BAOLING VILLAGE, CHINA (NYTIMES) – One day in November, Yang Mingzhen received a tip: Construction workers digging on his family’s land had discovered an ancient tomb.
That night, Yang and his father and uncle sneaked down to the tomb, in a barren dirt field just outside the entrance of Baoling Village, in Shaanxi province.
Early the next morning, a worker found the bodies of Yang and the two other men. Sometime in the night the centuries-old tomb had collapsed, and they had been buried alive. Village residents were shocked.
“He wouldn’t have even dared to steal his neighbor’s carrots,” said Yang Yuansheng, 62, the village accountant, referring to Yang.
“Who would have thought he would risk his reputation to go rob a tomb?”
Such are the extreme allures – and perils – of grave robbing, an ancient practice that has made a comeback as the global demand for Chinese antiquities has surged.
With prices for some Chinese antiquities reaching into the tens of millions of dollars, a flood of amateur and professional thieves looking to get rich quick has hit China’s countryside.
While accurate figures are difficult to come by, the looting has resulted in the permanent destruction of numerous Chinese cultural heritage sites. In 2016, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage reported 103 tomb-raiding and cultural relic theft cases.
Experts believe many more cases have gone undetected. Between ancient and modern thieves, they say, up to eight out of every 10 tombs in China have been plundered.
China, under President Xi Jinping, has shown a growing desire to embrace traditional culture.
The government – which asserts ownership over all ancient tombs and underground cultural relics – has sought to combat the tomb-robbing problem through lawmaking, increased surveillance and monetary rewards for people who turn in relics.
But officials say the problem is so pervasive that it has become nearly impossible to eliminate.
“It’s just like drugs in the United States,” said Zhou Kuiying, deputy director of the Shaanxi provincial bureau of cultural heritage.
For tomb robbers, the appeal is clear.
“One nice bronze from the Qin or Han dynasty can buy you a big house,” said Ni Fangliu, the author of several popular books about tomb raiding.
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