A haunted place

The Yongling Museum is in a small park in the western part of Chengdu. It contains the tomb of Emperor Wang Jian (847-918) of the former Shu Kingdom during the Five Dynasties. It is the largest ground tomb ever discovered in China, and the only above-ground tomb of an emperor. On the grounds are two small exhibition buildings that display some of the treasures excavated from the tomb. The burial site was, I believe, once part of a much larger cemetery complex which has now disappeared, eaten up by the city.

I think that most of us want to believe that ancient places are haunted. When I visited the museum and park this past Monday, the minute I entered the grounds I noticed a distinct change in atmosphere. The yawning entrance to the crypt, partly submerged in the half-dome mound of a small hill, reminded me immediately of the feeling I used to get exploring old cemeteries, especially ones with brooding, ornate private mausoleums.

The mausoleum’s interior was stark and simple, a long barrel vault divided by arches into sections. This was the most ancient building I had visited in China. It had survived relatively undisturbed for about 1,100 years, until its excavation in the late 1940s. The place had a musty, cave-like atmosphere, and was made slightly claustrophobic by the immense stone platform in the center which had once supported the emperor’s coffin, long since rotted away.

One of the remarkable things about this great sculptural work is a series of carvings depicting female members of an entire classical Chinese orchestra of the period. They are rare and exquisite depictions of the musical life of a long-lost time. I made a circuit of the interior, wishing that the walls hadn’t been adorned with blown-up display photos of the sculptures, making the tomb look more like a department store interior than a burial place.

Walking around the outside of the tomb and through the gardens, I began to feel a distinct “something,” whether a presence or just a charged atmosphere I don’t know. There was a heaviness to the air and a sense of fleeting shadows just beyond my vision. I listened to and felt the silence intensely, as the distant traffic sounds faded away. I looked up and saw three tall trees pointing to the sky like a trio of spiritual antennae. Suddenly, the silence was shattered by the sounds of air-raid sirens. Confused, I watched for reactions from people, but nothing happened. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that my students told me that Monday’s date, September 18, had been the anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The sirens sounded for one hour to mark the event.

As I left the complex, there were a couple of large tour groups arriving, so I retreated quickly. I will return again one of these days, to see if the atmosphere feels the same.

The teaching week is going well. I’m turning over more of the activity to my students. There were long stretches of quiet while they wrote, or talked softy in groups. I enjoyed the atmosphere, but I wondered if it began to get boring for the students. As long as I felt intense concentration going one, I wasn’t worried. This week is about generating ideas, and developing powers of observation and description.

The Foreign Teachers had a field trip yesterday evening to the Shunxing Tea House, where we enjoyed dinner and a variety show of traditional Chinese entertainment. It included an extract from Sichuan opera, with its amazing art of changing face masks in the blink of an eye.

Photos from Yongling Museum and gardens


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