HONG KONG - The warlords Cao Cao and Liu Bei were fierce rivals in life, with their exploits vividly described in the classic historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the most revered classical novels in Chinese literature. Now, 1,800 years later, that rivalry has been renewed in death.
In a game of archaeological one-upmanship, two teams of tomb warriors claiming to have found the burial sites of the legendary generals are battling it out in the Chinese media to gain official recognition for their claims. So far, neither party has been successful and, indeed, both are possible perpetrators of fraud.
Truth and authenticity, however, are besides the point in this battle; publicity, false or not, is the weapon of choice, and with increased tourism revenue for the reward for the winner's province, along with public financing for new infrastructure that local officials say is needed to support the expected flood of visitors to such an important historical site. So it is no wonder that authorities in Henan and Sichuan provinces are pulling out all stops to stake their claims to the final resting places of Cao Cao and Liu respectively.
On December 27, archaeologists created a huge media splash with their announcement in Beijing that the grave of Cao Cao (AD 155-220), founder of the prosperous Wei empire during the Three Kingdoms period, had been discovered in Xigaoxue village near the city of Anyang in Henan.
Chen Ailan, director of the Henan cultural heritage administration, assured the public that the tomb, found near the former Wei capital of Luoyang, had been confirmed as Cao Cao's. On the surface, the evidence was persuasive.
The tomb's size - 740 square meters - certainly befits a king, and the more than 250 items - including gold, silver and pottery - found there also indicate a royal presence. Moreover, of the 59 engraved stone plates that archaeologists discovered, each of which logged names and quantities of interred items, seven identified weapons "used by the king of Wei".
Finally, in case any skeptics remained, archaeologists revealed that they had unearthed the human bones of three people, two women and a male in his sixties; Cao Cao is thought to have died at the age of 65.
Thus - or so it seemed - the case was closed, and all that was left was an official stamp of approval followed by a rush of tourists, flush with cash and eager to spend, who would descend upon Anyang to gawk at Cao Cao's crypt.
"Not so fast!" cried a dissenting chorus of scholars - from archaeologists and anthropologists to historians and professors of classical literature. They pointed out that the tomb has been raided several times since excavation began, so what has been found there could easily have been faked and planted.
A professor who specializes in Wei literature, Yuan Jixi, added that the site of the tomb does not correspond to historical records and ancient texts recording Cao Cao's life and death.
Turning the dispute toward farce, scientists at Fudan University in Shanghai have offered to verify the authenticity of the tomb by testing the DNA of all Cao Cao's potential modern offspring who still live in and around Anyang. But DNA found at the tomb at this point is likely to be contaminated. Even if it were not, wouldn't such verification prove only that the sexagenarian buried there was a member of the Cao clan but not necessarily Cao Cao himself?
But don't ask silly questions when the serious business of tourism revenue is at stake.
Villagers in Sichuan's Pengshan county appeared to understand that point when, a month after Henan officials put in their claim for Cao Cao's grave, they filed their own for Liu's burial site. While their case may have even less authority than Henan's, at least their general was a more likable guy.
"Speak of Cao Cao and he appears" goes the Chinese proverb. That may explain how the warlord turned up in a tomb in Anyang, but it also reveals the Chinese perception of him as a sinister character, as in the English saying, "Speak of the devil."
A chancellor in the Eastern Han dynasty who went on to form his own state, Cao Cao was by most accounts a brilliant military and political strategist. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, however, the epic's author, Luo Guanzhong, fictionalizes some of the events of Cao's Cao's life, turning him into a cruel tyrant and villain.
On the other hand, Liu (AD161-223), who established the state of Shu Han, a rival of Wei, is portrayed as a kind-hearted ruler and is one of the heroes of the novel, subject of countless film and television costume dramas that have made its characters well-known figures in China's popular culture.
Perhaps the Pengshan villagers calling for an excavation team to be sent to their village were banking on Liu's reputation for benevolence to trump Cao Cao's legendary ruthlessness when they filed their petition with the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Sichuan Bureau of Cultural Relics, reviving a feud between scholars in the municipality of Chongqing and the Sichuan capital of Chengdu over the location of Liu's grave. Even if an archaeological team never visits the villagers, they may find a few tourists come their way.
The battle for tourism revenue does not stop with rival generals whose lives are romanticized in Chinese literature and the mass media. There are also dueling claims for the birthplace of Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, with both the Sichuan city of Jiangyou and the Hubei city of Anlu calling themselves Li's hometown. The Jiangyou government has gone as far as to register a trademark designating the city as Li's birthplace, prompting Anlu to launch an advertisement on China Central Television boasting that it is where the poet was born.
Among modern figures, China's biggest source of tourism income is, hands down, Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China. Mao's cult-like image as the Great Helmsman of Chinese politics may have dimmed since his death in 1976, but he remains a cash cow for his native province of Hunan. Shaoshan village, his birthplace, rakes in millions of dollars a year selling souvenirs to tourists making pilgrimages to honor the late chairman, and the Hunan Provincial Tourism Bureau has proposed that Mao's birthday, December 26, be declared a national holiday to allow more pilgrims to visit the province.
Many patriots have welcomed the idea, especially merchants in Hunan. But perhaps provincial authorities went too far last month when they decreed that Mao's favorite dish, known as "Chairman Mao's Pork", could not be considered authentic unless it contained pork belly specifically from Hunan's Ningxiang county.
Then again, maybe that outcome should have been expected after Ningxiang’s pigs were last year granted special protective status by the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. That came after Shaoshan villagers touted Mao's favorite dish as a weapon that "built his brain" and helped him defeat Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and unite China following decades of civil war.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.