How Did An Ancient Chinese Palace End Up In Siberia?

By | Aug 18, 2014 01:25 PM EDT
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Siberia

Dotted with archaeological sites, Siberia may be the final piece of an ancient Chinese puzzle.(Photo : Reuters)

Siberia is known from many things: Gulags, unmitigated cold, and more recently, a treasure trove of natural resources. A luxurious Chinese palace, however, would throw just about anyone. 

But that is just what road crews found outside the city of Abakan, capital of the Russian Federation republic of Khakassia, not far from the northern borders of Mongolia. Clearing a track from Abakan to the village of Askyz, workers stumbled upon the buried foundations of a ruined building. The area is well known for tombs buried under mounds of earth called kurgans, and archaeologists were quickly called in. 

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What they found was the equivalent of a palm tree on Mars. The site revealed a huge compound far bigger than any kurgan, nearly 5000 feet combined. As unlikely as it was, the structure was the remains of a palace. Even more unlikely, it was a palace typical of the Han Empire in China, which flourished from 206 BC to 220 AD. Topping it off was the fact the find was several hundred miles from the known borders of the Han Empire, in a region controlled by the Xiongnu Khanate, a mysterious people with whom imperial Han forces often fought in open, bloody warfare.

Fully excavated in 1940, the site yielded up numerous luxury items from bronze ware to pottery all reminiscent of Han glory, sparking a lively debate as to just how the palace, and its obviously high-ranking occupants, came to live not only only far from the Han homeland, but in enemy territory to boot. 

Xiongnu records are scanty, but Chinese records yielded up two possibilities and a complex story of failed gallantry and political murder. One theory is that the palace is the final retreat of Lu Fang, a pretender to the Han throne, but a more operatic possibility is General Li Ling.  In 99 BC,  Li Ling led a force of 30,000 Han soldiers against Xiongnu raiders. The resulting battle was an absolute massacre of the Han forces. Cut off from their supply routes by the highly mobile Xiongnu cavalry, only 400 of Li Ling's troops made it back to Han territory. Faced with utter defeat, Li surrendered to the Xiongnu. 

Han authorities initially thought Li had died on the field. When it was discovered he had not, an outraged public assumed he had turned traitor and defected, although there was little evidence. Imperial forces under orders from Emperor Wu severely punished the Li family, an act that may have reached back to the imprisoned Li Ling, who in turn formally defected and began training Xiongnu troops in Han battle techniques. Emperor Wu, later regretful for the treatment of Li's family, soon discovered this and executed the rest of Li's clan. 

Although the theory is circumstantial, the Abakan palace, some theorize, may be the abode of the prisoner-turned-defector Li Ling, who was richly rewarded for leading Xiongnu forays into Han territory, but may still have retained a longing for his homeland.

Excavations did not reveal any reference to Li Ling, or indeed, any hint of ownership, but the theory would be a final end-note to a dramatic series of events in China's history. 

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