Visiting Guangzhou's Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King

Updated on February 1, 2018
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Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, mythology, and video gaming.

Throughout its long history, China was surrounded by numerous smaller states, many of which the Middle Kingdom eventually absorbed into its territory. Nanyue (南越) was one such state. Roughly occupying modern-day Northern Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan, Nanyue was founded in 204 BC during the final years of the short-lived Qin Dynasty. In 1983, workers in downtown Guangzhou City discovered the mausoleum of Nanyue’s second king, Zhao Mo (趙眜), during the construction of a hotel. At the end of excavation, over a thousand artifacts were uncovered, including the king’s remains and his jade burial suit. The most important of these discoveries are now exhibited in the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King built on the same site. I had the opportunity to visit this important archeological museum while on a solo day trip to Guangzhou last autumn.

Reaching the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King

Located in the heart of Guangzhou, right next to sprawling Yuexiu Park, the museum can be easily reached by taxi from any downtown hotels. Alternatively, it is a short walk from Exit E of Yuexiu Park Subway Station. In my case, I used the subway and it took me slightly more than half an hour to reach Yuexiu Park Subway Station from Guangzhou East Railway Station, the latter being my entry point into the city. The walk to the museum was itself a pleasant stroll beside busy Jiefang Road. Not having visited China for several years, I was awed by how much the country has developed.

Access map from official brochure, with English indication of subway exit and museum entrance.
Access map from official brochure, with English indication of subway exit and museum entrance.

Museum Layout

The main complex of the museum is constructed atop the mausoleum, which lies 20 meters under Xianggang Shan (Elephant Hill). To view the excavations, visitors must first ascend a large central staircase located after the main entrance. Along the way, there are mini exhibitions introducing the history of Guangzhou and Guangdong Province, as well as a permanent exhibition of Chinese ceramic pillows. Regarding the latter, I was quite perplexed after viewing the ceramic pillows. Lovely as they are, surely people didn’t actually sleep on them? I remain convinced they are purely for decorative purposes!

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Entrance to the Museum. If you’re visiting too, note that the ticket office is beside these steps, not after it. There is also another large flight of steps after this.Chinese map depicting the Nanyue Kingdom at its peak.Chinese ceramic pillow on display.Another elaborate ceramic pillow. These were donated to the museum by a couple from Hong Kong.
Entrance to the Museum. If you’re visiting too, note that the ticket office is beside these steps, not after it. There is also another large flight of steps after this.
Entrance to the Museum. If you’re visiting too, note that the ticket office is beside these steps, not after it. There is also another large flight of steps after this.
Chinese map depicting the Nanyue Kingdom at its peak.
Chinese map depicting the Nanyue Kingdom at its peak.
Chinese ceramic pillow on display.
Chinese ceramic pillow on display.
Another elaborate ceramic pillow. These were donated to the museum by a couple from Hong Kong.
Another elaborate ceramic pillow. These were donated to the museum by a couple from Hong Kong.

The Mausoleum

For reasons of preservation, there are no relics displayed in the actual mausoleum. The murals on the walls have also long faded away. Somewhat disappointed by these, I made my way quickly through the chambers, only reading the placards on my way out. It was then that I learned that Zhao Mo was not the only one found within this royal tomb. Buried with him as human sacrifices were 15 others, including consorts, courtiers, and a musician. Chilled, I hastily made my way for the exit. It finally dawned on me there and then that I was stepping on what was once, forbidden royal grounds.

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Stairway down to the mausoleum.The layout of the mausoleum is clearly indicated.
Stairway down to the mausoleum.
Stairway down to the mausoleum.
The layout of the mausoleum is clearly indicated.
The layout of the mausoleum is clearly indicated.

Excavated Relics and Artifacts

Excavated relics and artifacts are displayed in a modern, temperature-controlled complex beside the mausoleum. Divided into thematic sections, these displays meticulously depict how life was during Zhao Mo’s reign. As a part-time musician, I was particularly interested in the section featuring remnants and reconstructions of classic Chinese instruments, many of which I have read about but have never seen in person. I was also impressed by the section detailing Chinese culinary methods during those years. Through them, one could easily see how Chinese cuisine developed into the sophisticated art it is today.

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Entrance to the exhibits.Ancient Chinese barbecue pit and skewers.The Chinese Se, an elegant string instrument.Banquet urns.For the benefit of foreign visitors, all placards are presented in Chinese and English.
Entrance to the exhibits.
Entrance to the exhibits.
Ancient Chinese barbecue pit and skewers.
Ancient Chinese barbecue pit and skewers.
The Chinese Se, an elegant string instrument.
The Chinese Se, an elegant string instrument.
Banquet urns.
Banquet urns.
For the benefit of foreign visitors, all placards are presented in Chinese and English.
For the benefit of foreign visitors, all placards are presented in Chinese and English.

Zhao Mo’s Jade Burial Suit

The star attraction of the museum, Zhao Mo’s elaborate jade burial suit is the oldest one found in China and the only one in which the jade pieces are connected by silk. Looking at the intricate handiwork, one could easily sense the amazing craftsmanship and devotion of the makers. At the same time, the symmetrical silk patterns also exert a certain mesmerising draw. They seem to demand reverence for the deceased king. One can’t help but feel a little nervous when viewing the suit up close.

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In Ancient China, Jade was believed to possess powerful preservation properties.A closer look at the intricate knitting.
In Ancient China, Jade was believed to possess powerful preservation properties.
In Ancient China, Jade was believed to possess powerful preservation properties.
A closer look at the intricate knitting.
A closer look at the intricate knitting.

Other Displays

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Excavated remains of swords.Reconstructed plate mail armor based on excavated remains.Jade refinement process in Ancient China.Painting depicting the court of the Nanyue King.
Excavated remains of swords.
Excavated remains of swords.
Reconstructed plate mail armor based on excavated remains.
Reconstructed plate mail armor based on excavated remains.
Jade refinement process in Ancient China.
Jade refinement process in Ancient China.
Painting depicting the court of the Nanyue King.
Painting depicting the court of the Nanyue King.

About The Nanyue Kingdom and King Zhao Mo

The Kingdom of Nanyue lasted 93 years and had five generations of kings. Its founder, Zhao Tao (赵佗), was a Qin Dynasty general who declared independence during the final years of Qin. Throughout its history, Nanyue maintained an uneasy, fluctuating relationship with the Han Dynasty, the powerful successor of Qin. In 111 BC, the Nanyue military was devastated by a 100,000 men strong army dispatched by Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi. Nanyue territory then became part of the growing Han Empire.

Zhao Mo was the second ruler of Nanyue, reigning from 137 BC to 122 BC. Considered by historians to be a weak ruler, Zhao Mo’s reign saw Nanyue increasingly influenced by its massive neighbour, although peace was maintained because founder Zhao Tao had earlier paid homage to Han. (By doing so, Zhao Tao established Nanyue as a vassal state of Han) During Zhao Mo’s reign, assimilation between local tribes and Chinese immigrants also continued, leading to Nanyue culture and relics having a distinctively Chinese “flavour.” Of note, the Zhao rulers were themselves from Northern China and are credited with introducing Chinese culture and language to the region. Zhao Tao was born in the former state of Zhao, which was located where modern-day Hebei Province is.

Of note too, the Nanyue rulers are referred to as the Triệu Dynasty in Vietnamese history. In fact, the Chinese name of Vietnam (越南) is merely Nanyue with the characters reversed. Zhao Mo is known as Triệu Mạt in Vietnamese texts.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Kuan Leong Yong

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        Kuan Leong Yong 2 months ago from Singapore

        Hey Eurofile, thank

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        Liz Westwood 2 months ago from UK

        Thanks for a very detailed and well illustrated article. I've learnt a lot from this.

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