The Phoenix Crown of Princess Li Qi: A Tang Dynasty Discovery

The Phoenix Crown of Princess Li Qi: A Tang Dynasty Discovery


Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Phoenix Crown

Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Restored Phoenix Crown in the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology //



Between 2001 and 2003, in the ancient city of Chang An, now Xi'an, 182 tombs from the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) were uncovered while extending a new campus at the University of Technology. The excavators stumbled upon a tomb that housed one of the most stunning artifacts of Imperial China: a phoenix crown, believed to belong to the Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi, referred to in the west as Li Chui. The discovery of this crown has provided invaluable insights into Tang Dynasty craftsmanship, art, and culture. This article will delve into the details of this magnificent artifact, highlighting its design, size, metals, jewels used, and estimated value.


Unearthing the Crown

Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Skull and Phoenix Crown Excavation

The Skull and Phoenix Crown of Princess Li Qi // Liu Xingchen


Li Qi's tomb had faced more than 1,200 years of natural challenges. It experienced repeated floods, causing major damage to the top of the tomb and disturbing the buried objects inside. An earthquake later struck, resulting in the destruction of the coffin. Despite these adversities, remnants of murals, though severely damaged, still adorned the walls leading to the sarcophagus chamber. Miraculously, the tomb remained untouched by grave robbers, preserving its treasures. When archaeologists eventually unearthed the site, they discovered a wealth of well-preserved burial artifacts. These findings have provided an invaluable insight into both the era and the life of Princess Li Qi.

The excavation team began the delicate task of cleaning each individual artifact, attempting to remove soot and water, but they quickly halted their efforts. They recognized that their actions might unintentionally damage the surrounding earth, possibly jeopardizing this extraordinary discovery. Understanding the fragility of the situation, they reached out to specialists for assistance. The Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology was called upon, and their team of experts employed a specialized technique that  involved digging a hole around the crown, carefully positioning a steel plate beneath it. With the floor tiles intact, they then transferred the crown into a specially prepared container. At the site itself, they filled the container with plaster, securing the crown within a protective plaster tub, preserving both the crown and the skull to which it was adjacent. This tub was then transported to a laboratory where "indoor micro-excavation" could be conducted in a controlled environment.

The restoration process was complex and lengthy, involving both Chinese and German experts. Through a combined effort of reassembly, X-ray analysis, and intricate craftsmanship, the team spent three years painstakingly restoring the Princess's crown. Finally, they superimposed its form over a mesh framework, allowing it to be displayed to the public in its rejuvenated glory.


Princess Li Qi: A Tang Dynasty Royal

Princess Li Qi was a significant figure during the Tang Dynasty, an era noted for its cultural richness and artistic achievement. She holds a remarkable heritage, being a direct fifth-generation descendant of the founding Tang Emperor Gaozu, known as Li Yuan. Her lineage was nobility through and through, with her father, grandfather, and even great-grandfather having been dukes.

Physical descriptions of Li Qi paint a picture of a woman 5' 3" in height, characterized by a round face and broad nose. Li Qi was known for her intelligence, grace, and profound appreciation for arts and literature. Her connection to the phoenix crown is more than just a symbol of royalty; it represents the epitome of Tang Dynasty artistic mastery.

Her marriage was to Hòu Mòchén, a Tang official of Xianbei descent who possibly worked as a modern university professor. The couple's politically-arranged union was marked by genuine affection and compatibility. They settled in the Shengyefang district, a noble area strategically positioned between the imperial city and Xingqing Palace, Emperor Xuanzong's seat of power.

At 25, Li Qi's life changed tragically when she fell seriously ill after giving birth to a son. She died in 736, possibly due to childbirth complications. Her husband's grief was immortalized in an epitaph, highlighting her virtues like punctuality and grace, and expressing his profound loss:

"The baby wrapped in swaddling, the sight is agonizing, the wilderness is full of weeds, and the long future's full of sorrow."

These lines convey his anguish, depicting a man left to mourn his wife's passing with their infant. The poignant words bring their story to life, creating a connection across time and leaving hope that father and child found comfort in each other. 


The Phoenix Crown: Detail and Description

The crown was discovered in a remarkably well-preserved state, allowing experts to study its intricate details.



Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Phoenix Crown

Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Restored Phoenix Crown displaying the Phoenix // Liu Xingchen



Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Phoenix Crown Detail

Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Phoenix Crown Pattern // Liu Xingchen


The design of the phoenix crown is both intricate and symbolic. It features the mythological bird, the phoenix, a symbol of grace and virtue, often associated with the Empress and princesses during the Tang Dynasty. The headpiece is adorned with delicate filigree, elaborate patterns, and motifs representing longevity, prosperity, and happiness.



The crown measures approximately 30 cm in height and 25 cm in width. Its medium size emphasizes both aesthetic appeal and functionality, as it was meant to be worn on special occasions.



Gold is the primary metal used in the crown's construction, signifying royalty and purity. The use of gold in this crown exhibits a high degree of skill and technology in metallurgy during the Tang Dynasty.



Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Phoenix Crown Detail

 Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Phoenix Crown Top Motif // Liu Xingchen



The crown is inlaid with an exquisite array of 370 precious stones:

  1. Jade: Symbolizing virtue and moral integrity, jade is prominently used in the crown's structure.
  2. Pearls: Representing purity and wisdom, the crown features pearls of different sizes.
  3. Turquoise: Known for its protection qualities, turquoise adds a splash of color.
  4. Rubies: Symbolizing passion and energy, rubies accentuate the crown's grandeur.
  5. Sapphires: Often associated with nobility and wisdom, sapphires enhance the crown's elegance.


Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Phoenix Crown Phoenix Wing Detail

Tang Dynasty Princess Li Qi's Phoenix Crown Phoenix Wing Motif // Liu Xingchen


These gems were carefully selected and strategically placed to create a visual masterpiece that captures the essence of Tang Dynasty aesthetics.


Estimated Value

Given its historical significance, exquisite craftsmanship, and rarity, the crown is priceless from a cultural standpoint. However, in monetary terms, its value is estimated to be in the range of $30 to $50 million. The use of gold, along with the variety of precious stones and the crown's artistic importance, contribute to this substantial valuation.



The discovery of Princess Li Qi's phoenix crown in Chang An is more than just an archaeological triumph. It is a tangible link to an illustrious era when art, culture, and craftsmanship reached new heights. The crown's detail, size, choice of metals, jewels, and its extraordinary value provide a multifaceted insight into the world of the Tang Dynasty. It stands as a lasting testament to the opulence and artistic mastery of an age gone by, allowing us to glimpse into the life of a princess who once wore this magnificent piece of history.


Image Credits for image 1 // Dragon's Armory


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