The Yellow Emperor’s Tomb

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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.

Dragon tiles adorn an entry gate, symbolizing the Yellow Emperor. During the Warring States Period the color yellow was associated with Earth, dragons, and the center. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

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.

As per mythology, this cypress tree is believed to have been planted by The Yellow Emperor. Wires and metal rods help keep it standing and guide its growth. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

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.

The Yellow Emperor's "Footprints." Offerings of money (both coin and cash) are a common sight at Chinese temples and tombs. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

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.

In an act of filial piety, a man offers incense to honor The Yellow Emperor. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

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.

A young boy carries on the tradition of filial piety by lighting candles on the offering table at the Yellow Emperor's Mausoleum. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

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.

Wear good walking shoes! There are a total of 354 stairs to climb in order to reach the Yellow Emperor's Tomb! (Photo by: c.b.w.)

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.

Several individuals pay their respects at the tomb of The Yellow Emperor. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

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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c.b. 2012

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40 thoughts on “The Yellow Emperor’s Tomb

    • Those steps are fun until you hit around step 50. Then it kills all the way up! However, its still worth it – the view and the tomb are just spectacular. 🙂

      I have so many places to share from China. I had a really unique experience where I ended up in some pretty strange corners. Stay tuned for more stories!

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  1. Fabulous pictures! The huge Cyrus tree sounds like an enormous Bonsai tree! The colours and pageantry of the offering sites and memorial seles are beautiful. Oriental cultures fascinate me. It must have been wonderful to see it all in person. 🙂

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    • Sometimes it all seems so surreal. There are days where I can’t believe I was really in China. The people and the atmosphere changed me in so many wonderful ways.

      I had an out-date camera with me on that trip, which just goes to show much subject matter means when framing a shot! Its almost impossible to take a bad picture with so many fascinating things in every direction! Lol! 😀

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  2. What a beautiful post and the photographs are amazing. It is so true that honoring those who come before grounds us. Watching “Who Do You Think You Are” i mostly notice how the celebrities are moved by their connections to the ancestors they are learning about. I think that is the basis for the popularity of genealogy . . . in our society we aren’t grounded to much.
    I could go on and on.
    Thank you.

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    • When I travel, I’m always looking for common threads that bind all of humanity together. Honoring ancestors is definitely something I’ve seen in ever place I’ve ever gone. No matter our differences, we have a need for that connection. We all want to know where (and who) we came from. That’s pretty powerful stuff. 🙂

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  3. Great post, C.B., and pics that show me a place I’ll likely never go. The stairs would be worth it, I’d think. Did they put him at the top to keep out those who are not serious about paying homage to The Yellow Emperor? Or to protect the site from marauders? There must have been something significant about this place that caused you to include it in your blog. Perhaps the thoughts/feelings you have about this place could go in your memoir?

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    • There’s actually no way of knowing if he’s really buried in that mound! The Chinese don’t open tombs because its disrespectful and considered bad luck. I don’t know why the tomb was placed on the top of that mountain, but it appears no one really knows. Much like the emperor himself, there are a lot of stories that may or may not be true.

      Memoir? Ha! I don’t know if I’m that interesting just yet. Maybe a few more years. 🙂

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      • Interesting that most of us think that we’re not that interesting, yet we share stories with other people, and they think we live the most extraordinary life. I don’t think it is a big deal that I was IBHA Queen and got to travel and write monthly articles and was on the cover of a magazine. Nor do I think it particularly huge that I’ve completed 5 manuscripts. Or that I’ve done 500 hours to earn my yoga certification, and all the other “letters” I could put after my name. They were all just things that I’ve done. People have bought one of my books just to say that they know they author. Is it being humble? Hiding our light? Can we make a big deal out of our accomplishments, and not come across as an egomaniac?

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  4. Just reading the words “The Yellow Emperor’s Tomb” awakens us to mystery and the gifts of history. I like the photos of the tree and the steps the best.

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    • I’m so glad you like the title. That’s the part I struggled with the most! I wanted to come up with something catchy, but when it came right down to it, The Yellow Emperor’s Tomb really said it all. 🙂

      I take pictures of trees wherever I go. They are just as fascinating to me as the people and the sites! 🙂

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  5. Nick Wilford

    Obviously a very spiritual and peaceful place. I loved visiting Buddhist temples in Thailand – would like to go here as well. Interesting post and you clearly know your stuff on China!

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    • I taught Asian history for a while and this trip was financed through a grant – I was there to learn as much as possible about China through experience rather than a textbook (the best way to learn as far as I’m concerned!).

      I visited a Buddhist temple in Beijing, but I’m still trying to track down the pictures. Those temples are so peaceful and inviting. 🙂

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  6. This post and the photos are so beautiful! What an amazing experience. All that we learn when we travel. I truly believe that if everyone traveled regularly, the world would be a much more peaceful place. We would understand that we are more alike than we are different.

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  7. I’m loving the pictures and the history lesson as well. I love all things that deal with the history of Asia, even if my specialty is usually Japanese history. Thank you so much for sharing! Sometimes I wish America had a sense of honor and observation of ritual that could possibly come close to that which can be seen in parts of Asia. Beautiful.

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    • My theory is that America is simply too young. 😉 Asia has recorded civilization dating back thousands of years, which has remained relatively unbroken. With a long history connecting people like that, tradition tend to stay in place. America only has a couple hundred years of history (aside from native cultures), which is like a speck of sand in recorded history. Give us some time and we’ll figure it out. 🙂

      I love Japanese history as well! I have yet to go there, but I have a list of places I’d like to see to enhance my understanding of their culture and history. 🙂

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  8. Very interesting blog! Photos are gorgeous. My father was in China during World War II and he left with a fascination for the place. If I could only visit and not have to eat the food. Scares me.

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    • My grandpa was in China during the war. I remember looking at the photographs he took and being utterly fascinated. When I was there, I couldn’t help but wonder if I walking through some of the same places he did. 🙂

      The food is actually pretty basic. Like anywhere else, there’s scary stuff, but there is also rice, noodles, and dumplings that are simple and amazing!

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  9. As fascinating as I found this post, what tied it all together for me is that last line. I think one of the beautiful things about travel is the sense of unity that one experiences. I remember standing at the baths in Bath, England and thinking “thousands of years ago, another woman stood here on these stones, with her own dreams, her own pain”. We are connected.

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