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Personal Effects:  An Inventory of Tomb Life

Noble Tombs at Mawangdui: Art and Life in the Changsha Kingdom, Third Century BCE – First Century CE

By Rachel Reese, February 26, 2009

Currently on view at the China Institute is a sampling of the excavated finds from the three noble tombs at Mawangdui, located in modern day Changsha, Hunan Province, China.

The tombs were built for the the Marquis of Dai, Li Cang, (d. 186 BCE), his wife, Xinzhui, known as Lady Dai (d. ca. 163 BCE), and a third person who is thought to be their son.  The exhibition centers around the personal effects found in the tomb of Lady Dai, whose saponified body was discovered undisturbed and in most excellent condition in 1973. 

lady dai

(Lady Dai is permanently located at the Hunan Provincial Museum, China)

The ancient Chinese were increasingly anxious of successful passage into the afterlife, and an “inventory of burial objects” became standard documentation for the journey.  In this sense, “Noble Tombs at Mawangdui” serves as a curio of visual inventory for viewers to transport themselves back in time, rising like the phoenix over the auspicious and sinewy clouds into the heavens.  Included are artifacts which read like Guiness Book of World Records entries – the first documented physical exercise chart (delicate ink drawings on bamboo), the first text on impotence (text on bamboo), and the first teased fabrics ever discovered. 

The exhibition space at the China Institute is divided between two rooms, both painted symbolically in a vibrant deep red and tomb-like in their dark and climate-controlled environment.  The left exhibition space focuses primarily on precious silks, garments, and bamboo texts, all periphery to a replica of Lady Dai’s inner stacking coffin, while the right exhibition space focuses on personal effects and objects (of food, drink, and leisure).  

Notable highlights are the T­shaped painting on silk, which was discovered draped over Lady Dai’s coffin.  The silk’s mythical quality is evident; Lady Dai is depicted traveling to the afterlife amidst dragons and serpents, under the watchful crow-sun and toad-moon.  The colors are so vibrant and paint so fresh that one wouldn’t guess it was created over 2100 years ago.  It is obvious that Han Dynasty Chinese had mastery with color pigmentation, from the cinnabar-dyed Red Luo fabric, to the tiny painted bright red lips of the playful Five Musicians, which show no signs of fade.  The frail, ephemeral fabrics and lifelike figurines help to facilitate the ideology of life in death as a mirror of life on earth.  


Detail from the T-shaped painting on silk from Mawangdui Tomb. No. 1.

Along with the immaculately preserved body of Lady Dai, the tomb also revealed lacquer-wear vessels still containing food and drink dregs.  A pair of fingerless gloves and booties appear to be stained by Dai’s human flesh, evidence to the two-millennia of wear.  Other curious personal effects of Lady Dai on display include a perfume sachet and a cosmetic case containing tweezers, fine tooth combs, and a dagger.

One thing is evident, Lady Dai was well equipped for her departure, as documented in the 312 bamboo slip tomb inventory (20 of which are on view), and was even more well preserved for historians to uncover her (helped in part by the kaolin and charcoal packing the tombs to naturally filter impurities). 

While the exhibition does provide great insight into royal ancient Chinese life, one can’t help but wonder if historians walk the line between educating others at the cost of disturbing cultural burial practices in exhibiting such artifacts.  While it may be essential for history to learn and grow from those who came before, I personally can’t help but wonder...has Lady Dai been aimlessly wondering around Mawangdui for the past 35 years, searching for her misplaced padded gown and booties?

The exhibition is on view until June 7, 2009.  
China Institute is located at 125 East 65th Street, NYC.