Marvellous Mawangdui

I was in Changsha earlier this February and had intended to visit this special museum. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the entrance, was told that tickets were not available. The limited daily tickets were issued free every morning (usually snapped up within the hour by those in the queue) or to those was made prior bookings.  I made another plan to view the exhibit early next morning. Someone even offered to a ticket to me. Somehow, a mistake made in buying train ticket at Changsha station, meant that I had to travel that very night to Zhangjiajie and forget about visiting the museum. Looking back, It was a big dissapointment.  I missed the opportunity to visit the museum and a number of interesting sites in Changsha. There are just so many places that I want to visit in China, and Changsha will have to wait a long time for me to revisit.

This article by Ziying in the Stars, rekindle my memories of that last fateful night in Changsha.  The writer managed to write quite alot, just from her 1.5 hours visit.   

The luxurious lifestyle of a Han dynasty feudal lord comes to light at Hunan Provincial Museum’s Mawangdui exhibit.

THE family lay in eternal rest, surrounded by the luxuries that had accompanied them in life, their wealth and prestige evidenced by the three to four layers of richly adorned caskets that encased each individual.

Situated in the outskirts of Hunan’s provincial capital Changsha, the Mawangdui mausoleum was the final resting place of Li Cang the Marquis of Dai, his son, and his wife, Lady Dai, whose remains are now housed in Changsha’s Hunan Provincial Museum, together with over 3,000 of the artefacts interred with the family.

Unearthed in 1972 two years before the Qin First Emperor’s Terracotta Army was discovered, the 2,200-year-old Mawangdui tombs are considered one of China’s most important archaeological finds. Their well-preserved burial accoutrements present a vivid picture of aristocratic life during the Han dynasty, a period so seminal that till today, over 90% of the country’s population still call themselves Han after the dynastic name.

Garment of choice: Tomb figurines wearing the wraparound robe popular during the early Han era 22 centuries ago.

Besides the obvious quality of the items, their scope is truly awesome, ranging from lacquer, silk, weaponry and musical instruments to philosophical tomes, food, chess games, money, as well as treatises on health, exercise and medicine, and even astronomy.

Most astounding is the Lady Dai herself who, wrapped in 20 layers of cloth, is testament to the capabilities of the ancient Chinese in preserving human remains.

Now laid to rest in a glass crypt, she is certainly no dark, desiccated mummy. So carefully embalmed was the Lady that even after two millennia, her skin colour appears “fresh” and her tissues are said to be still pliable.

Of the dazzling array of exhibits that illustrate in no uncertain terms the creativity and refinement of the epoch, several stand out for their sheer beauty and genius.

Chief among them are the silk clothing and fabrics – brocade, gauze, fine silk printed and embroidered – all so exquisite and displaying such a high degree of skill it is hard to believe they were produced 22 centuries ago. It is small wonder that, when traded all the way to Rome, Han silk was worth its weight in gold.

Lacquer toiletries set, with small boxes for combs, powder and other cosmetic accessories.

A printed wrap-around robe with a right-side closure and wide pocket sleeves cinched near the wrist exemplifies the Han costume whose design was emulated by neighbouring north-east Asian countries.

Then there is a T-shaped painted silk funerary banner ostensibly used to guide the departed’s spirit to heaven. With red as the predominant colour, this gorgeous work of art so rich in iconography surely ranks as one of the museum’s greatest treasures.

At the very top of the banner, a crescent moon and a blackbird silhouetted against a bright red sun depicts the heavenly realm; a woman (presumably Lady Dai) with three attendants stand before two kneeling servants in the human world at mid-section.

Finally, in the netherworld, a stocky troll-like being holds up a horizontal platform with human figures. Sinuous dragons, serpentine motifs, swirling clouds and mythical creatures wind through the entire piece, linking the various elements.

Of the numerous artefacts, Mawangdui’s superbly crafted lacquer ware are perhaps the most eye-catching. Strikingly coloured bright red and black, the pieces are characterised by clean lines and strong, simple forms that speak of the period’s sophisticated aesthetics and highly-developed design skills.

A long ladle with a round dipper for wine and one with a triangular dipper for water.

Lacquer was the Han aristocracy’s material of choice for dining as well as for other household utensils. Meals were evidently served in individual sets, with four or five dishes arranged on a tray together with a small water mug and a wine cup unforgettable for its unique shape – a shallow oval with a pair of “ears” for handles.

Particularly beautiful are the ladles, especially the wine ladle with segmented long handle ending in a round scoop. Among the other lacquer objects are a variety of boxes, such as a two-tiered cosmetic box set containing nine smaller boxes in different shapes whose classic design would be just as appropriate for use today.

A wealth of silk “books” and manuscripts were discovered at Mawangdui, some of which were thought to have been lost. They cover a mind-boggling range of subjects – historical records, teachings of philosophers like Laozi, and even what appear to be qigong exercises.

One of the manuscripts is a work called Divination by Five Stars, namely Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The museum has a model illustrating the theories expounded in this work which clearly shows that the ancient Chinese knew about the movement of the five planets, as well as of the Earth and the moon, around the sun – a full 1,700 years before the concept first appeared in the western world.

A visit to Hunan Museum’s Mawangdui wing (which takes up the entire ground floor) is akin to stepping into a microcosm of the sumptuous world of early Han dynasty aristocracy. The hour-and-a-half we spent there was simply inadequate and anyone with an interest in Chinese civilisation should not miss this amazing collection.

Ziying can be reached at


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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