HONG KONG - The warlords Cao Cao and Liu Bei were fierce rivals in life, with
their exploits vividly described in the classic historical novel Romance of the
Three Kingdoms, one of the most revered classical novels in Chinese
literature. Now, 1,800 years later, that rivalry has been renewed in death.
In a game of archaeological one-upmanship, two teams of tomb warriors claiming
to have found the burial sites of the legendary generals are battling it out in
the Chinese media to gain official recognition for their claims. So far,
neither party has been successful and, indeed, both are possible perpetrators
Truth and authenticity, however, are besides the point in this battle;
publicity, false or not, is the weapon of choice, and with
increased tourism revenue for the reward for the winner's province, along with
public financing for new infrastructure that local officials say is needed to
support the expected flood of visitors to such an important historical site. So
it is no wonder that authorities in Henan and Sichuan provinces are pulling out
all stops to stake their claims to the final resting places of Cao Cao and Liu
On December 27, archaeologists created a huge media splash with their
announcement in Beijing that the grave of Cao Cao (AD 155-220), founder of the
prosperous Wei empire during the Three Kingdoms period, had been discovered in
Xigaoxue village near the city of Anyang in Henan.
Chen Ailan, director of the Henan cultural heritage administration, assured the
public that the tomb, found near the former Wei capital of Luoyang, had been
confirmed as Cao Cao's. On the surface, the evidence was persuasive.
The tomb's size - 740 square meters - certainly befits a king, and the more
than 250 items - including gold, silver and pottery - found there also indicate
a royal presence. Moreover, of the 59 engraved stone plates that archaeologists
discovered, each of which logged names and quantities of interred items, seven
identified weapons "used by the king of Wei".
Finally, in case any skeptics remained, archaeologists revealed that they had
unearthed the human bones of three people, two women and a male in his sixties;
Cao Cao is thought to have died at the age of 65.
Thus - or so it seemed - the case was closed, and all that was left was an
official stamp of approval followed by a rush of tourists, flush with cash and
eager to spend, who would descend upon Anyang to gawk at Cao Cao's crypt.
"Not so fast!" cried a dissenting chorus of scholars - from archaeologists and
anthropologists to historians and professors of classical literature. They
pointed out that the tomb has been raided several times since excavation began,
so what has been found there could easily have been faked and planted.
A professor who specializes in Wei literature, Yuan Jixi, added that the site
of the tomb does not correspond to historical records and ancient texts
recording Cao Cao's life and death.
Turning the dispute toward farce, scientists at Fudan University in Shanghai
have offered to verify the authenticity of the tomb by testing the DNA of all
Cao Cao's potential modern offspring who still live in and around Anyang. But
DNA found at the tomb at this point is likely to be contaminated. Even if it
were not, wouldn't such verification prove only that the sexagenarian buried
there was a member of the Cao clan but not necessarily Cao Cao himself?
But don't ask silly questions when the serious business of tourism revenue is
Villagers in Sichuan's Pengshan county appeared to understand that point when,
a month after Henan officials put in their claim for Cao Cao's grave, they
filed their own for Liu's burial site. While their case may have even less
authority than Henan's, at least their general was a more likable guy.
"Speak of Cao Cao and he appears" goes the Chinese proverb. That may explain
how the warlord turned up in a tomb in Anyang, but it also reveals the Chinese
perception of him as a sinister character, as in the English saying, "Speak of
A chancellor in the Eastern Han dynasty who went on to form his own state, Cao
Cao was by most accounts a brilliant military and political strategist. In Romance
of the Three Kingdoms, however, the epic's author, Luo Guanzhong,
fictionalizes some of the events of Cao's Cao's life, turning him into a cruel
tyrant and villain.
On the other hand, Liu (AD161-223), who established the state of Shu Han, a
rival of Wei, is portrayed as a kind-hearted ruler and is one of the heroes of
the novel, subject of countless film and television costume dramas that have
made its characters well-known figures in China's popular culture.
Perhaps the Pengshan villagers calling for an excavation team to be sent to
their village were banking on Liu's reputation for benevolence to trump Cao
Cao's legendary ruthlessness when they filed their petition with the State
Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Sichuan Bureau of Cultural Relics,
reviving a feud between scholars in the municipality of Chongqing and the
Sichuan capital of Chengdu over the location of Liu's grave. Even if an
archaeological team never visits the villagers, they may find a few tourists
come their way.
The battle for tourism revenue does not stop with rival generals whose lives
are romanticized in Chinese literature and the mass media. There are also
dueling claims for the birthplace of Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, with both the
Sichuan city of Jiangyou and the Hubei city of Anlu calling themselves Li's
hometown. The Jiangyou government has gone as far as to register a trademark
designating the city as Li's birthplace, prompting Anlu to launch an
advertisement on China Central Television boasting that it is where the poet
Among modern figures, China's biggest source of tourism income is, hands down,
Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China. Mao's cult-like image as
the Great Helmsman of Chinese politics may have dimmed since his death in 1976,
but he remains a cash cow for his native province of Hunan. Shaoshan village,
his birthplace, rakes in millions of dollars a year selling souvenirs to
tourists making pilgrimages to honor the late chairman, and the Hunan
Provincial Tourism Bureau has proposed that Mao's birthday, December 26, be
declared a national holiday to allow more pilgrims to visit the province.
Many patriots have welcomed the idea, especially merchants in Hunan. But
perhaps provincial authorities went too far last month when they decreed that
Mao's favorite dish, known as "Chairman Mao's Pork", could not be considered
authentic unless it contained pork belly specifically from Hunan's Ningxiang
Then again, maybe that outcome should have been expected after Ningxiang’s pigs
were last year granted special protective status by the State Administration
for Industry and Commerce. That came after Shaoshan villagers touted Mao's
favorite dish as a weapon that "built his brain" and helped him defeat
Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and unite China following decades of civil
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at