Grave robbing is no sightseeing tour. It isn’t poetry, and it isn’t art. It’s nothing so elegant, refined, subtle, or respectable. Grave robbing is a skill — a destructive skill.

In ages past, when it came time for nobles to build their final resting places, they were determined above all else to ward off thieves, and in this, they spared no effort. Tombs were filled with all kinds of concealed mechanisms, traps, and switches: falling boulders and sand, poison arrows, venomous insects, pits, and a host of other dangers. The rise of the Ming dynasty brought with it the ingenious technologies of the West, with some tombs of the era even using Western-style octagonal screws. In the following Qing dynasty, each emperor’s mausoleum condensed thousands of years of anti-theft measures into a single masterpiece. The great warlord Sun Dianying once sought to plunder the Eastern Qing tombs1 and use the riches within to provision his armies. The massive team he deployed had to dig and blast for nearly a week before gaining entry; one can well imagine the sturdiness of their target.

The job of the grave robber is to do everything he can to break through a tomb’s defenses, make his way in, and scout out anything of value. In modern times, however, even harder than the task of entering a tomb is that of finding one. Virtually all the conspicuous tombs — those topped with stone steles or mounds of packed earth — have already been discovered. Locating the remaining tombs, long-buried as they are with no aboveground markers, requires certain specialized tools: drills, shovels, boring heads, coffin-openers2, retractable crowbars and more all find their occasion. A few experts forgo the use of tools entirely. Some look for clues in ancient texts, and an even tinier minority employ their mastery of the mystic arts. Simply by interpreting the lay of the land, they locate tombs by reading an area’s Feng Shui. I myself belong to the latter group.

In my travels to lands far and wide, I’ve witnessed a whole host of bizarre and extraordinary phenomena. If I were to list them all right here, you, dear reader, would no doubt be lost for words. Amidst lurking dangers, I left no stone unturned, and each step of my quest was invariably stranger than the last.

Before I tell my story, however, I must introduce that from which it all began: an old tome, Sixteen Characters of the Mystic Art of Yin-Yang Feng Shui, left to me by my great-grandfather3. The book is badly damaged; for reasons unknown, its latter half was forcibly torn out, leaving behind only a volume on the principles of Feng Shui. Most of that remaining volume concerns some quite singular techniques, not least of which is the interpretation of Feng Shui as it pertains to the layout of tombs…

  1. A group of tombs containing Qing (and some Ming) dynasty royal family members; not far from Beijing. See this Wikipedia article. [return]
  2. The original word used here is 探阴爪 tànyīnzhuǎ, which is a kind of consecrated prying tool specifically used to open a coffin while preventing its contents from reanimating. [return]
  3. On the father’s side. This is clear and significant in Chinese, but I’ve left it out here, as this comes out awkwardly in English, since we don’t generally distinguish between (great-) grandparents on the mother’s versus father’s side. [return]