The Teng Hsien Tomb


Introduction to the Teng Hsien Tomb


There is a sect within the context of Taoism known as the Mao-Shan or Shangqing (Highest Purity), and there is a scripture associated with this group that is titled the Shangqing Revelations.  It is not believed that this text exists in its original form today. No copy of the original has ever been found.

This piece reveal’s where this original scripture is hidden today and can very easily be discovered.  Like the wisdom of Taoism it is hidden in plain sight, but cannot be recognized by the uninitiated.


“The word jing, is used for “scripture” in Taoism, thus evokes a new and more powerful meaning.  The “going through” of the original graph becomes the “eternal surviving” of the religion. The scriptures continue to change along with the transformations of the world, sometimes accessible, sometimes hidden.  They direct and pattern the life of the world and are immediately responsible for all human developments. World and society, originally created from the sacred word, end when the scriptures vanish, but may be saved by a new revelation.  Shangqing eschatology is thus concerned with the cyclical revival of the scriptures. It’s messiah, the Latterday Sage, is not a personal savior but the herald of a new revelation of the texts that alone have the power to save and create.


“Deities who reveal the true words to humankind include the Heavenly King of Primordial Beginning-not to be confused with the Heavenly Venerable of Primordial Beginning, the central deity of Lingbao Taoism-the Great Lord of the Tao, the Lad of Great Tenuity, the Four Realized Ones of the Great Ultimate, Master Li the Latterday Sage, and the Green Lad(Robinet 1984, 1:127 Kohn, Livia.  Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Taoist Tradition. Princeton University press. 1992. Pg. 112


Michel Strickmann states, “Yang Hsi (330-386 CE, the second patriarch of the Shangqing faith) preceptors were members of a band of 24 perfected immortals, whose mission had been announced in the Annals of the Sage Who is to come.”  Footnote 150 gives us a quote from these annals, “The Sage declares: “And I shall delegate certain ones to descend and give instruction to those who are so destined and who devoutly maintain their zealous study to achieve immortality.  I shall send Ma Ming, Chang, Ling, Yin Sheng, Wang Po, Mo Ti, Ssu-ma Chi-chu, and from the Cavern-terrace of the Heaven of Pure Vacuity[n. 94 above], seven perfected and eight elders. There will be twenty four in all, some of whose names shall be hidden, and others manifest.  When they have altered their original clan-names and by-names it will be hard indeed to determine their real identities. Yet you only have to continue zealous and devoutly resolute, and you shall yourself of a certainty come to behold them. Once you have seen them, they will decline to you their full identities.


Footnote 94 speaks of Cavern Heavens beneath sacred mountains and their locations. Michel Strickmann, On the Alchemy of T’ao Hung-ching.  Facets of Taoism: Essays in Chinese Religion. Yale University Press. 1979. Pg. 174-175.


As far as Taoists were concerned, the world of the Tang dynasty and after was another world not related to their own.  The Shangqing practitioners understand ancient wisdom dating back through Chuang-Tzu, Lao Tzu, and Fu Hsi that is an aid to man in becoming one with all things.  This wisdom is a wisdom that can save mankind, from himself.


Julian F. Pas and Norman Girardot in their translation of Robinet’s work, Taoist meditation-The Mao-Shan Tradition of Great Purity, quotes Mircea Eliade.  Mr. Eliade says, “We display in broad daylight texts, ideas, beliefs, rites, etc., which normally should remain hidden, and access to them reserved only to initiates.  I don’t know whether this phenomenon has been the object of any study dealing with the philosophy of culture. We’re dealing, however with a fact that is as fascinating as it is paradoxical:  Secret, that is, ‘esoteric’, doctrines and methods are only unveiled and put within reach of everyone because they no longer have any chance of being understood. They can henceforth only be badly understood and poorly interpreted by non-initiates.” Robinet, Isabelle.  Taoist Meditation: The Mao-Shan Tradition of Great Purity. Translated by Julian F. Pas & Norman J. Girardot. State University of New York Press. 1993., pg. xxvi


The Shangqing sect openly tells everyone, that wants to know, what they are up to.  This is their sole focus, saving ancient wisdom for a time to come. I believe they seemed to know two very important things.  One, they understood the true hidden nature of Taoism and that it would only be understood by the initiate, and secondly that the world was changing and people that could or would choose to learn and understand the ancient wisdom were fading from the earth.  So what did they do with their understanding; they collected the scriptures and hid them? They planned a time in the future when they would have one or more of their group come forward and reveal the hidden location of the scriptures so they could be revealed to the world again.


The Story Told by the Tiles in the Tomb


All historical information related to the Tomb, is taken from a book by Annett L. Juliano, Teng-hsien: An Important Six Dynasties Tomb.  Ascona : Artibus Asiae Publishers, 1980. The interpretation is my own.


“In December of 1957 the tomb was discovered by farmers at the town of Hsueh-chuang in the Teng-hsien District in southwest Honan. (See map enclosed) The style and Iconography of these decorated tiles, along with the tomb’s ambiguous geographical location, raise major issues for the field of Chinese art and, in particular for the study of Six Dynasties non-Buddhist art from the Southern Dynasties.”


“The tomb of Teng-hsien falls into the third phase.  Both its plan and location give it an ambiguous historical position in this post-Chin to Sui period.  Teng-hsien, located in southwest Honan about twenty kilometers north of the Hupei border, latitude 32 degrees46 minutes longitude 112 degrees 08 minutes, occupied an apparently strategic position between the North and the South.  Consequently, Teng-hsien was subject to influence from both the North and the South.”


The Tomb in Teng hsien, that these faithful built is where the scriptures are hidden.


The tomb is not the tomb of a ruler or military official.  The tomb is a tomb of a highly regarded Taoist monk. The tomb is full of high quality decorated tiles with Taoist spiritual motifs that tell a story.  The Taoist community in this area was selected for this special tomb because they were as far removed as possible from the ruling governments of their time.  In this location the Taoist group located here could practice their beliefs with minimal interference from the ruling class. This was destined to change with the coming Tang dynasty in 618 CE.


More importantly the tomb is associated with the hiding place of the Shangqing Revelations.  The Shangqing revelations are the culmination of wisdom passed down from Fu Hsi, the creator of the trigrams in @ 3500 BCE.  This wisdom was passed to Laozi, the author of the Tao te Ching and then was passed onto the someone within this group of Shangqing practitioners in Teng-hsien.  The hiding of place of ancient texts passed from group to group through the centuries lies near this tomb and was hidden in the 7th century CE. These ancient scrolls have remained hidden until this time.  


Remember the earlier quote concerning “jing,” the eternal surviving of the wisdom, and the Shangqing Revelations?  The Shangqing Revelations is an ancient Chinese work that predicts the faithful would hide their wisdom so it could be revealed at a later time.  In fact, they name specific people that will be involved in this undertaking. These people are involved in the “eternal surviving” of the wisdom.  


Let’s shift our discussion to the tiles, and their story, from the tomb.


“Floral elements, particularly the lotus, develop into a major decorative device and space filler, regardless of subject.”  The lotus is not intended to represent a floral element, but rather is intended to refer to what the Taoist’s called gates. The lotus and gates are a reference to chakras.  So, the chakra motif is predominant within this tomb.


“The fourth and last group contains the “story-telling” tiles. … The advanced and complex composition of these scenes which will be treated at length later makes them the most interesting in the tomb.”  These tiles are “special” because the builders of the tomb are trying to draw out attention to this part of their story. This group of tiles includes references to eight Taoist personalities.


These people are Wang tzu-ch’iao, Fou Ch’iu-Kung (571-545 BCE), The Four Greybeards of Shang Mountain (circa 206 BCE), Kuo chu, and Laozi.  Of all the famous Taoist personalities of the preceding ages why did these Taoist monks choose this group to represent in their tomb? What sets this group of historical Taoist people apart from the others?


There is a direct relationship between this group and the builders of this ancient tomb in Teng-hsien.  Remember the earlier quote from Taoist scholar Michel Strickmann about the listing of all the people that were sent to save the wisdom?  I believe the eight people referred to in the tiles are the eight elders referred to above. I also believe that the writings of these people, in their incarnations as the eight people listed on the tiles, are contained in the hidden location with the Shangqing Revelations.


The story around Kuo Chu is to have lived in the second century CE.  He lived with his wife, child and his aging mother. Lacking the resources to feed his family he and his wife decide to bury their infant son to provide for his mother’s needs.  While he is digging, he uncovers a pot of gold. The gold is seen as a reward for his devotion to his mother. This tile from the tomb shows the moment when Kuo Chu, with his wife holding his son looking on, uncovers the pot of gold.


I don’t believe this is a literal story, but like many Taoist themes is a metaphor for something they want us to understand, but not easily.  The family theme shows what the Taoist call “inherited guilt,” a term from the Tai-ping jing. Inherited guilt is learned behavior passed down through the generations.  I believe the mother, son, and grandson represents this concept and the builders of the tomb are trying to draw our attention to this. I also believe the pot of gold being dug up represents the wisdom from the scrolls and that it relates to inherited guilt.


“The decorated clay tiles occur in three shapes, rectangular, square, and wedge-shaped.  All have mold impressed relief decoration and are further embellished with one ore more combination of seven colors, red, yellow green, blue, purple, light red (pink) and black.”  The colors used here are significant in Taoism and with spiritual work. Red, yellow, green, and black are colors associated with the five agent theory from Taoism. Each color corresponds with a direction including the center or middle.  


The color blue is an emotional healing color, pink is a color that expresses love and purple is a color associated with the realm of spirituality.  “Four tiles depict the traditional symbolic creatures of the four directions: the ‘Black Warrior’ of the North (a serpent curled around a tortoise), the White Tiger of the West, the Green Dragon of the East, and the Red Bird of the South.”


“An exceptional tile in this group shows a striding tiger ridden by an elegant lady wearing long robes which trail behind as if briskly blown by a rush of air.  Apparently, this combination of a lady riding an animal was quite popular in the Six Dynasties, particularly on epitaph covers such as that of Erh-chu Hsi dated 529 A.D. under the Northern Wei.  On that cover, all of the symbolic directional animals except for the tortoise and snake are ridden by elegant figures with wind-blown scarves.”


The woman riding the dragon is Lady South Marchmont also known as Lady wei from Shangqing Taoism.  She is responsible for spiritual revelations to Yang Hsi one of the founding members of the Shangqing sect of Taoism.  The style of wind-blown scarves is a technique designed to show that these people are representative of spiritual entities.


“Of the four direction zoo morphs, the Black Warrior of the North is the strangest and most fascinating.  It is the only one of the four composed of two animals. Individually, tortoise and snake have acquired various mythological and symbolic connotations through the centuries.  

Their combination seems to be the result of several legends woven together. … Subsequently, the tortoise became an emblem of immortality and a powerful guardian of graves. …By extension, the snake and tortoise can also be regarded as symbolic of Yin and Yang, the primary creative forces.

The snake wrapped around the tortoise reflects a union of two elements, not a struggle.  … The Teng-hsien black warrior shows a large tortoise with head turned to confront the curling tongue and head of a snake whose elongated body loops around the tortoise’s. In Chinese folklore, all tortoises are female and, to reproduce, must mate with a serpent.”

There is a lot to discover here.  I believe the snake is representative of the Lo-shu dragon that Fu Hsi discovered and used to create the trigrams.  The trigrams consist of yin and yang energy. The tortoise represents the Ho’tu discovered by Yu. The Ho’tu is the five agent theory comprising the four directions, colors seasons, etc…. (See chart below) What the tile of the Black Warrior is telling us to do is to combine the elements from the Lo-shu and the Ho’tu into one unifying principle.  The combination of these principles is The Emotional Compass. The Black Warrior is from the North and is associated with Fear from the Ho’tu.


Five Agent Theory of the Ho’tu


Agent     Direction  Color       Season Orb   Emotion       Sense   Psych.

Wood     East  Green      Spring Liver   Anger           Eyes   Matl. Soul

Fire          South  Red      Summer    Heart  Joy      Tongue Spirit

Earth        Center   Yellow Sept.         Spleen Worry  Lips Will

Metal       West     White Fall          Lungs Sadness Nose       Spirit soul

Water       North     Black Winter      Kidneys Fear    Ears Essence


The combination of the Lo-shu and the Ho’tu as The Emotional Compass is a tool designed to help us heal issues in our lives.  It is a tool designed to help us balance our emotions so we may remain unaffected by the world around us. The Emotional Compass is represented below:


So Where Exactly are They Hidden


My wife and I traveled to China in May of 1997.  Our purpose was to visit this tomb in modern day Deng xian, and we did.  It was also a trip to reconnect and remember where we came from. We stood on the site of this tomb.  It is in the middle of what is now a field being plowed. Looking off, not far away, was a huge mound probably a tomb from the Han dynasty.

The government of China had erected a brick building to cover this tomb, probably when it was unearthed in 1957, but the only structure left standing was one wall and a rectangular hole in the ground.  

Our local guides were disappointed it had not been more well cared for and asked us not to take pictures. See the one picture we did take with the group and the brick wall in the background. The tomb is right behind us.

If you turn around and look into the tomb towards the end with the wall, there is a finely cut stone wall from the top to about 4 ft off the ground, then there is a horizontal recess going back; I am guessing about another 4-5 ft.  Then it drops down to the floor of the tomb.

When we arrived home from our trip to China, I had a waking dream the first night.  I call them a waking dream because to me it feels like I am in both this world and that world at the same time; consciously aware of both realities.  In this dream I was shown there is an entrance to a cave hidden by this tomb.

Behind the recessed vertical wall is the entrance to a cave.  The Shangqing revelations are hidden within this cave, waiting to be discovered sitting in plain sight in a field in southeastern China.

So the Shangqing faithful told you what they were going to do, they built a tomb and on the walls of the tomb they told the story of what they were doing.  Kind of seems like they were putting a sign on the door saying “Look Here” from the story the tiles are telling.

Brian Runau

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