Qianling Mausoleum is situated on the Beiliang Mountain, Qian County, 80 kilometers east of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. Qianling is the most typical and best preserved of all the eighteen Tang mausoleums.

The Mausoleum is the joint burial of Emperor Gaozong (628-683 CE) and Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 CE), of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Emperor Gaozong was the ninth son of the late Emperor Tai Zong. With the help of his maternal uncle, he was made crown prince and ascended the throne upon Tai Zong's death. Emperor Gaozong was in poor health, "faint, heavy-headed and sightless" as the chronicles described him, and his empress Wu Zetain attended to most court affairs. After the emperor's death, Empress Wu defied imperial prohibitions and, after disposing of emperors Zhong Zong and Rui Zong in short order, took the throne herself and titled her reign "Zhou," becoming the first empress in Chinese history to rule the country. After a reign of 21 years, In May 706, she was buried with Gao Zong in Qianling. According to New Tang Book, Qianling Mausoleum was constructed with watchtowers and stone gates, with all gaps reinforced by metal, and abounded in burial objects. From 1958 to 1960, the Cultural Relics Management Committee in Shaanxi Province made an archaeological expedition into the tomb.

According to the archaeological fieldwork, the mausoleum is divided into inner and outer city; the inner city is enclosed with an earthen wall. The tomb is located on the peak of Liangshan Mountain at the center of inner city. In the south of the mausoleum stand three gates. In front of each gate are three watchtowers: one big and two small. Massive stone sculptures line up the spirit path between the second and the third gate. They include ornamental pillars, winged beasts, ostriches, saddled horses led by grooms, Uncharactered Tablet on the east, Holy Merits Recording Tablet on the west, and 61 human statues, totaling more than 100 pieces. Those stone works are demonstrations of the skills of Tang carvers and gems of the ancient Chinese art of stone carving, earning the Mausoleum the reputation as the “natural museum of stone sculptures”.

Winged horse
Ornamental pillar

The Uncharactered Tablet was erected blank as a term of Wu Zetian's will. Her will read: "My achievements and errors must be evaluated by later generations, therefore carve no characters on my stele." This blank tablet was 6.3 meters high, 2.1 meters wide and 1.5 meters thick. During the Song and Jin dynasties, however, quite a few travelers did inscribe it, changing the uncharactered tablet into a charactered tablet.

blank tablet

Holy Merits Recording Tablet was composed of seven tiers and thus also named Seven-Tiered Tablet. It was 6.3 meters high and 1.9 meters wide. Conceived by Wu Zetian, the tablet has an inscription of 8,000 characters, extolling the military and administrative achievements of Emperor Gao Zong. All the characters and symbols were filled with gold powder.

The 61 stone figures bear witness to the Tang Dynasty's power and prosperity as well as its friendly relations with minority peoples on the periphery and with other central Asian countries. These statues were placed here with the order of Empress Wu Zetian to commemorate the minority chieftains and foreign special envoys who attended Gaozong’s funeral. Wearing tight-sleeved clothes, broad belts and leather shoes, these figures cup their hands in front in a praying gesture. More than half of them had their heads defaced except the two, in the western row, who have prominent noses and deep eyes, and were clearly from the Western Regions or Central Asia. Some of the figures had their nationalities, official titles and names on their backs.


Qianling Mausoleum comprises a tomb passage and a coffin chamber. The slope tomb passage is 63m in length, 3.9m in width, and 19.5m in depth, all built of flagstones. 39 steps connect the entrance of the tomb passage to the burial chamber. The flagstone, 0.5m thick on each step, is additionally reinforced with iron chains. Upon the flagstone step is another earthen layer.

Qianling mausoleum covered an area of about 40 square kilometers. In the southeast of the Qianling Mausoleum locates a group of satellite tombs of the royal family and the important ministers in the court. From 1960 to 1972, the Cultural Relics Management Committee of Shaanxi Province excavated five tombs, of Prince Zhanghuai, Prince Yide, and Princess Yongtai etc. They are substantially the same. The tombs themselves were composed of a passage way, an archway, a shaft, a corridor and ante-and rear-chambers. On two sides of the shaft were a series of niches containing a variety of three-color figurines, pottery and porcelain articles. Murals adorn the walls and tops of the passage, the archway, the corridor and chambers. Rich and extensive in themes, well composed and skillfully executed, these murals illustrate the high level of Tang paintings and are being conserved and housed by Shaanxi History Museum.

Painting of Maidservants, reflecting the parasitic imperial life
Painting of Polo Game
Paintings of Envoy and Guests, depicting cultural exchanges and the friendly relationships between China and the world

Though having been looted before, the three tombs of Princess Yong Tai, Prince Yi De and Prince Zhang Huai yielded 4,300-odd items. All these objects are exquisitely made and vivid representations, each peculiar in its own way.

bronze knocker