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Zhaoling Mausoleum

Located some 30 km northwest of Xianyang in Shaanxi Province, Zhaoling Mausoleum was built in 636 AD, following the death of Empress Wende. When construction on the mausoleum began, Emperor Li Shimin ordered six steeds be sculpted, name Sa Luzi, Quan Maogua, Shi Fachi, Bai Tiwu, Te Qinpiao, and Qing Zhui, in memory of the six horses, which served him in wars. Emperor Li loved these steeds very much because they had been with him fighting through numerous wars and had won decisive victories in the establishment of the Tang Dynasty. The stone horses were carved in various postures and look strong and vigorous.

These stone horses, in the relief sculpture style of Buddhist artisan, carved on six stone screens, each 2 meters wide and 1.5 meters high, with skillful technique and simple style to create liveliness, are of great artistic value. The ancient relics drew great attention, not only from archaeologists and artists, but also from thieves and robbers. In 1914, an American stole and shipped two of the six stone horses, Sa Luzi and Quan Maogua, to the United States, which are now kept in the Museum of Pennsylvania University.

In 1918, American thieves also took the remaining four stone horses. However, they didn't go very far. The relics were reclaimed just as they were about to be shipped abroad. The treasures were sent back and have been kept in Xi'an Beilin Museum. To transport the horses more easily, the robbers broke them into pieces first, and some pieces were apparently left on the spot. In 636, after Empress Wende died, Li Shimin chose Mount jiuzong as the site to build a mountain-like mausoleum. The construction of Zhaoling Mausoleum continued until 649 when Emperor Li Shimin died. The Tomb took him 13 years to complete.

Among the 18 imperial tombs of the Tang Dynasty in Central Shaanxi, where the dynasty's capital area used to be, Zhaoling is the largest. The site reveals that a new method had been developed to use a hill as tomb site for dead imperial members in the Tang Dynasty. Taking a hill as a tomb site means choosing a natural peak of a mountain, chiseling a hole from the outside at the foot of the mountain to make a tunnel leading into the underground palace where the dead bodies were placed.

Zhaoling Mausoleum is some 60 km in circumference, encompassing 20,000 hectares and surrounded by 167 satellite tombs, Emperor Li Shimin's resting palace is located in the northern Xi'an looking down at the other tombs from the peak. There used to be a large number of buildings in the Tomb, which have gradually disappeared. The only things left are a few remains like the scarlet-bird gate, sacrificial hall, sacrificial altar and sima gate, which have become present-day tourist attractions. The bas-relief sculpture stone horses were originally placed at the sacrificial altar and the archaeologists discovered the parts of the stone horses outside the ancient sacrificial altar and sima gate. Because the stone horses were broken into pieces, the arrows originally engraved on the horses are not clear, and the words of praise by Emperor Li Shimin and the horses' names cannot be seen easily.

Fortunately the grave stones erected by You Shixiong, a well known literati and general in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) remain intact, which tell us the details of the relief sculpture, the names, the hair features and the deeds of the six horses engraved on the stones using a line drawing technique, and the message of praise written by Emperor Li Shimin for the horses. It was traditional to install steles in front of tombs and put epitaphs in the coffin chambers during the Tang Dynasty, so there are steles in front of most Zhaoling tombs each with an epitaph in almost every coffin chamber. These steles provide not only valuable material objects for Chinese calligraphy study, but also rare written data for further research in the Tang Dynasty.

Aside from the world famous sic stone horses, the most important ancient relics discovered in Zhaoling are the pottery figurines. Large in number and rich in variety, these stones, wooden and pottery figurines carrying colorful paint and glaze provide valuable information for the study of Tang culture and art.

The Tang Dynasty was one of the most significant and prosperous of feudal societies in feudal China and Emperor Li Shimin was considered one of the most capable and able-minded emperors in Chinese history. Therefore, Zhaoling is regarded as the best-known mausoleum under heaven. In 1961, the State Council claimed it to be one of the most important historical monuments maintained under state protection, and Zhaoling Museum was built at the same time to house the unearthed ancient relics from the cemetery.

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