Mawangdui: The Han Dynasty Tombs of Lady Dai and Her Son

Mawangdui: The Han Dynasty Tombs of Lady Dai and Her Son

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Mawangdui is the name of an early Western Han dynasty site 202 BC-9 AD situated in a suburb of the modern town of Changsha, Hunan Province, China. The tombs of three members of an elite ruling family were found and excavated during the 1970s. These tombs belonged to the Marquis of Dai and Chancellor of the Kingdom of Changsha, Li Cang died 186 BC, Tomb 1); Dai Hou Fu-Ren (Lady Dai) d. after 168 BC, Tomb 2; and their unnamed son d. 168 BC, Tomb 3. The tomb pits were excavated between 15-18 meters (50-60 feet) below the ground surface and a huge earthen mound was piled on top. The tombs contained exceedingly well-preserved artifacts, including some of the oldest manuscripts of classic Chinese texts as well as unknown ones, still being translated and interpreted more than 40 years later.

Lady Dai's tomb was filled with a mixture of charcoal and white kaolin clay, which led to the nearly perfect preservation of Lady Dai's body and grave clothes. Nearly 1,400 objects in Lady Dai's grave included silk tapestries and painted wooden coffins, bamboo objects, pottery vessels, musical instruments (including a 25-string zither), and wooden figures. Lady Dai, whose name was likely Xin Zhui, was elderly at the time of her death, and the autopsy of her body revealed lumbago and a compressed spinal disc. One of the silk paintings was a wonderfully preserved funeral banner in her honor which is featured in the slideshow Funeral Banner of Lady Dai.

Manuscripts from Mawangdui: I Ching and Lao Tsu

Lady Dai's unnamed son's tomb contained more than 20 silk manuscripts preserved in a lacquer hamper, along with silk paintings and other grave goods. The son was about 30 years old when he died, and he was one of several sons of Li Cang. Among the scrolls were seven medical manuscripts, which together comprise the most ancient manuscripts on medicine found in China to date. While these medical texts were mentioned in more recent manuscripts, none of them had survived, so the discovery at Mawangdui was just stunning. Some of the medical treatises have been published in Chinese but are not as yet available in English. A summary of that progress is in Liu 2016. Bamboo slips found in the son's tomb were brief unsigned prescriptional documents covering acupuncture, various drugs and their benefits, health preservation and fertility studies.

The manuscripts also include the earliest version yet discovered of the Yijing (commonly spelled I Ching) or "Classic of Changes" and two copies of the "Classic of the Way and its Virtue" by the Taoist philosopher Laozi (or Lao Tzu). The copy of the Yijing probably dates about 190 BC; it includes both the text of the classic book and four or five discrete commentaries, only one of which was known before the excavation, the Xici or "Appended Statements". Scholars (according to Shaughnessy) call the longest one after the first line: Ersanzi wen "The Two or Three Disciples Ask".

Also included were some of the world's earliest maps, including the Topographical Map of the Southern Part of the Kingdom of Changsha in Early Han (Dixing tu), the "Map of Military Dispositions" (Zhu jun tu, and described in detail below), and the Map of City Streets (Chengyi tu). Medical manuscripts include "Chart of the Burial of the Afterbirth according to Yu (Yuzang tu), "Diagram of Birth of a Person" (Renzi tu) and "Diagram of the Female Genitals" (Pinhu tu). The Diagrams of Guiding and Pulling (Doayin tu) has 44 human figures performing different physical exercises. Some of these manuscripts contain images of celestial deities, astrological and meteorological elements, and/or cosmological schemes that would be used as instruments of divination and magic.

Military Maps and Texts

The Zhango zonghenjia shu ("A Text of the Strategists in Warring States") contains 27 stories or accounts, eleven of which were known from two other well-known manuscripts, the Zhanguo ce and the Shi Ji. Blanford (1994) compared Account #4 describing the results of a diplomatic mission for the King of Yan to similar accounts in the Shi Ji and Zhanguo ce and found that the Mawangdui versions are more complete than the others. She considers the Mawangdui version more eloquent and of a higher effective rhetorical quality than the later editions.

The Military Garrison Map is one of three maps found in Tomb 3 at Mawangdui, all painted in polychrome on silk: the others were a topographic map and a county map. In 2007 Hsu and Martin-Montgomery described their use of a Geographic Information System (GIS)-based approach, geo-referencing the map to physical locations in the Fundamental Digital Map of China. The Mawangdui map supplements the historical accounts of a military conflict described in the Shi Ji between the Han and the Southern Yue, a tributary kingdom to the Han. Three phases of the battle are illustrated, pre-conflict tactical planning, the battle progress of a two-pronged attack, and post-conflict constructions to keep the region under control.

The Xingde

Three copies of a text called the Xingde (Punishment and Virtue) were found in Tomb 3. This manuscript contains astrological and divination recommendations for successful military conquests. Xingde copy A was transcribed between 196-195 BC; Xingde copy B, between 195-188 BC, and Xingde C is undated but cannot be later than the date the tomb was sealed, 168 BC. Kalinowski and Brooks believe that the Xingde B version contains calendrical corrections for Xingde A. Xingde C is not in good enough condition to reconstruct the text.

The Mourning Diagram, also found in Tomb 3 (Lai 2003), describes proper mourning practices, including what mourners should wear and for how long, based on the relationship of the mourner to the deceased. "As for those one mourns for a year: for father, wear untrimmed sackcloth for thirteen months and then stop. For grandfather, father's brother, brother, brother's son, son, grandson, father's sister, sister, and daughter, wear trimmed sackcloth for nine months and then stop."

The Arts of the Bedchamber

The Arts of the Bedchamber (Li and McMahon) are a series of teaching techniques to assist men in the art of attaining harmonious relationships with women, enhance health and longevity, and generate descendants. In addition to assistance with sexual health and recommended positions, the text includes information about promoting healthy fetus growth and how to tell if your partner is enjoying herself.


This glossary entry is a part of the Silk Road and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Blanford YF. 1994. Discovery of Lost Eloquence: New Insight from the Mawangdui "Zhanguo zonghengjia shu". Journal of the American Oriental Society 114(1):77-82.

Hsu H-MA, and Martin-Montgomery A. 2007. An Emic Perspective on the Mapmaker's Art in Western Han China. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 17(4):443-457.

Kalinowski M, and Brooks P. 1998. The Xingde; texts from Mawangdui. Early China 23/24:125-202.

Lai G. 2003. The diagram of the mourning system from Mawangdui. Early China 28:43-99.

Li L, and McMahon K. 1992. The contents and terminology of the Mawangdui texts on the arts of the bedchamber. Early China 17:145-185.

Liu C. 2016. Review on the Studies of Unearthed Mawangdui Medical Books. Scientific Research 5(1).

Shaughnessy EL. 1994. A first reading of the Mawangdui "yijing" manuscript. Early China 19:47-73.

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