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Historical profile on the Pyramids of China, massive earthen burial mounds made by the early Chinese emperors, which have now become subject to numerous conspiracy theories.

Near Xi’an, Shaanxi area of China, rise the pyramid shaped burial mounds of Emperors and other royals. These ancient architectural wonders have existed in the landscape for centuries. Today visitors marvel over the shapes and paths, while villagers and family of the departed visit their ancestors’ tombs. 

Chinese Pyramid Burial Mounds are ancient mausoleums containing the graves of emperors and royals. They contain vast treasures and items the dead require in the afterlife. These pyramid shaped burial mounds are made from rammed earth. There are at least 38 such burial mounds within the Shaanxi area.

As World War 2 drew to a close and the Allied Forces began making supply runs and spy missions deeper and deeper into China, foreign pilots began seeing these monuments from above for the first time. Their vague claims of fleeting massive pyramids worked their way into public consciousness, fostering a mystery in some circles as the nation closed off during the rest of the 20th Century. 

An early image from pilots over Central China
An early image from pilots over Central China

Are you interested in learning more about the Pyramids in China? How were these man-made mountains built, and by whom? We will answer these questions and more.

What Are the Chinese Pyramid Tombs?

Distant view of the Qin Shi Huang pyramid
Distant view of the Qin Shi Huang pyramid

The Chinese pyramid burial mounds are very large and complex mausoleums built for deceased emperors. They have elaborate, rammed earth, cities and palaces built in the ground below them. These underground palaces are often filled with art and artifacts depicting life around the royal buried there. 

These structures were planned many years before the person died. Building these monuments of the dead would often last decades through the life of the individual and require thousands of laborers, many of which found themselves entombed with their royal subject.

Who Built the Chinese Pyramid Tombs?

The first pyramid-burial mounds were constructed before 207 BCE near the city of Xi’an, China. The largest and most noted tomb was erected for Qin Shi Huang, the First Qin Emperor. The Emperor’s ancestors are also buried in this area. This most likely inspired where this great architecture for the dead would be built.

Subsequent tombs were built through the Han dynasty of 206 BCE to 25 CE. It was not until the Tang Dynasty of 618 to 907 CE that this form of burial mound building was abandoned for the ease and security of mountain tombs. 

A famous high-altitude photo of many of the pyramid tombs
A famous high-altitude photo of many of the pyramid tombs

The Qin Dynasty

Main article: Cultural Profile: Qin Dynasty, Ancient China’s First Empire

The Qin Dynasty only lasted from 221 BCE to 207 BCE. However, it was in the making long before this, during the rule of Duke Xiao 362 to 338 BCE, when reformer Shang Yang began groundwork for unifying the Qin territory. Shang Yang was executed in 338 BCE for treason. 

Eventually, Ying Zheng was born to the king of Qin in 259. Zheng became king at the age of 13 when his father died. He would rename himself Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China after unifying the country, and rule as Emperor of China for the next 14 years.

During the Qin Dynasty the Great Wall was also built over the Northern half of China. Notable inventions were:

  • Iron swords and tools
  • Crossbows 
  • Raised bed roadways
  • Irrigation canals

The Han Dynasty

Main article: Cultural Profile: Han Dynasty, Ancient China’s First Golden Age

The Han Dynasty continued the work of the Qin Dynasty from 206 BCE to 220 CE. It was the longest of any imperial dynasty. Some of the things the Han dynasty was noted for are:

  • Making paper
  • Using water clocks and sundials
  • Trading silk
  • Confucius education
  • The invention of the seismograph 

Design Elements of the Chinese Pyramid Tombs

The Qin Shi Huang tomb was protected by the famous Terracotta Army
The Qin Shi Huang tomb was protected by the famous Terracotta Army

The design of the Qin Shi Haung mausoleum was to replicate the city Xianyang. The entire tomb covers 220 square kilometers, nearly 137 square miles. Here is a Map of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. It took 720,000 workers 38 years to build it. The mausoleum contains:

  • Replicas of the Palace and pavilion buildings
  • Terracotta Army
  • Replicas of the City
  • Possible rivers of mercury
  • Numerous pits 
A map of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum complex
A map of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum complex

Mound style mausoleums from other dynasties were built in a similar fashion. It is the Qin Emperor’s tomb we know to have large to life size replicas. It is the largest underground tomb known in the world today. 

The structural element of the rammed earthen walls should be noted. It has been observed that these walls remain standing after centuries in areas with great seismic activity. It is enlightening to know that builders were able to construct these gigantic earthen palaces that would not crumble from:

  • Earthquakes
  • Rainfall
  • And human interaction

The Pyramids’ Subterranean Burial Chambers

The mausoleum is a “triple layered truncated pyramid.” These monuments were built of rammed earthen walls. Large areas of land were excavated. And an underground palace was built. Structural walls of packed dirt and clay would be used in such a way as to prevent groundwater from seeping through.

These underground palace areas would be elaborately decorated with replicas of:

  • Buildings
  • People
  • Animals
  • Tools
  • The natural landscape

These areas would then be buried beneath layers of rammed earth.

The Mausoleum Complex

View from the courtyard of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum complex
View from the courtyard of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum complex

Above the palace areas, the grave mound would be built. These often contained four gates representing the 4 directions. There would also be 2 more gates from East to West within the center chamber. It would be within the middle of the burial chamber that the deceased’s body would be laid to rest.

Within the corridors of the chambers hidden weapons on trigger mechanisms would be installed and may still have the ability to engage if disturbed. Once laid to rest, the tomb would be sealed with occupants working on it entombed as well.

Surrounding the puramid would be an enclosure wall, which would close off the entire complex. During Han dynasty times, this area would also include a small settlement that would live tax-free in exchange for constructing and maintaining the tombs and their grounds. Often, these settlements would be led by a noble placed there by the emperor to remove them from their own local power base at home.

Protecting the Outer Layers of the Pyramids

More layers of packed clay would be layered on top of the grave. Grass and a tree were often planted to mark the man made hill as a grave. During the Han dynasty, it became common practice toput layers of loose sand and gravel along the outer edges of the burial mounds to deter grave robbers from digging into the tombs.

Origin and Purpose of the Chinese Pyramid Tombs

A small display of the pyramid tombs at the Xi'an Museum
A small display of the pyramid tombs at the Xi’an Museum

The pyramid burial style mounds of Xi’an began with the first Emperor of China. It was made to: 

  • Replicate the person’s place and standing in life
  • Give the person all of the security and comforts of life in death
  • Remind the living subjects of their nobility and greatness
  • Give a place of prayer when the living wished to talk with the deceased
  • Offer a defensive place against invading armies

This tradition of royalty continued throughout many generations of rulers. The sheer size of the burial mounds denoted the accomplishments of the ruler buried there. It was believed that extravagant tombs would prove difficult for grave robbers to break into and loot the treasures buried within.

Unfortunately, it was noted that Emperor Qin’s tomb was breached and looted, at least within the terracotta army pit. The actual tomb of the Emperor remains sealed as there is fear of damaging it as well as possibly ending up with mercury poisoning.

Legacy of the Chinese Pyramid Tombs

The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum and Terracotta Soldiers are a UNESCO Wold Heritage Site
The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum and Terracotta Soldiers are a UNESCO Wold Heritage Site

These mounds were built thousands of years ago. Today they still stand and invoke the awe of the onlooker. They are stark reminders of China’s people, history and the legacy is now shared with the world.

The Xi Xia Burial Pyramids

The Tanggut Xi Xia Tombs are located near Yinchuan in Ningxia Province
The Tanggut Xi Xia Tombs are located near Yinchuan in Ningxia Province

Over 1000 years after the Han Dynasty tombs were built, the Tanggut People of the Xi Xia Dynasty began engaging in a similar tomb-building practice. Their tombs, located near Yinchuan, Ningxia take on the appearance of domed or beehive-like mounds. However, these mounds served the same purpose and employed many of the same construction techniques and their central Chinese counterparts.

Conspiracy Theories Surrounding the Chinese Pyramid Tombs

Keeping in mind this is also at the height of pulp adventure fiction and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (describing the forgotten paradise of Shangri-La amidst the mountains of China) was released only a few years before, with its film adaptation following soon after. These sightings of previously unknown ‘pyramids’ grew more and more elaborate until you had things like the Great White Pyramid, described by pilot James Gaussman in 1945 as a 1000-foot jewel-capped construction.

“I flew around a mountain and then we came to a valley. Directly below us was a gigantic white pyramid. It looked as if it were from a fairy tale. The pyramid was draped in shimmering white.

“It could have been metal, or some other form of stone. It was white on all sides. What was most curious about it was its capstone: a large piece of precious gem-like material. I was deeply moved by the colossal size of the thing.”

– James Gaussman

In the following decades, authors sensationalized these elusive monuments and conspiracy theorists added the burial mounds into their crafted mythology of a network of world pyramids. Others accused the Chinese government of hiding a network of massive pyramids from researchers, keeping them in some forbidden zone where foreigners are still not allowed to go.

Gaussman's 300-meter-tall "Great White Pyramid" is actually the 50-meter-tall Maoling Mausoleum
Gaussman’s 300-meter-tall “Great White Pyramid” is actually the 50-meter-tall Maoling Mausoleum

In truth, these ~2000-year-old earthworks and rammed-earth tombs bear more similarities to the earthen Mississippian mounds of North America than they do to Egyptian or Mayan pyramids. The most famous remains the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the “first emperor” whose tomb also hosts the world-renowned terracotta warriors, while the largest, and the source of Gaussman’s Great White Pyramid, is the Maoling Mausoleum, which is 50 meters tall, a far cry Gaussman’s claim of 300 meters.

As to the accusations of China covering them up or placing them in off-limits zones, in all actuality, they were simply overlooked or forgotten by the locals. Several of these tombs took on the appearance of natural hills and people began farming on them. They are also not called pyramids by the Chinese, but tombs, much in the same way Americans don’t call the monuments of the Mound Builders ‘pyramids’ but ‘mounds’.

These structures are in an area of Shaanxi province (all about 50km from Xi’an city) that is open to anyone. It’s not the easiest to get around without personal transportation or knowing Chinese, but anyone is welcome to explore if they have the means.

Even Xi’an’ Xianyang International Airport is constructed near the largest concentration of these pyramids. If you look hard enough, they can be seen from departing or arriving planes.

Bad cell phone photo taken from a plane near the Xi'an Airport
Bad cell phone photo taken from a plane near the Xi’an Airport

Notable Examples of Chinese Pyramid Tombs

There are some 40 burial mounds in what is known as the Valley of Kings. Of these, it appears the Qin Dynasty’s burial mound is the one on everyone’s mind today since the discovery and the excavation of the terracotta army.

There are other amazing pyramid shaped burial mounds that are just as notable if not more so. For example, the Maoling Tomb of Emperor Wu Di ruled in 141 to 87 BCE. This is one of the largest burial mounds measuring:

  • 1,700 meters around the perimeter 
  • 46 and a half meters tall

Another example is that of the Han Yang Ling Museum mausoleum of Emperor Liu Qi and his wife, Empress Wang, which is “most explored of these ancient tombs. It consists of 4 pyramids, two large and two small, as well as numerous graves of nobles. It was opened as a museum in 2006. 

Located north of Xi’an, this burial mound took 28 years to complete. The Empress’s pyramid is 25 and a half meters tall, while the Emperor’s stands at 31 meters. The smaller pyramids were those of the Emperor’s concubines. The Emperor’s pyramid is encompassed by a wall with 4 gates, with the East gate as the main one.

Glossary

Han dynasty 汉朝
The ruling dynasty of China from 202 BCE – 220 CE. Han doctrine was characterized by economic prosperity through outside trade via the Silk Road creating the earliest sense of a single Chinese “Han” identity.

Hexi Corridor 河西走廊
A narrow geographic region between the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau in western China that was an important path on the Chinese end of the Silk Road. The Han dynasty secured and fortified the Hexi Corridor, allowing trade caravans to become more common.

Legalism
A philosophy from ancient China centered on the belief that people are inherently bad and that harsh laws must be put in place to ensure society runs properly. It was adopted by the Qin dynasty as their driving philosophy.

Mandate of Heaven 天命
The Chinese belief that the rulers are chosen by Heaven due to their righteousness. If a ruler becomes unworthy, Heaven would show signs through natural disasters and the rulers would be overthrown. 

Qin dynasty 秦朝
Chinese dynasty established in 221 BCE by Qin Shi Huang after conquering and united all rival Chinese states. Modern China derives its name from this dynasty, which is significant for being the first unified Chinese state. The Qin dynasty lasted until 206 BCE and was soon succeeded by the Han dynasty.

Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇
The “First Emperor” of China who created the Qin dynasty by conquering all rival Chinese states and unifying China for the first time in 221 BCE.

Qin state
One of the Chinese Warring States that lasted from ~9th Century BCE to 221 BCE, when it conquered the rival states and was declared the Qin Empire.

Silk Road
A vast trade network connecting China to India, the Middle East, and Europe through Central Asia that was responsible for the intercultural spread of goods and ideas. Although trade began along these routes prior to the Qin dynasty, it began flourishing during the Han dynasty when they secured the Hexi Corridor.

Terracotta Army
A buried army of ceramic soldiers, horses, and chariots excavated near the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang.

Xiongnu
Nomadic ethnic group originating from the steppes along the northwestern border of China, and presumed to be the ancestors of the Huns. The Xiongnu raided the Chinese borders and trade routes along the early Silk Soad.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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