1999 / 10月
Tsai Wen-ting /tr. by David Mayer
China's Han dynasty flourished from roughly two centuries before the birth of Christ until about two centuries after. In the same year that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the emperor Han Ping ascended the throne in China. What was life like in China twenty centuries ago?
A half-century ago, our image of the Han period still rested entirely upon what we could learn from historical records, but all that changed beginning in 1972 thanks to a series of major archeological finds at a number of tombs dating back to the Han dynasty. A huge quantity of silks, wooden tomb figurines, bamboo slips used for writing, and other burial items cast an entirely new light upon the way Chinese people lived two millennia ago.
An exhibit entitled Art and Culture of the Han Dynasty opened on September 21 at Taipei's National Palace Museum (NPM). In addition to items from NPM's own collection, the exhibit also features over 250 artifacts from the tombs at Mawangdui in Changsha (Hunan Province) and the royal tomb of the Nanyue kingdom in Guangdong. The exhibit will continue through through February 25th next year.
As we approach a new millennium, all eyes are on the future, but perhaps it would be a good idea as well to use these ancient artifacts to take a look back at the way our ancestors lived.
From 1972 through 1974, three Han dynasty tombs were excavated in Mawangdui (located on the eastern outskirts of Changsha). One of the tombs belonged to Li Cang, the marquis of Dai (who ruled over the kingdom of Changsha in the manner of a feudal prince). The other two belonged to his wife and son. Each person was buried in a coffin nestled inside three successively larger ones, and each nestled coffin structure was itself contained inside a larger outer sarcophagus. The outer coffins were surrounded with a wide variety of burial objects, including wooden tomb figurines, bamboo slips, silk banners, lacquerware, embroidery, bronze pieces, ceramics, and more. These tombs, with their copious collections of luxury items, are veritable underground palaces, and they tell us much about life in the Han dynasty.
According to Xiong Chuanxin, director of the Hunan Provincial Museum, "Mawangdui is the oldest of all the Han sites that have been excavated, and it hasn't been hit by grave robbers. Mawangdui has attracted great interest around the world especially due to the fact that its coffins, the body of the marquise of Dai, the funerary banners, and the silk manuscripts are so well preserved." He particularly emphasizes the importance of the large numbers of silk manuscripts, which show us the brilliant achievements of the Han dynasty in such fields as astronomy, geography, technology, medicine, and health.
After three years of planning by NPM, more than 250 precious Han-dynasty artifacts have finally managed to travel across two millennia and transcend the current cross-strait political friction to make their way to a face-to-face meeting with the people of Taiwan.
The original "Sleeping Beauty"
The most outstanding artifact from Mawangdui is the feudal prince's wife, the marquise of Dai. This 2,000-year-old sleeping beauty has "preserved her good looks" by being sealed in a plaster cast over 100 centimeters thick and using over 5,000 kilos of charcoal to dehumidify her tomb. When she was unearthed, archeologists found her wrapped in 18 layers of silk. Her hair was still black, some of her skin still retained a hint of suppleness, and her joints could still bend. Unlike the mummies of Egypt, the marquise seemed almost like a living person after centuries in the tomb.
Another artifact that has riveted the world's attention is a T-shaped funerary banner made of silk. This type of banner was frequently used in ancient China as a burial item. Once the body was enclosed in the tomb, these banners were laid over the coffin. The banner found at Mawangdui is painted with many different scenes, with upper, middle, and lower parts to represent heaven, earth, and the netherworld. Shown in heaven are the sun, moon, and stars. Two dragons face each other on the left and right, while the center ground is occupied by a divine serpent with a human head. In the section representing earth, the marquise ascends slowly toward heaven, attended by three female servants. In the netherworld, a giant supports the weight of the earth, and a few monsters are also depicted. The imagery of this banner shows clearly that even before the introduction of Buddhism, the Chinese people already had a cosmic view that included heaven, earth, and a netherworld. It is also apparent that the Chinese had the idea of people going to heaven after death. This banner combines high aesthetic refinement with a demonstration of the culture and thinking of ancient China, for which Xiong Chuanxin considers it one of the highlights of the exhibit.
NPM director Chin Hsiao-yi states: "This exhibit uses artifacts as the physical manifestation of a culture. It enables the visitor to gain a much clearer understanding of the Chinese culture of 2,000 years ago." One will learn from this exhibit, for example, that people used to write on thin bamboo slips, and that they sealed their bamboo letters in mud. In addition, a bronze oil lamp in the form of a bull offers an intriguing insight into the ingenuity of our ancestors. A pair of hollow horns route the smoke from the lamp to the bull's abdomen, which is filled with water, where the smoke dissolves. It is an ingenious method of preventing the lamp from smoking up the room.
Bamboo slips and silk manuscripts containing some 160,000 characters of written text were discovered in Tomb 3, the final resting place of the marquis' son. This tomb constitutes an invaluable source of first-hand information on the culture and thought of two millennia ago. Included in this "library" is information on a variety of subjects that remain very pertinent even today-qigong, medicine, comets, and agriculture.
Qigong, in particular, is very popular today, and is seen by many as an excellent way to maintain good health. The qigong diagram unearthed at Mawangdui is the oldest known record showing various qigong movements.
The qigong diagram shows 44 persons of all descriptions, both young and old, male and female. Some are stretching, others are shown in profile, and still others are kneeling or lying face-up. Some look like clumsy bears trying to climb a tree, while others engage in agile contortions. Some hold wooden staves in hand and bend over in an effort to summon their good qi, rid their bodies of bad qi, and bring the yin and yang into harmony.
Even more surprising is the world's oldest known cometary atlas. It consists of paintings that accurately depict the nucleus, coma, and tail of 29 different types of comets. In addition, an astronomical chart records the positions of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus, and it notes that Saturn orbits the Sun once every 30 years. All of these observations almost perfectly match the findings of modern science.
In addition to the Mawangdui artifacts, another important part of the NPM exhibit is a collection of items from the royal tomb of the Nanyue kingdom, which bordered upon the kingdom of Changsha. Nanyue was ruled by Zhao Tuo, a Qin dynasty general who refused to submit to the newly established Han dynasty and chose instead to establish a kingdom of his own.
Artifacts from the king's tomb include exquisitely crafted jade ornaments as well as roof tiles inscribed with the phrase "Long live the emperor!" There are also a number of architectural elements in the exhibit, including banisters, column capitals, tiles, and flagstones from the king's palace. These items have all just been excavated in the past five years, and are highly significant finds as they come from the oldest royal palace ever discovered in China.
The exhibit also reproduces a beautiful stream paved with small, closely packed dark-gray pebbles interspersed with larger yellowish pebbles. The stream gurgles pleasingly as it flows over the pebbles, giving eloquent testimony to the highly advanced skills of garden landscapers during the Han dynasty.
People die, culture lives on
To get to Taiwan, the Mawangdui artifacts first had to travel 900 kilometers overland from Hunan to Guangdong, where they "met up" with the exhibit items from the Nanyue tomb. It then took a few days from them to jump through political hoops while being shipped to Taipei, where they are now on display at NPM.
Both of these two Han-period provincial metropolises fell under the influence of the capital even as they gave expression to a unique local flavor. The decorative patterns on the Mawangdui lacquerware show clearly how the culture of the ancient kingdom of Chu spread outward. Other notable items include a three-legged wine vessel and a pail from the Nanyue tomb.
The political relationship between the two powerful men who left behind these fabulous treasures is interesting to contemplate. In Mawangdui, the marquis enjoyed a fiefdom that had been awarded to him by the same Han court against which the king of Nanyue was rebelling. Relations between the two were extremely tense, with war always about to break out at any time. The oldest military maps in the world were among the treasures unearthed at Mawangdui, and they indicate the deployment of formidable defenses at the two areas where the kingdom of Nanyue bordered upon the fiefdom of the marquis of Dai. Towers for transmitting military smoke signals constituted a notable feature of the landscape at that time. How ironic it is that the snarling combatants of old have passed so completely from the earth, leaving only these relics to reunite peaceably in a modern museum!
National Palace Museum director Chin Hsiao-yi (right), hosting a press conference for the museum's latest major exhibit. Chang Kuang-yuan, head of the artifacts department, shows off this zero-pollution lamp at the event. (photo by Pu Hua-chih)
This painted manuscript from Mawangdui depicts a scene that looks very similar to what you'll find early in the morning at any Taipei park, with people doing their morning exercises everywhere. Take a closer look-do you recognize any of the qigong exercises?
(courtesy of the National Palace Museum)