Research Project


Fate, Death, and Material Culture in Early China

Prof. Dr. Lillian Tseng

Ample archaeological finds indicate that the elite in ancient China had been devoted to lavish burial practices since the Neolithic period (ca. 5000-1600 BCE). Peoples in the Han dynasty (207 BCE-220 CE) were especially renowned for treating the deceased as if they were still alive by providing them with extravagant funerary furnishings. The lavish burial practices betrayed the tremendous concern for death among the ancient Chinese. After all, the destiny of the deceased was as uncertain as that of the living. Fate after death, a topic poorly articulated in the transmitted texts, therefore deserves our attention if we wish to create about a fuller picture of Chinese mantic traditions. I am planning to explore issues surrounding fate and death through a study of the furnishings of the tomb of King Nanyue in Han China. The tomb, built about 122 BCE, is located in present-day Guangzhou, Guangdong. Wearing a jade suit shot through with silk thread, the deceased king was acompanied by circular discs made of jade and a silver box containing drugs. Questions immediately arise about this unique combination: Was the jade suit intended to preserve the body ? Were the drugs intended to enhance immortality ? What fate lay in store for the deceased when his corporal existence was protected and his corporal nourishment sustained? Furthermore, the drug box was modified from a silver plate that was probably produced in ancient Iran. How did things from afar figure in the construction of fate for a Han ruling elite after his death?

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