Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Is this the tomb of China's most notorious villain...or just an overhyped tourist trap?


In the Chinese province of Henan, a ramp leads to a recently discovered tomb that has been connected to Cao Cao, a third-century warlord renowned for his ruthlessness and cunning. The announcement in late 2009 of the discovery led to a firestorm of criticism—with local officials and archaeologists accused of over-interpretation and outright fabrication. (Photo: Courtesy Pan Weibin, Henan Provincial Archaeology Institute)

Atop what can barely be called a hill on the outskirts of Xigaoxue (she-gow-shway) village, a wide avenue cuts into the dirt at a steep angle. At the bottom, a soldier slowly takes on the orange-brown color of the soil in this part of Henan, a province that follows China's Yellow River north and east to the Bohai Sea. He leans drowsily on a white metal grate propped in front of a small archway. Together, they are the last defense against any outsider who makes it past the perimeter fence. Behind him, if one believes local officials, is the tomb of one of China's greatest and most reviled historical figures—Cao Cao (A.D. 155220), the Han Dynasty general and warlord, known to most Chinese people as the villain of the 14th-century epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Tang Jigen, an archaeologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, strolls down as if he has always belonged here. Stocky and lightly tanned, he has a roguish but intellectual demeanor—an empiricist with dirty fingernails. Tang is a celebrity here. At his approach the guard springs to life, calling out for another to help him move the grate and shouting for someone to turn on the generator that powers the lights. They make way for the man who sees himself as Cao Cao's true defender.

The tomb consists of two main chambers separated by an arched doorway and flanked by smaller side rooms. At 8,000 square feet, the tomb covers the area of a baseball infield, but it seems modest and oddly cramped for someone of imperial rank. Tang looks around at the bare walls, gaps where stones are missing from the floor, and the gaping hole blown in the ceiling by tomb raiders a few years ago. "History has not been kind to Cao Cao," he says, shaking his head.

Tang has done me a favor by bringing me here, bundling me in with a group of visitors from other departments at the Academy of Social Sciences. The discovery—"alleged" discovery, that is—of Cao Cao's final resting place is one of the most disputed archaeological findings in China's recent history, revealing a popular distrust of the local government institutions tasked with overseeing the country's archaeology. As arguments have flared for months, the tomb also highlights a challenge all archaeologists in China face—reconciling material culture with the country's deep and beloved written archive.


Chinese journalists descend on Henan for the live excavation of a nearby tomb. The banner identifies the spot as "Cao Cao's Mausoleum" and "One of the ten biggest archaeological finds of 2009." (Photo: Courtesy Pan Weibin, Henan Provincial Archaeology Institute)

Cao Cao is more than just a historical figure—he's a cultural phenomenon. Though characterized as a villain, he has a place in the heart of every Chinese child, history buff, and book lover. "Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao appears" is the Chinese equivalent of "Speak of the devil." In Romance, the self-styled emperor comes off as a ruthless and canny strategist, demonically intent on carving out a piece of the failing Han Dynasty for himself. With fine Machiavellian flair, he betrays friends and manipulates emperors—his military campaigns eventually unite most of northern China. "Since it is full of stories about political and military strategy, Romance is popular in the circle of business management in China, Japan, and Korea," says Xu Datong, a Nanjing historian who also runs programs for the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center in Arizona. Over the centuries, Cao Cao has been the subject of countless folktales and Chinese operas, where his characteristic mask is usually drawn with heavy brows and a sinister white face. He has also found a place in comic books, video games, and fan-written fiction for his strategic acumen and ambition. And he is the villain of Red Cliff, action maestro John Woo's two-part, four-hour epic film, which in 2008 shattered Chinese box office records once held by Titanic.

Cao Cao's story has been retold and reinvented many times, and even his tomb has figured in the lore. "There have been lots of things written about Cao's tomb in historical literature," says Xu. "Romance itself says that he ordered 72 [false] tombs to prevent someone discovering his real tomb after his death." According to some historical records, Xu adds, Cao Cao had reason to fear—he himself was known to rob wealthy tombs to support and reward his troops.

Lauren Hilgers is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.