Han Dynasty
Years Period China World
c1700-221 BCE Bronze Age
Warring States Period
Shang dynasty; 
Chou (Zhou) dynasty
Shang dynasty; 
Chou (Zhou) dynasty
development of writing
bronze casting
Lao Tzu,
Iron Tools
Code of Hammurabi
Olmec in America
Golden Age of Perikles
Rome Begins
c221- 206 BCE Qin  (Chin) dynasty Unification 
Centralized Bureaucracy
standardized money, written language, 
Clay figures, 
Great Wall
Rome Begins
206 BCE - 220 CE  Han dynasty Jade Suit
Silk Road 
Confuciunism made state philosophy
Buddhism Introduced
Rise of Christianity
220 - 579 CE Six Dynasties
North, East and West Wei, 
Nomad Invasions,
Buddhism Grows
Rock Cut Caves
Monumental Buddhas
Birth of Muhammad
Edict of Milan
Hagia Sofia
Separation of Churches
568 - 617 CE Sui Reunification of China
618-907 Tang dynasty Repression of Buddhism

Han Dynasty     206 BCE - 220 CE


Four Coffins (fourth not shown)

Tomb of the Marquis of Dai (Lady Dai)
180 BCE
Han Dynasty
Form:  There are four coffins but the ones pictured were nested, one inside of the other.  The coffins were then surrounded by clay and charcoal.  The coffins were very detailed and intricately painted.

Iconography:  The tomb is iconographic of how important it is for the Chinese of this time to stay well preserved and to be able to bring their things with them to the afterlife.  It is also iconographic of how important things are to the culture.  The creation of tombs such as these relates directly to ancestor worship.  The development of such tombs relates to the development of Confucian ethics and somewhat to Taoism. 

Context:  When they took the body out they found that she was so well preserved her hair was still black and her joints moved.  They performed an autopsy, bottom picture on the left, and found that she died of heart failure.  In her tomb they found musical instrument, lacquered objects, pots, fabrics, cosmetics, cooking utensils, food, and seeds. Confucianism was restored during the Han Dynasty and this is evidenced in the findings of this tomb.

The creation of such a luxurious tomb in some ways relates to some of the ideas expressed by Confucian ethics.  One of my best students, Sue Che writes,

Confucius said: “ Prepare funeral with great respect and remember the ancestors, than the people will live in a society of high moral.” Confucius said, “ While living, treat with proper courtesy; while dead, bury with courtesy, mourn with courtesy.” Confucius also said,” (The form of) Courtesy, modest is better than lavish; funeral, showing sadness is better than trivial formalities. (*Note: these are my own translations.) Confucius taught us that everyone in this world has his own place and everyone should behave and be treated accordingly. Thus, the relationship between king and his people, father and son teacher and student and so forth will be very simple and clear. One of Confucius’ most admired but most poor student Yen-Huei died, his fellow students wanted to bury him with a luxurious funeral. Confucius disagreed. He thought Huei should be buried with the
proper funeral that suits his status as a student. Based on these teachings, we can imagine that the Marquis of Dai was probably buried with the proper etiquette that she deserved. Though we can not be sure if that is the case.



Funeral Banner
From the Tomb of Lady Dai
168 BCE
Mawangdui, China
Han Dynasty
Form:  The banner is made of silk and is fairy symmetrical.  It has been painted in ink and colored.  It is divided into three sections.  The top section features Lady Dai wearing this banner with her entourage and subjects, messengers, or the souls of her descendants.  The middle section has people sitting beneath a great chime, surrounded by bronze vessels, with Lady Dai's coffin in the center.  The Lower section has snakes, aquatic scenes, and a man holding up an entablature.

Iconography:  It might represent the journey of Lady Dai into the afterlife.  The top section is symbolic of heaven.  Because Lady Dai is shown in heaven it is a symbol that she is going there after she has died.  Symbols of the forces of nature sit between the realm of heaven and earth.  The dragons are symbols of water and the bi disk that they are entwined in is a symbol of the sun.  In the top right of the banner is a raven which is a symbol of the sun.  In the top left of the banner is a toad, a rabbit, and the moon, this is symbolic of a story about the rabbit that sits on the moon grinding the elixir of immortality and the toad who was a beautiful princess who tried to steal the elixir and was turned into a toad.  In between these two images is a lady surrounded by a snake, she could be a symbol for the fire god or she could be a symbol of Lady Dai.  The middle section is symbolic of our world.  It has two human headed birds which may be symbolic of earth spirits or gods.  There is a chime resting above where lady Dai sits, this may be iconographic of her wealth or a symbol of the importance of music to the community.  This scene is probably symbolic of Lady Dai's funeral.  The bottom section is symbolic of the nether world. 

Context:  This is a silk banner that was found over the inner most tomb.  The inventory records found in the tomb refer to it as a "flying garment".

(Fig B)

Fig C

(D)The Top

The Coffins 
Four Coffins (fourth not shown)

K. Linduff, "The Tomb of Lady Dai," in Encyclopedia of Humankind, Sydney, 1993.

Four kilometers east of the city of Changsha, a major city in the central Yangtze Valley, lies a small hill known as Mawangdui. Excavation work at the site began in 1972 when construction of a hospital on the adjacent land made a thorough investigation necessary. This burial ground held some of the most spectacular finds recovered by archaeologists in recent years in the People's Republic of China.

The first tomb opened, now known as Han Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui, contained the well preserved remains of a noble woman who died sometime after the mid-second century BCE during the Western Han Dynasty (221-9 BCE) In addition to the corpse, the tomb chamber contained a thousand objects including a large funerary banner of silk with polychromed paintings on its surface, clothing, food, a large amount of lacquerware retaining its original brilliant coloring, three unusually decorated inner coffins an d more than one hundred wooden tomb figures. The identity of the woman is still somewhat uncertain, but she is probably the wife of Li Cang known as Xin or Xinzhiou, the first Marquis of Dai. Sima Qian, the great historian of the Han Dynasty, placed the death of Li Cang at 186 B.C. Lady Dai's tomb is later than his, placing her death at about 150 B.C. Two other tombs have been excavated at the same mound, those of her husband (Tomb No. 2) and son (Tomb No. 3). All were richly furnished with goods appropriate to a family of noble rank.

Tomb Construction

Tomb No. 1 has an oblong pit measuring 19.5 m. north to south and 17.5 m. east to west. The tomb extends for 20 m. from the top of the covering mound to the bottom of the shaft. Access to the crypt was made by means of a series of four steps, then a slanted wall which led to the tomb chamber itself. The tomb was oriented towards the north and arranged so that the corpse would lie with its head to the north. 

The crypt contained a tomb-chamber constructed of large cypress planks, the largest of which measure five meters in length and almost 1,500 kgm. in weight. Mortise and tenon construction was used throughout the chamber. Inside this constructed room lay four coffins, snugly fit one inside the other. The compartments between the tomb-chamber and the casket enclosure are divided into four sections and contain most the tomb furnishings. The large northern section was draped with silk cloth and contained a large number of wooden figures, including several fully attired in ceremonial dress. This section also contained platters of food. This area was found at the time of the opening filled with a liquid containing mercury and various acidic and organic compounds. The purpose of these materials is not clear.

The western compartment contained plaited bamboo boxes and basket containing food, all kinds of herbs, clothing and bolts of silk and cotton, and two models of musical instruments. The eastern chamber contained more figurines and a complete inventory of the tomb contents written on bamboo strips. The other chambers were filled with lacquer vessels and implements of all sorts. Some were copied from utilitarian shapes used for serving food and drink, others were copied from official ritual vessel shapes, well known in the previous periods in cast bronze models which were dedicated to ancestors or to officials in commemoration of deeds well done. In accordance with the practices laid out by Emperor Wen (179-156 BCE), the tomb contained no precious metals, jade or jewelry.

A layer of charcoal 1.4 to 1.5 m. thick was placed outside the tomb-chamber and the space between that and the crypt wall was filled with at least a meter of fine white clay. The marvelous preservation of the tomb and its contents can be attributed t o this combination which kept out moisture and oxygen. The practice of using white clay and charcoal to surround a burial-chamber is associated with the local Chu culture. In other parts of China during the Han Dynasty, tomb-construction followed different practices. The tombs at Mawangdui reveal clearly the continuation of the strong cultural tradition of the Chu state which had ceased to be a political entity in 223 B.C. The early Western Han was clearly a period when there were wide swings in accep ted practice in various matters, including burial regulations. 

Funerary Banner

The large silk banner found in Tomb No. 1 (another comparable example was found in Tomb No. 3) is described as a "flying garment" (feiyi) and its placement in the Tomb correspond to the prescribed location for funerary banners (ming-ching) displayed during funeral ceremonies and carried in the funeral procession.

The banner from Tomb No. 1 has a painted red field on which an elaborate design was painted in heavy colors which are still rather well preserved. The cross arm of the T-shape of the banner is 0.92 m. long, the overall height is 2.05 m., and the width at the bottom is 0.48 m. Tassels extend from the four lower corners. 

Numerous scholars have tried to decipher the iconography of the scenes depicted on the feiyi. (A. Bulling, 1974) The overall theme generally agreed upon is that the scenes represent the conducting of the souls of the dead to the realm of the immortals. The search for immortality was of utmost concern during the Han and this is the first extant example which illustrated visually, and quite literally, the route of the soul (or souls).

The painting is divided into three parts. The lower section represents the subterranean region;(fig D) the middle section, the largest (Fig B), is the habitat of human beings on earth; and the upper, represents the land of the immortals with the sun and moon bound ing its description. The guiding principles for understanding the painting seem to come from a genuine piece of Chu literature called the Chuji, or the Songs of the South. (Hawks, 1959)--which says that the voyage of the souls after death leads in all di rections, including to the four quarters of the universe as well as above and below. The banner charts that voyage.

At the bottom is the land of the netherworld (fig C), of water creatures, darkness, and the place below the surface of the earth where souls undergo their first metamorphosis. This is the place that the Taoists call the cosmic womb, where the yin symbol of female creation dwells. It is a place of eternal darkness with water at its deepest section. Above the watery realm two scenes are depicted which take place on earth; both describe mortals acting out their parts in mourning rites. The lower scene depicts a shaman, or holy person, to the left and a group of attendees seated behind ritual vessels used at sacrifices dedicated to reverence to ancestors. Many wooden, lacquered hu and ting (copies of official vessels cast in bronze in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties) were found in the side chambers of the tomb. The duty of this shaman was to contact the soul from "below." The upper scene describes another mourning rite, that of welcoming home the soul. The large figure standing in profile in the center is thought to be a portrait of the deceased and she is shown as if crossing to the "other" world. The two terrestrial scenes represent appropriate ritual activities performed after death. Below and above, the deceased proceeds toward immortality.

The horizontal section (fig D) at the top of the banner represents the land of the immortals and is inhabited by legendary subjects. The gate keepers and the bell (whose sound is thought to penetrate without bounds) are transitional images, standing between earth and heaven. Above and to the left is the crescent moon, the toad, the symbol of its waxing, and the hare which anticipates the full moon. The female figure is probably that of Chang Ngo, who stole the pill of immortality from Hou Yi, the archer, and flew off to the moon and caused its waning. Upon the return of the pill, the moon waxed. The center of this section is found the figure of Fu Xi, an ancient clan god thought of as the first in the line of legendary rulers; he was the progenitor of the race and the embodiment of everything under heaven. He was thought to be the point from which yin and yang, the sun and moon, and heaven and earth emerged. The path represented, then, proceeds from death and the separation of the souls in the underworld, through the rites provided in the earthly realm, to return to the first ancestor of the race, and to immortality. The charting of space in the banner is an extension of a carefully structured iconography. The registers are arranged to correspond to the structure of the cosmos. Upon death the path of the souls echoes the birth, life and rebirth as embodied in the nature of ancestor worship already well established in the Han period.

One of my students wrote this about the banner:

This is the art work that the meaning had change quite a bit over the years, originally people consider it was to send the spirit away or to give a guild toward the afterlife. Though recently study had shown that this was not to send the spirit away as more toward enhancing the chance of calling back the spirit to stay in the body, as since Lady Dai’s body was so well preserve that it hardly rotten at all. The symbols of the flying banner are most likely base off the book of myth in the Chinese culture “Shan Hai Jing” or “Collection of the Mountains and Seas”. The top half of the flying banner is the heaven, or the mythical side of Sun and Moon, as telling the tail base off the story of Archer Yi, as well as his wife. In Chinese culture, the Yin and Yan are represent through Sun and Moon a lot of time, as the sun is the male side while the woman side is by the moon. The raven among the sun represents the soul of the sun, as in legend among the mythology of China, that the suns contain a soul of the form of the raven in gold with 3 claws. The mulberry branch the sun was how the old Chinese people view about the sun, as the sun raised above the eastern horizon sea as if was lifted by the mulberry tree. Mulberry also had the symbol of life among the meaning. In this flying banner the mulberry branch would suppress the 9 other moon under its branches as the 1 sun would rise above. On the left side of the flying banner, there is the moon, as it was a represent of the story of Chang’er. Chang’er was Archer Yi’s wife from the heaven as Archer Yi was send down to the human land to shoot down the playful sun that decided to all rise above the land. (Reference text about Chang’er ‘s story) She was always symbol as a toad as above the new moon with her dear servant as the rabbit while under it was the man chopping wood all time in the moon. The dragon on the flying banner was a symbol of state among the society in China the Emperor uses it to represent its own power. The Jiao under the bottom of the banner are creature of the river that had been trying to leap into heaven or to had the symbol of “Losing water” or lose life. Jade/ Bi Disk in the middle of the flying banner might been use to divide up the space among the banner but also it means to contain or take in Qi around, as Jade was often view as to in take a person’s Qi and changes its own form over time. Jade was also a symbol how a person should be like in their life as jade have another meaning of Yin and Yan balance along with Confusions meaning behind it.




Tomb of Han prince Liu Sheng
Before 113 BCE
Mancheng, China
Form:  This is a jade burial suit sewn together with gold thread.  His head lays upon a gilt bronze headrest inlayed with jade.

Iconography:  Jade is a semiprecious stone that when "worked" becomes precious.  Confucius described the qualities jade exhibits as a metaphor for the ideal man. According to Taoist and mystical thought, jade was also thought to be invested with supernatural power that could preserve bodies and alter the "chi" of the individual who wears it.  The use of such precious materials such as gold thread, bronze, and jade in this tomb and to protect the body found inside is symbolic of the power of such an individual.

Context:  The tomb was built into the side of a cave.  It had several chambers.  The chamber where the prince was found was in the rear most portion and had collapsed.  The body was covered in a jade suit in hopes that it would be protected from decay and evil spirits.  Also, the nine orifices were plugged with jade to keep the body from decaying.


Tomb of Liu Sui
200 BCE
Han Dynasty
Jade suit
Form:  This is a burial suit made of jade that has been sewn together with gold thread.

Iconography:  Jade is an icon of protection.  The different color threads are icons of the class divisions.

Context:  The suits were sewn with different threads to show importance.  Only emperors could wear the suits with gold thread, lesser individuals could were suits with silver or bronze thread.  The practice of covering a body with jade may have evolved from the practice of attaching jade pieces to cloth and draping the cloth over the body.