The opening of the Impregnable Wall. The man on top of the left ladder is Zhao Qichang.
Sixty-one years have passed, but Sun Xianbao well remembers exactly what he saw after squeezing himself through the narrow opening between two giant stone panels, panels that form the gate to the burial chamber of Emperor Wanli (1563-1620).
"On the ground were rotted wooden boards and some whitish circles," the 80-year-old says.
"The circles, it turned out, were the paper coins meant for the deceased. Time had turned the paper into grainy dust."
In 1957, from where he stood, inside the tomb, Sun removed a rectangular stone slab that had leaned against the panels and served as lock for 337 years.
Now the gate leading to the final resting place for the longest-reigning emperor of China's Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was finally opened.
"The excavation of the Dingling Mausoleum came about by pure chance," says Yang Shi, wife of Zhao Qichang, a key member of the excavation team who died in 2010. Emperor Wanli had the mausoleum built for himself between 1584 and 1590. The Chinese character for ding in the name means to anchor－a fitting metaphor for the emperor－and ling simply means tomb.
In the late 1980s Yang, together with Yue Nan, a historian, wrote the book Wind and Snow at Dingling (feng xue ding ling), a vivid recount of the entire excavation process.
In the 1950s, when some leading historians and archaeologists in China decided to excavate an imperial tomb from the Ming Dynasty for research, Dingling (1368-1644) was not even near the top of the list, Yang says.
"They initially focused on other tombs, tombs either belonging to a historically more important Ming Emperor or standing the chance of housing crucial information, imperial tomes for example."
They did not lack for choice. Of all the sixteen emperors of the Ming Dynasty, 13 were buried in the region. The immense burial ground, with meandering mountains as the backdrop, is known today as the Ming Mausoleums.
Hardly had the excavation team got down to work, than they realized they faced a giant conundrum, the answer to which the designers and builders of the mausoleums had tried everything to hide. With no clues yielded by the ground of the tombs they were aiming for, frustrated members eventually decided to focus on any mausoleum that might give them a tip-off. That was when someone noticed a caved-in section on a wall surrounding the circular ground that constitutes the second half of the mausoleum's design.<
Archaeologists clearing the coffins at Dingling Mausoleum.
The entire layout of the mausoleum is split in two－a rectangular part at the front and a circular part at the back, separated by a stone tower known as ming lou, or the Worldly Tower. The different shapes were meant to represent Earth and Heaven, believed by ancient Chinese to be in a square and a circle respectively.
The circular part, known as bao cheng, or the treasure city, has at its heart a big earth dune that rises to more than 10 meters above the ground. Since the burial chamber was most likely to be deep in the ground and directly under the peak of this symbolic burial mound, the question had always been: How to approach it?
The broken wall might be the place. And remember, this was in May 1956.
"The bricks had gone and there was a big hole about half a meter in diameter," Yang says. "Since it was three meters above the ground, the team members had to set up a human ladder to reach the hole and take a peek inside. It was a peek that would change the contemporary history of the Dingling Mausoleum."