China have been plundered.

Provinces rich in cultural heritage like Henan have been especially hard hit. "Henan has pretty much been emptied," said Mr Ni Fangliu, author of several popular books about tomb raiding. "There's nothing left to steal."

China, under President Xi Jinping, has shown a growing desire to embrace traditional culture. The government, which asserts ownership over all ancient tombs and underground cultural relics, has sought to combat the tomb-robbing problem through lawmaking, increased surveillance and monetary rewards for people who turn in relics.

But officials say the problem is so pervasive it has become nearly impossible to eliminate.

For over 3,000 years, Chinese rulers and aristocrats adhered to elaborate funerary rituals, including burying the dead with objects to use in the afterlife. Depending on the era, and the rank and wealth of the deceased, the burial goods could include valuables from jade discs and bronze vessels to lacquer boxes and glazed pottery figurines.

Along the way, many Chinese, buoyed by rising incomes, developed a new appreciation for relics.

Experts say fully resolving the problem will come down to the people at the other end of the looting chain. "No one would risk their life to loot a tomb if there wasn't a market for the stuff," said University of Glasgow archaeologist Donna Yates.

For tomb robbers, the appeal is clear. Mr Ni said: "One nice bronze from the Qin or Han dynasty can buy you a big house."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Thieves plunder tombs in China as demand for antiquities rises'. Print Edition | Subscribe