A 1,400-year-old tomb in northwestern China has provided new evidence of a political power struggle between royal brothers and a warlord during a turbulent period in Chinese history.
The tomb, uncovered near the city of Xianyang in Shaanxi province, holds the remains of Emperor Xiaomin, also known as Yuwen Jue, regarded as the founder of the Northern Zhou dynasty in 557.
The tomb was confirmed to be the final resting place of Emperor Xiaomin, also known by his personal name, Yuwen Jue. He is considered the founder of the Northern Zhou dynasty, which was established in 557. However, historical records reveal that his reign was brief, and he was deposed and executed after only a few months. It took several decades for him to be officially proclaimed an emperor.
The tomb, approximately 184 feet (56 meters) long and 33 feet (10 meters) deep, was found in an area northwest of Xianyang known for its high-status tombs from the era. Nearby tombs belonging to Jue’s younger brother and another brother, Yuwen Yong, Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou, further attest to the significance of this region during that time.
Although the tomb had been disturbed by grave robbers at some point, 146 artifacts, including terra-cotta figurines and pottery, were uncovered by archaeologists. The epitaph on the tomb, written in cinnabar, referred to its occupant as the Duke of Lueyang, a confirmation of the historical records.
Historian Albert Dien, a professor emeritus of Chinese at Stanford University, who was not involved with the tomb’s discovery, told Live Science that Jue’s ascent to the throne was orchestrated by his cousin and guardian, the warlord Yuwen Hu. Yuwen Hu used Jue as a puppet ruler, but Jue’s rebellion led to his deposition and execution within a few months. He was succeeded by another brother, Yuwen Yu, who took the title of Emperor Ming.
However, Yuwen Hu continued to manipulate the dynasty through puppet rulers, and he met his end in 572 at the hands of a faction loyal to yet another brother, Yuwen Yong, who then became Emperor Wu. It was only after Yuwen Hu’s demise, roughly 37 years after Jue’s death, that Jue was proclaimed the first emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty. Consequently, the epitaph on the recently discovered tomb unequivocally portrays Jue as having been buried as a duke rather than as an emperor.
The tomb is one of many high-status burials from the Northern, Sui, and Tang Dynasties in the region, with the tombs of Xiaomin’s brothers, Emperor Ming and Emperor Wu, located within 10 kilometers of this site.
This discovery enhances our understanding of a complex and tumultuous period in Chinese history, with the tomb epitaph serving as the first physical evidence of the political intrigue during the founding of the Northern Zhou dynasty, previously known only through written historical accounts.