The Stone Stele of Yangshan Quarry

May 16, 2024 0 comments

In the hills outside the old capital of Nanjing in southeastern China lies the ancient stone quarry of Yangshan. Worked since the time of the Six Dynasties (from the early 3rd century AD to the late 6th century AD), limestone from the Yangshan Quarry has been used for the construction of buildings, walls, and statues in and around Nanjing. Especially after Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming dynasty in 1368, the Yangshan quarry became the main source of stone for all the major construction projects that changed the face of Nanjing. Today, the quarry is hardly known even among locals living in Nanjing. However, people who have an interest in Chinese history periodically visit the site to gasp at the size of the gigantic unfinished stele that lies abandoned there.

The base of the unfinished stele at Yangshan Quarry. Photo credit: Megalithic China

The aforementioned stele was ordered by the Yongle Emperor (whose real name was Zhu Di) in the early 15th century, with the intention of erecting the monolith on the tomb of his father, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty. The Yongle Emperor was one of China's great emperors, but he was also exceptionally brutal, torturing and killing anybody who rebelled against his administration. Like his father, Zhu Di was particularly fond of execution by an excruciating method known as death by a thousand cuts, where a knife was used to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time, causing the traitor to bleed to death. Zhu Di punished not only the traitor but also his family and extended family, killing grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, siblings by birth or by bond, children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, and all cohabitants of whatever family.  

Yongle had become emperor in 1402 by staging a rebellion and deposing his nephew, Zhu Yunwen. When Yongle invited Confucian scholar Fang Xiaoru and asked him to write an inaugural address, Fang flatly refused. When the emperor demanded he write the address, Fang took a piece of paper and wrote “The Bandit of Yan is a usurper”. Fang was threatened with execution of all nine degrees of his kinship, to which he fatuously replied “Never mind nine! I am fine with ten!”.

Yongle Emperor

Fang was granted his wish. Along with his entire family, every former student or peer of Fang Xiaoru that the Yongle Emperor's agents could find was also killed as the tenth group. Altogether, some 870 people are said to have been executed. Fang himself was cut in half at the waist. The legend goes that prior to his death, he dipped his finger in his own blood and wrote on the ground the word “usurper”.

In 1405, the Yongle Emperor ordered the cutting of a giant stele at the Yangshan Quarry. The stele was to be cut in three separate pieces—a rectangular base, a tall and flat body, and a crowning head. Yongle wanted the memorial to his father to be the biggest in China. The dimensions he ordered to his court engineers were astounding—the base was to be 16 meter tall and 30 meter long on its side, the body was 50 meters tall, while the head was another 10 meters tall. If the stele had been finished and put together, it would have stood 73 meters tall.

Photo credit: Megalithic China

Thousands of workers spent years clearing the hillside and carving the stone from the mountain. According to a legend, workers who failed to produce the daily quota of crushed rock of at least 33 sheng were executed on the spot. In memory of all those who died at the construction site, including those who died from overwork and disease, a nearby village became known as Fentou, or “Grave Mound”.

After huge expense and unimaginable labor, the three parts were chiseled almost entirely free from the mountain. Then the engineers realized their emperor’s folly—there was no way they could move the gargantuan stele, weighing 31,000 tons combined, from the quarry to the gravesite. As a result the project was abandoned, and the Yongle Emperor had to make do with a much smaller tablet known as the Shengong Shengde. It was installed at the Xiao Mausoleum in 1413. The stele consist of a stone tortoise which supports a carved stone stele, crowned by intertwining hornless dragons. The stele stands barely 9 meters tall, but it’s an impressive monument nonetheless.

The Shengong Shengde stele at the Xiao Mausoleum. Photo credit: wang leon

Although the Yangshan quarry stele was a foolish endeavor, the Yongle Emperor did some great things for China. It was he who ordered the repairs of the Grand Canal that connected northern and southern China. He moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where he commissioned the construction of the Forbidden City, a monumental architectural feat that became the seat of Chinese emperors for centuries. He was also responsible for the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, considered one of the wonders of the world before its destruction by the Taiping rebels in 1856. Yongle also promoted maritime exploration, most famously through the voyages of Admiral Zheng He, which extended Chinese influence as far as Africa and the Middle East.

The Yongle Emperor's reign was marked by both remarkable achievements and severe brutality. His contributions to Chinese infrastructure, culture, and global influence are undeniable. Yet, his violent purges and strict enforcement of loyalty ensured that dissent was met with swift and severe punishment, leaving a complex and contradictory legacy. The abandoned stele at Yangshan Quarry serves as a reminder of his ambitious undertakings and the indelible impact he had on Chinese history.

On the top right of the image is visible the body and the crown of the stele. Towards the bottom is the base. Photo credit: Megalithic China

The body and the crown of the stele. Photo credit: Megalithic China

The body and the crown of the stele. Photo credit: Megalithic China

Photo credit: Megalithic China

Photo credit: Vivian May

Photo credit: Vivian May

Photo credit: Megalithic China

Photo credit: Megalithic China

Photo credit: Megalithic China

# A Relic of Imperial Aspirations, The New York Times
# Yangshan Quarry, Wikipedia


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