Thanks to the vigilance of Chris Fennell, trawler extraordinaire of archaeological news and its modern implications, my attention has been drawn to the following controversy from China’s Henan Province:
It seems that the supposed ancient resting place of Cao Cao (c. 155-205 ), famous warlord, poet, and would-be emperor of the Han Dynasty period– lost in the mists of legend for almost two thousand years– has now emerged as bitterly contested cultural capital (capital both in the economic and political senses!).
Cao Cao has enormous importance for the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, as a powerful and successful regional leader who united vast areas under his political and economic control. In the classic novel called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao is portrayed as scheming, cruel, and paranoid, being responsible for brutal death of countless enemies– real or imagined. He is best known in modern Chinese popular culture as the stock villain of opera pantomimes.
So in an age of celebrity heritage, the discovery of the real Cao Cao’s tomb would be an enormous tourist draw and merchandising opportunity. And in fact, there has already been more than a bit of ideological revisionism about him, in the suggestion that political unification requires a certain measure of– um– discipline and that Cao Cao was not such a completely bad guy after all.
China’s dizzying pace of industrial development directly led to the discovery of the tomb, which came during a massive south-north water diversion project, involving the bulldozing and excavating of large expanses of the landscape of Henan province. In late December, China TV announced the discovery near the city of Anyang– and the story was quickly picked up by news outlets all over the world.
Yet not so fast. As with the claims for the discovery of archaeological proof of other mythic and quasi-biblical figures, wishful thinking, ideological agendas, and– in this case at least– economic rivalry all play major roles. New questions in the Chese press and on TV have arisen about both and the source (from looters or perhaps even modern forgers) and the evidentiary quality of the evidence.
But more important is the bitter modern dispute between the officials of Henan and nearby Anhui provinces over where the real Tomb of Cao Cao is– and, by inevitable extension, which province gets the historical credit and which gets the anticipated economic benefit of the tourist flow. To make matters even more intriguing, a new public debate on the authority of Chinese academia has emerged in this ongoing debate.
China, like everywhere else in this globalized world, is rapidly adopting a kind of caricatured, tabloid approach to the past. It’s all image, all spin, and all marketing– and we are all increasingly incapable of seeing heritage as anything but media sensations, local boosterism, or the raw material for profitable tourist sites.