Tomb raider gang leader sentenced to death in China

Lively trade in stolen cultural artefacts driving a boom in graverobbing

Scale-models of terracotta warriors are pictured on sale at the exhibition Power in Death - The Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of China at the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg. Photograph: Reuters

Scale-models of terracotta warriors are pictured on sale at the exhibition Power in Death - The Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of China at the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg. Photograph: Reuters

 

Clifford Coonan in Beijing

In China, there is an old saying, “To get rich overnight, raid tombs” and trade in stolen cultural relics is booming.

Tomb raider Yao Yuzhong took this advice rather too literally and has been sentenced to death for leading a gang who raided a Neolithic site in northeastern China.

Yao, from Chifeng in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was the leader of the biggest of 12 organised gangs implicated in plundering ancient burial sites at the Niuheliang in Liaoning province, the Global Times reported.

The site is over 5,000 years old and more than 1,200 artefacts were looted, the Chaoyang City Intermediate People’s Court heard.

Some local media have joked that his gang were busier than any team of archaeologists in China digging up the loot, known in Chinese slang as “huo”.

Many of the cultural relics plundered are sold to private collectors, either overseas or in China, but some have reportedly ended up in public museums. They pass through a complicated process of purchase and resale, often online, to disguise their origins.

Yao was found guilty of a number of offences including tomb raiding, looting and selling stolen antiquities. His gang was highly organised, and would source fund, explore, loot and trade relics. His accomplices testified how he would use astronomical instruments and old maps to find the sites, but his downfall was gambling, and he attracted attention by trying to pay for gambling debts in ancient relics.

Death sentence

In all, police apprehended 225 people and retrieved a total of 2,063 artefacts, the Xinhua news agency reported. He was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, which normally means life imprisonment.

In all, 22 gang members received prison terms, with three receiving life sentences.

There is a long tradition of tomb raiding in China, with poetry about robbing graves hailing from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). There is a political backdrop to the crackdown on tomb raiders and efforts to preserve heritage.

Earlier this week, President Xi Jinping urged the government to strike a balance between the conservation of cultural relics and fast urbanisation, calling cultural relics “a valuable legacy from our ancestors” that would benefit future generations.

Archaeologists said they hoped the severe punishment would serve as a warning to the unbridled tomb-raiding phenomenon in China, which has grown into a booming business. Nanjing-based archaeologist Ni Fangliu said tomb raiders were increasingly sophisticated, using archaeological skills to locate tombs such as a familiarity with historical rituals and local history, or traditional feng shui, as emperors used to place their tombs near mountains and streams, along “dragon lines”.

Different dynasties had different funeral practices, Mr Ni said. He believes there are about 100,000 tomb raiders operating in China at the moment.

Liu Yang, a Beijing-based lawyer who specialises in retrieving cultural relics that have gone overseas, said the tomb raiders were also using state-of-the-art technology.

“Tomb raiding gangs sometimes make better use of new technologies, such as directional explosion excavating equipment. They don’t care that the ancient tombs are damaged, all they want are the relics to make a profit,” he told the Global Times.