Murals inside 700-year-old, octagon-shaped tomb depict grim scenes of China under Mongol rule

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Archaeological investigation in Yangquan, China has revealed an octagon-shaped tomb with mural-covered walls, dating back some 700 years to the time when descendants of Genghis Khan reigned over China. With a roof shaped like a pyramid, the medieval tomb contains elaborate images of sun, moon and stars.

A mural covering one of the walls also depicts a young son being buried alive by his parents. In a paper published recently in the Chinese Cultural Relics journal, the archaeologists stated that some of the murals also showcase the scenes of everyday life in Mongol-ruled China, including horses and camels carrying goods and people, musicians playing songs on the street as well as a household scene of tea being prepared.

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The tomb was unearthed in April 2012 by archaeologists from Yangquan City’s Office of Cultural Heritage Administration, in collaboration with the Bureau of Cultural Relics and Tourism of the Suburbs of Yangquan City. The team published its first report in a Chinese journal called Wenwu back in 2016, which was only recently translated into English and re-published in the Chinese Cultural Relics journal.

According to the researchers, of the eight walls of the tomb, seven are adorned with murals. The entrance is located where the eighth wall would have stood. Although the tomb belonged to a man and a woman (possibly, husband and wife), as per a mural on the north wall, no skeletal remains were actually found inside.

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Many of the people in the murals are portrayed wearing clothing of the Mongolian style, instead of donning Chinese-style attires. One mural, for instance, depicts a camel being led by a man “wearing a soft hat with four edges, which was the traditional hat of northern nomadic tribes from ancient times.” The archaeologists added –

Mongol rulers issued a dress code in 1314 for racial segregation: Han Chinese officials maintained the round-collar shirts and folded hats, and the Mongolian officials wore clothes like long jackets and soft hats with four edges.

Chapters From Ancient China

The tomb dates back to a period when China was ruled by the Mongols. In 1271, Kublai Khan – the grandson of Genghis Khan – invaded China, establishing the Yuan dynasty whose territory spanned Mongolia, Korea, present-day Vietnam and parts of Russia. He eventually became the Emperor of China and ruled till his death in 1294. The descendants of Genghis Khan actually continued to control China till 1368, when they were forced to return to Mongolia by rebel soldiers.

Read More: 10 Surprising Things You Should Know About The Mongol Soldier

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As noted by the researchers, two of the murals inside the tomb show popular scenes from Chinese history. One of them pertains to Guo Ju and his wife, who are looking after Ju’s ailing mother. Due to the shortage of food and money, the family decides to bury their young son alive, so as to be able to buy food and medicine for Ju’s mother.

While digging a hole to bury their child in, the parents come across several gold coins, which is essentially a reward from the gods for taking caring of the mother. Hence, the family no longer has to sacrifice their son to afford food and medicine.

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The other mural deals with the story of Yuan Jue, a young boy belonging to a poor family that has been struggling through a period of famine. Under the circumstances, Jue’s father decides to send the grandfather out into the wilderness, in the hopes that it will ease the family’s struggles and enhance their chance of survival. However, as the father is taking Jue’s grandfather away, Jue protests, claiming that if he goes through with it, Jue will himself send his father into the wilderness when he is older. The father sees the folly in his decision and the family survives through the family.

While the two stories deal with different subjects, according to the researchers, both highlight the importance of “filial piety”, as in respecting one’s parents and taking care of the elderly. Shedding light on the relevance of such stories in Chinese history, Alan K. L. Chan, a professor at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, wrote in his book Filial Piety in Chinese Thought and History –

There is near unanimity among early Chinese thinkers about the importance of xiao [a word that means “filial piety”] in the Chinese ethos. Among the various forms of virtuous conduct, xiao [filial piety] comes first, declares a well-known Chinese proverb.

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This period of the Mongol rule in China coincided with what is known as the Little Ice Age. Occurring right after the Medieval Warm Period, it was when the climate of Europe and Asia became cooler. As a result, in parts of China, people struggled with flooding and famine.

The Mongols were arguably at their apical stage of military power when they made their forays into Eastern Europe after 1240 AD. And by 1242 AD, they managed to heavily defeat Poland, Hungary, an assortment of knightly orders; and then proceeded on to invade Croatia. But almost like a miracle, the Mongol forces surprisingly decided to halt their push into Central Europe, and the main body of troops antithetically made their way back into Asia, thus leaving behind a trail of destruction and sordid legends.

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Now the most common hypothesis for such a hasty retreat on the part of the Mongols is usually attributed to the sudden death of Ögedei Khan, the Supreme Khan of the Mongols, who possibly met his demise after binge drinking at a hunting trip. However, according to a 2016 study headed by Nicola Di Cosmo, a historian at Princeton University, the Mongolian retreat from Central Europe was probably fueled by the abrupt weather effects on the local ecosystem, rather than some impractical ideal instigated by a distant leader’s death.

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Source/Image Credits: Live Science

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About the Author

Sukanya Mukherjee
With a master's degree in English Literature and several years of writing experience under her belt, Sukanya specializes in creating content particularly related to history, science, and technology. In the past, she worked as a business journalist at a reputable digital media company. Apart from being an avid fan of Victorian literature, she can found spending her free time baking and exploring the Great Himalayas!
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