China’s cultural heritage endangered

Case study: The painted coffin from Chifeng
Source: He Shuzhong, Cultural Heritage Watch Weekly Observation “Another Kind of ‘Return'” 01/09/2001, courtesy of Ton Cremers (14 images total)

“Mausoleums of the Liao Dynasty and Their Memorial Cities” is a cultural heritage site protected at national level, located in Chi Feng [Chifeng] City of Nei Mongol Province [Inner Mongolia] in North China. In May 1997, two Liao Dynasty tombs of the site were illegally plundered. At the beginning of June 1997, the illicit digging was stopped and the two tombs were guarded by local authorities. Unfortunately, one of the two tombs was illegally excavated again in this month, when the guards went to a town to buy foods (the site is very far from town). Local experts found that a painted wooden coffin chamber, which was constructed of more than 50 pieces of painted wood, was stolen during the guards’ absence.

In March of 1998, the museum bought the painted wooden coffin chamber of Liao Dynasty from a local people of Chifeng City. The leaders of the museum were very glad because they were sure that the coffin chamber was a very rare cultural property. Research revealed that the coffin chamber collected by Liaoning Province Museum was indeed the same chamber stolen from the tomb of the cultural heritage site in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Province. The name of the person who sold the chamber had been registered on the collection card of the museum, and he was arrested by police in Chifeng.

In July of 2000, Inner Mongolia Provincial authorities received information that a painted wooden coffin chamber of Liao Dynasty, which was very similar to the stolen one, was collected by Liaoning Provincial Museum, located in Shenyang in northeast China. This museum is one of the most famous museums in China with a long history and many important collections.


  • 98% of all profits from the illicit art trade go to middlemen and dealers (Time magazine Asia edition; Oct. 27, 2003 issue of the US edition)
  • Ruthless art thieves are stripping cultural sites of precious artifacts, then shifting them to smugglers and dealers who hawk them overseas. (Spirited Away by Hannah Beech (Time magazine Asia edition; Oct. 27, 2003 issue of the US edition)
  • A Xi’an gang broke into the 2,000-year-old tomb of China’s Empress Dou using dynamite, and an air blower powered by a portable generator (Oct. 20, 2003 issue of Time magazine)
  • Illicit Excavation in Contemporary China by He Shuzhong. Originally published in Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage (Brodie, Neil, Jennifer Doole, and Colin Renfrew (editors), 2001), He Shuzhong is the Founder of CHP Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Research Centre (CHP).
  • The Dulan County Tibetan Royal Tomb Group in Qinghai province was listed by World Monuments Watch as one of the world’s One Hundred Most Endangered Sites 2000 (Dulan Listed by World Monuments Watch by Bruce Doar, February 2000, China Archaeology and Art Digest)
  • An unprecedented rash of looting is following in the wake of construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the middle reaches of China’s Yangtze River. (Plundering the Three Gorges by Spencer P.M. Harrington, May 14, 1998, Archaeology Magazine)

"Tomb robbers are not careful excavators. They tunnel in, generally doing a lot of damage in the process; they take the objects that are most marketable and easiest to transport; and they leave the rest—sometimes they deliberately smash what they leave behind, perhaps to increase the value of what they take."

Robert W. Bagley, Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University