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The History Thieves

It's a game of cops and grave robbers as law enforcement struggles to break the chain of looting, trafficking and selling antiquities that is trampling on cultural preservation efforts

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

There is a joke in China that modern-day tomb robbers are busier than archaeologists. The latest generation of Chinese tomb raiders, driven by lucrative profits, has been on a rampage of destruction and looting. They target parts of the country known for ancient civilizations or dynastic capitals which are littered with old tombs and grave sites, many unexplored. They funnel their booty into an eager global black market that gobbles up antiquities.  

According to statistics from the National Cultural Heritage Administration, more than 200 cases of theft from tombs were reported to the agency from across China since 2019. The perpetrators are increasingly professional, inconspicuous and tech savvy. They have raided and ransacked important tombs and mausoleums in the provinces of Henan, Zhejiang and Hubei over the past years. 

The looters deploy smart technologies and sophisticated gadgets including telescopes, infrared night-vision devices and metal detectors and an illegal chain including excavation, transportation, sheltering and sales has formed. It takes only a few days for rare and precious antiquities to be unearthed, transported and smuggled out of China.
Feng Shui Felons
Tomb robbery starts with discovering the accurate location of a tomb, followed by excavation and clearing which requires special expertise and skills. In most cases, locating the exact position of a target tomb is the most difficult job. The robbers often have very accurate positioning of the target tombs, police said. 

Wu Ya, deputy head of the Criminal Police Detachment of Huainan Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Anhui Province, told NewsChina that police officers discovered tomb raiders use old county annals in which detailed locations of tombs are noted. They also use antique atlases which specify the longitude and latitude of tombs. Some tomb raiders are good at astrology and feng shui, an ancient superstition that advocates living in harmony with the natural world, that continues to be used today to find the perfect location for a burial site. 

In 2018, Huainan police arrested 19 people suspected of looting the ancient Wuwangdun Tomb where Wu Wang, founder of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) was buried. The tomb is 16 meters tall, occupying a space of 5,840 square meters. The gang, who used explosives to access the tomb, was helped by Xia Yuzhen, from Qixian County, Henan Province. Xia, a mastermind behind many tomb heists, was the technical adviser to the robbers due to his adroit tomb detection expertise, using feng shui, probe measurement and knowledge of the positioning of coffin chambers. The tomb was first looted in 2015, with the robbers returning twice for more artifacts. The haul included bronze tigers and bronze chimes.  

Zhu Fenghan, a professor at the History Department of Peking University, told NewsChina that ancient tombs were located in what was considered an ideal place according to feng shui principles, such as adjoining mountains or rivers.  

Today’s tomb robbers use sophisticated devices such as detonators, homemade explosives, elevators, infrared night vision devices and intercoms. Huang Shengzhong, head of the Criminal Police Detachment of Huainan PSB, told our reporter that after accumulating enough information and doing reconnaissance, tomb raiders would set up hidden cameras to reconnoiter ahead of their operation.  

Yang Yong, head of the Criminal Investigation Brigade of Xiejiaji District PSB in Huainan, said that when he first joined the force in the 1990s, tomb raiders would wait for a thunderstorm to cover the sound of explosives. At that time, they dug with shovels so it took one or two months for a tomb to be excavated. Now it only takes a few days.  

In October 2018, Huainan police learned that the gang that raided Wuwangdun Tomb were targeting the tomb of Lian Po, a prominent general from the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). Police sent more than 80 officers to the provinces of Henan, Shandong and Shanxi to track down suspects. Police eventually nabbed 16 unskilled diggers, three liaisons, one technician, one salesman and three investors, eradicating an entire chain of tomb robbery in the region. 

Huang Shengzhong, head of the Criminal Police Detachment of Huainan PSB, is experienced in combating cultural relic crimes. He told our reporter that the provinces of Henan, Shaanxi and Shanxi, which lie in the Yellow River basin, a cradle of ancient Chinese civilization, are most prone to tomb robbery due to the abundance of cultural relics. Perpetrators have become increasingly professional and act as a gang.  

“They form an acquaintance network and keep in touch across the country,” he told NewsChina. “After the specific location of a tomb is discovered, several gangs usually show up.” 

In early 2019, 15 tomb robbery gangs who excavated Taosi North Cemetery in Shanxi Province were eliminated, with 138 criminals arrested and 215 artifacts recovered, including several first-class ones. More than 7 million yuan (US$1m) in assets were frozen and 144 vehicles seized. 

Han Zhihui, head of the Linfen Investigation Center of Cultural Relic Crimes under the Shanxi Provincial Public Security Department, told NewsChina that these gangs have distinct levels and clear divisions of labor. People working in different levels do not know each other. Police officers told our reporter that liaisons, who have wide connections, play a key role in the hierarchy of gangs. 

“If they discover artifacts in a tomb, the diggers immediately leave, and specialists in cultural relic identification clear out the pit,” he said.
Career Criminals
In 2015, Chaoyang PSB in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province cracked the biggest tomb robbery case since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. At least 12 criminal gangs were taken down, 225 suspects were arrested and 2,063 artifacts were recovered that were stolen from the Hongshan cultural relics protection region. Experts estimated that the auction value of the artifacts, which included jade, ceramics and gold and silver objects, was 500 million yuan (US$76m). 

The stolen artifacts included jade pig dragons, jade pendants and U-shaped jade hoops dating from the Neolithic Age to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The biggest gang was led by a man called Yao Yuzhong from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, a career tomb raider for more than 30 years. It was said he used the stars and a compass to locate graves. Yao’s downfall was apparently his love of gambling, and he attracted attention when he tried to pay his debts with antiquities. Found guilty of offenses including looting, tomb raiding and selling stolen antiquities, Yao was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Several other gang members received life sentences, including Yao’s brother. Four government employees, including an excavation technologist and an anthropologist, were prosecuted for colluding with the robbers.  

Once unearthed, artifacts are passed through certified antique experts and shops who fence the looted products. Han Zhihui told our reporter that in most cases the diggers work the hardest but gain the least. They might only get a few hundred yuan for unearthing a tomb, with more if precious antiques are discovered. 

When suspects in tomb thefts are prosecuted, the diggers, most of whom are just local farmers, face the same charges as the masterminds, Han said. According to China’s Criminal Law, tomb robbers are normally sentenced to five years in prison. Most diggers are not even aware they have perpetrated a crime. 

“They are the cheapest link in the tomb robbery machine, but if they’re arrested, they still face the highest penalty,” he said. “Stolen antiques are often sold instantly, and they change hands many times within a short time.”  

According to Huainan PSB, a pair of bronze tigers stolen from Wuwangdun Tomb sold for 20 million yuan (US$3m) on the black market, and then resold for more than 100 million yuan (US$15m). Many tomb robbers live on the business and a jail sentence is not much of a deterrent. They often go straight back to tomb robbing after their release.  

Shen Jun, head of the Criminal Investigation Brigade of the Shou County Public Security Bureau of Huainan, told our reporter that although law enforcement agencies have been taking down tomb robbing gangs, the crime remains rampant. The prospect of overnight wealth is too tempting for impoverished farmers. Some veteran tomb robbers feel they are highly skilled and do not want to waste their talents. “It has formed a vicious circle now,” Shen said. 

According to the Criminal Investigation Corps of the Shanxi Provincial Public Security Department, severing the illegal trade links of cultural relic crimes is a priority. Police officers are putting a lot of resources into chasing down fugitives, recovering stolen antiquities and illicit money and trying to destroy the protection umbrella that allows the gangs to operate with impunity.

Police in Changde, Hunan Province display equipment used by suspects in a cross-provincial tomb robbery case, March 2014

Wrecked Relics
According to Wang Jingyan, an associate researcher with the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, Taosi North Cemetery in Shanxi has roughly 10,000 tombs. Some 250 have been excavated including 19 major ones, but half were targeted by thieves, mainly in 2013. For archaeologists, it is distressing when ancient tombs are destroyed. “Because of the serious theft, we began rescue excavations in 2014,” he said. 

Yang Bin, a former photographer and owner of a clothes shop, taught himself archeology and became an expert in antique authentication. He was the main perpetrator in the high-profile robbery of the Jingling Mausoleum in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province in 2005, which had not been excavated. The tomb dates from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and after the robbery, it was discovered it belonged to Wu Huifei, a royal concubine. Yang had a hard disk of photos taken during the crime and of the antiquities he obtained and sold. Many of them are more precious than those held in museum collections. The most precious artifact he stole was Wu’s sarcophagus, which weighed 27 tons. It was cut into 31 pieces and sold to a buyer in the US for US$1 million. On February 13, 2006, Xi’an police cracked the tomb robbery case and arrested the gang, as well as Yang, who was trying to flee to Hong Kong. Between 2004 and 2005, Yang’s group of more than 20 people looted Jingling Mausoleum six times, and his photos helped provide the evidence to convict them. In 2007, Yang was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. The sarcophagus was tracked down and after negotiations, was returned to Xi’an in 2010 and displayed at Shaanxi History Museum.  

Shi Xiaoqun, former director of the Antique Collection Department of the museum, was taken aback when he saw the sarcophagus for the first time. “It’s not a simple stone coffin like those we’ve unearthed before. The white foundation on the convex and concave areas has a three-dimensional effect which is quite magnificent,” he said. 

Li Wen (pseudonym), a cultural relic expert in Shanxi Province, told NewsChina that tomb robbery has caused huge damage to antiquities which are unique and closely related to local history and culture. For example, the Jiuwutou Tomb site in Wenxi County, Yuncheng City was raided in 2015 by a gang who used explosives and probe poles to create holes in the graves. Many artifacts were looted or destroyed. Subsequently, archaeologists conducted a thorough excavation of the site, which dates from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). Many artifacts were unearthed, giving an insight into the lives and culture of early Yellow River civilizations, but the robbers also destroyed historical information, making it hard for archaeologists to trace the specific history. 

“Cultural relics are not solitary objects. A complete tomb often contains bronze ware, jade items, pottery and gold and silver ware which can accurately familiarize archaeologists with the burial customs, rituals, society, culture and life in ancient times,” he said.  

Zhu Fenghan, a professor at the Department of History, Peking University, told NewsChina that Jinhou Cemetery in Quwo County in southern Shanxi Province was targeted by thieves. “A number of tombs were robbed and destroyed, which has severely affected the value of archaeological materials,” he said. 

In recent years, more experts in antiquities protection use science and technology for excavations to protect relics such as cotton, linen textiles and silk fabrics. Tomb raiders care most about precious antiques including bronzes and jade ware, but they are careless when handling silk, linen and bamboo slips, and this is devastating because they are irreparable. The thieves usually discard any human remains and bones they find.  

“Human bone identification is very important in archaeology to find the gender and age of tomb owners. Because of the destruction by looters, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the tomb owner from those who were buried with the owner,” he said. 

Several archaeologists told our reporter that excavations are sometimes conducted in response to a grave robbery as a form of emergency protection. Zhu Fenghan argued that cultural relic protection gives priority to rescue efforts and strengthened management. “Protection means that we do not actively conduct excavations. We won’t excavate unless it’s necessary,” Zhu said. 

A salutary lesson was learned from the excavation in the 1950s of the Dingling Mausoleum of the Ming Tombs in Beijing where the Ming emperor Wan Li, who died in 1620, was buried. The facilities and technology used were relatively primitive and cultural relics such as silk and textiles were not protected during the excavation. 

Zhu Fenghan told NewsChina that heritage protection authorities have strict criteria now when they approve excavations of ancient tombs. Archaeologists will only actively excavate tombs under two circumstances: mandatory surveys before construction of major projects in areas near tombs, or when a tomb has already been robbed. 

“Tomb robbery is mainly driven by great profits. It’s difficult for law enforcement alone to crack down on the trade. Cultural relic departments also find it hard to manage tombs due to the shortfall in personnel and funds,” he said. “There needs to be top-level policy design and collaboration between different government agencies.”