Of tombs, traps & the intrepid
“In modern times, simply finding the location of an ancient tomb is more difficult than the process of getting it open. All those spots marked by an obvious pile of earth, a stone stele or some such, have already been dug up. If you want to find those tombs that have lain hidden for centuries beneath the earth with no above-ground marking to signify their presence, then you’re going to need certain technical knowledge and apparatus, like gavelocks, Luoyang shovels, bamboo nails, drills and the like. Some specialists don’t rely on such tools, and instead search within ancient tomes for clues that will lead them to lost tombs. Even fewer still have a knowledge of the occult sciences, and use the techniques of geomancy to read the lie of the land in their search for the resting places of the dead. I myself belong to the latter category…”
Zhang Muye, “Ghost Blows Out the Light” (《鬼吹灯》)
As a discipline, archaeology is mostly about taking soil samples. At its most exciting, it involves poking about in a wet ditch looking for bits of broken pottery. But don’t despair just yet, for there’s a black sheep in the extended archaeological family: grave robbery. Conducted under the cover of darkness, grave robbery is a dirty (both spiritually and physically) and highly illegal profession. Yet it has become wildly popular in China, thanks to a couple of pulp serials: “Grave Robbers’ Chronicals” (《盗墓笔记》Dàomù bǐjì) and “Ghost Blows Out the Light” (《鬼吹灯》Guǐ chuīdēng). Published over the last decade, these adventure-horror series have quickly become known as the Indiana Jones stories of China—only with fewer fedoras and bullwhips, and more Mao caps and feng shui compasses. The link with archaeology remains, however: Chinese grave robbers like to refer to themselves in polite company as “hobbyist archaeologists,” or kaoguxue aihaozhe (考古学爱好者).
The Chestertonian paradox that thieves have a great respect for private property (they merely wish it to become their property “that they may more perfectly respect it”) has never been more true than for grave robbers. These are people who pride themselves on liberating long-forgotten treasures, be it for public good or personal gain. Grave robbers also learn to respect the inhabitants of the tombs, and the treasures that they contain, for not to do so can lead to…unpleasantness. It’s said that grave robbers from a certain tradition have a custom of lighting a candle in the southeast corner of a tomb upon entering. If the candle is extinguished, it means that the spirits within do not welcome the intrusion, and the grave robbers are obliged to leave empty-handed—hence the title of the book: “Ghost Blows Out the Light.”