Much like King Arthur, The Yellow Emperor of China straddles the line between reality and myth. There are those who view him as a historical figure who helped pull China out the chaotic Warring States period and others who see him as nothing more than a deity crafted from old world mythology. The truth is ultimately lost to time, but the filial piety of a nation has brought people and their offerings to his tomb since 442 BC.
Up in the hills of Shaanxi Province, near the city of Yan’an, The Yellow Emperor’s tomb stands as a testament to his legend as the founder of Chinese culture and the single ancestor of all Han Chinese. The mausoleum complex is an awe inspiring tribute to China’s equivalent of a founding father. Upon arrival to the complex, visitors are greeted with a huge white building that serves as an entryway into a large outdoor temple filled with gardens and memorials to the emperor. The grounds are shaded by huge cypress trees, one of which is purported to be more than 5,000 years old and planted by the Yellow Emperor himself. I stood in awe of this tree as it towered overhead with rutted bark and twisted branches.
One of places where people are invited to leave offerings is at a site that claims to have footprint castings of the Yellow Emperor. I’ve been to a lot of tombs and mausoleums in my travels, but I’ve never encountered a relic quite like this one. The prints are enormous and clearly meant to be symbolic The Yellow Emperor’s status in Chinese culture, rather than be taken as authentic. Worship isn’t of the relic itself, but the idea of the Yellow Emperor’s footprints and what he means to the Chinese people.
One of the core components of Chinese culture is filial piety, which is a Confucian virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors. Very often Chinese families have an alter in their homes that honors all previous family members and sometimes political leaders or historical heroes. The Yellow Emperor puts this virtue on a grand display as people continue to pay respects to an individual that is considered the ultimate ancestor.
At the base of the actual tomb is an area which houses several memorials, stone steles commemorating the emperor’s accomplishments, and temples with offering tables. Besides coins and cash, the most popular offering is a bundle of lit incense. The believer bows at least three times, kneels, and then places the incense in a large vat of ash. I watched one man in particular take special care to make sure the incense remained standing so it would burn through completely.
The tradition of filial piety continues to pass from one generation to the next as a boy lights a candle on the alter to pay homage to The Yellow Emperor. As I observed this boy carry on such an old practice, I realized just how central the idea of ancestry is to the Chinese. It is an emotional experience that creates amazing strength of character and a sense of honor.
The mausoleum is mostly a memorial, whereas the tomb of the Yellow Emperor is believed to be the actual burial site. To get to the tomb, I had to climb 277 stairs that lead to another beautiful garden of flowers and cypress trees. It’ll take another 77 steps to get to the top of Qiao Mountain, where the prayer mound is situated.
The tomb is marked by a beautiful arbor painted and carved with traditional Chinese motifs. A large stone stele is essentially the gravestone of The Yellow Emperor’s burial site. There is yet another place to leave offerings. Two bowls with “eternal flames” flank the offering site, allowing everyone a chance to light incense and candles for the emperor.
It was an honor to visit such a sacred place. The eternal devotion and emotional connection to The Yellow Emperor on the part of the Chinese people is incredibly powerful. The concept of one individual tying so many people together is a beautiful idea. We aren’t as different as we think, considering we all have a need to honor those who came before us, even if in our own unique ways.
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