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Entombed in Style Volume 62 Number 3, May/June 2009
by Eti Bonn-Muller

The lavish afterlife of a Chinese noblewoman

Dig deep holes, store grain, do not seek hegemony. In the early 1970s, Mao Zedong's latest propagandistic slogan, which encouraged people to build bomb shelters for fear of an impending attack by an unspecified "capitalist" nation, resonated throughout China. In Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, in the southern part of the country, a local hospital was simply following these directions. In late 1971, workers began burrowing into the side of Mawangdui, a hill on the hospital's property that seemed like an ideal place for a shelter. When they had tunneled through almost 100 feet of dirt, however, they began to notice that the soil was crumbling, so they stopped for a cigarette break.

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"Lady Dai," a noblewoman who died in 163 B.C., was buried with more than 1,000 items to ensure a luxurious afterlife.
Left: A lacquer cup for wine or soup, one of about 100 found in her tomb, depicts a stylized cloud motif and the inscription "junxingjiu" ("please drink"). Right: Paper-thin fingerless silk mitts covered her delicate hands. (Courtesy of Hunan Provincial Museum)

As they lit up, air seeping out from the hill's dank belly caused the tiny sparks from their matches to burst into frightening blue flames. "Gui huo!" ("ghost fire") they shouted, and reported the incident to local officials, who promptly sent a small team of archaeologists to investigate. The archaeologists were familiar with the phenomenon, which they had seen at other ancient sites: when decomposing organic material is exposed to the air, it releases toxic gases, some highly flammable.


Wooden figurines represent musicians who played for Lady Dai. Two of them hold yu, a type of flute; three kneel before silk-stringed, hand-plucked se. (Courtesy of Hunan Provincial Museum)

The archaeologists received only 6,000 yuan from the government, a fraction of what was needed for proper excavations. To defray costs, they reached out to local high schools for help. Over the course of three months, beginning on January 16, 1972, about 1,500 students took turns volunteering at the site; after digging down through 50 feet of the hill's natural red clay, they discovered the tomb of a second-century B.C. noblewoman known today as "Lady Dai," wife of Li Cang, the marquis of Dai. Accompanying her to the afterlife was a wealth of goods, including some of the ancient world's oldest and best-preserved lacquerware, embroidered silk, musical instruments, and writings on the importance of exercise and maintaining good health.

Almost 70 objects from Lady Dai's tomb, as well as pieces from the more modest nearby burials of her husband and, perhaps, their son, are now at the China Institute Gallery in New York City. Noble Tombs at Mawangdui: Art and Life in the Changsha Kingdom, Third Century BCE to First Century CE is the first exhibition in the United States ever to focus exclusively on finds from the site. "Mawangdui is considered one of the most important findings in Chinese archaeological history," says Willow Weilan Hai Chang, director of the gallery and the project director who organized the exhibition. The works on view do not disappoint.


In lacquer boxes she kept cosmetics, such as blush and silk pads for powder. (Courtesy of Hunan Provincial Museum)

Lady Dai's tomb had been divided into four rectangular compartments made of pine, each brimming with exquisite items--more than 1,000 in all--with the nested coffins at the center. The exhibition includes a rich selection of these artifacts: glistening earthy-red and black lacquer drinking vessels, wine containers, and boxes for storing cosmetics; a golden silk gown embroidered with dogwood blossoms and a phoenix soaring above the clouds; dainty fingerless mitts that protected the wearer's hands at the first nip of an autumn breeze; a silk sachet filled with various spices, flowers, and fragrant reeds (Lady Dai was found with one in each hand); wooden figurines of servants mourning, their pursed red lips in eternal frowns; and statuettes of musicians playing wind and string instruments, representing a group that entertained the family. "These objects show that Lady Dai lived a luxurious life, which she enjoyed very much," says Chang. "She wanted to maintain the same lifestyle in the afterlife."

Preliminary surveys of the area next to her tomb suggested that two other burials were located in the same hill. Preeminent archaeologist Xia Nai, director of the Chinese Archaeological Research Institute, attended a ceremony that was held as the first shovelful of soil was removed. Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic of China, personally approved the additional excavations, allotting 200,000 yuan to them and instructing special units of the army to lend assistance. Unfortunately, the two other tombs, excavated between 1973 and 1974, proved disappointing. Scholars believe they were much smaller and shallower because Lady Dai outlived both of the men interred there, and thus had more time to prepare her burial. Also, the tomb of Lady Dai's husband, Li Cang, had been partially looted in antiquity. The third person buried in the hill, a man in his 30s who died in 168 B.C., is believed to be the couple's son (although some argue he could have been Li Cang's brother).

Eti Bonn-Muller is managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
Noble Tombs at Mawangdui is at the China Institute Gallery through June 7. The exhibition will be at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from September 19 to December 13. See "China's Sleeping Beauty" for additional images from the show and "Digging Up China's Best Exhibitions" for an interview with Willow Weilan Hai Chang, who discusses her memories of excavating along the Yangtze River.