Hot Spot

2 minute read

CONFLICTING CLAIMS Chinese scholars say the glistening white pyramid perched on a bluff overlooking the Yalu River is the tomb of Koguryo’s 5th century King Changsu. Some of their Korean counterparts disagree, believing their national hero to be buried in Koguryo’s second capital, Pyongyang.

The Ji’an region is host to the largest collection of Koguryo tombs outside of Pyongyang, including pyramidal, stepped tombslike that of Changsu’sand more common mound tombs covered in earth and renowned for their painted murals. As some of the most impressive examples of ancient Asian art, these murals are also the latest fetish in the stolen antiquities trade. Even after 1,500 years, their colorful depictions of Koguryo life and myth still prove seductive, and there have been several reported tomb lootings. Chinese authorities assert that wealthy South Koreans are behind the thefts, an allegation backed by the sighting of stolen Koguryo murals in Seoul last year.

But unlike the region’s more famous crypts, Changsu’s boasts no colorful murals of meditating Buddhas. Instead, it inspires by its sheer size: a 20-meter-high stack of megaliths that far out-scales any other in the area.

I ascend the tomb’s stepped granite blocks to the mouth of the crypt. A bored-looking Chinese guide watches me curiously as I examine the dank and empty hulk of the pyramid’s interior. In a sign of deference, Chinese and South Korean banknotes and coins are strewn across the stone slabs of what are ostensibly the sarcophagi of Changsu and his consort. It’s a telling display of the two national claims on the site. Hearing of my interest in Koguryo, the guide challenges me, eager to gauge my opinion on a controversial subject. “Was Koguryo a Chinese or Korean kingdom?” she asks. Not wanting to offend, I say I do not know. “Zhongguo de (it was Chinese),” she gushes. If he’s still there, King Changsu must be turning in his tomb.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at