With the formation of the dynastic system of ruling under the Xia Dynasty in 2100 BCE, Chinese society became stable enough to support the development of a religion that would pave the way for the development of funerary traditions. For most of Chinese history, the system of belief that was most widely practiced was Shamanism (or Taoism today.) In this system, people connected to the spiritual realm through a wu (or shaman) who interpreted the gods’ and the ancestor’s wishes. Ancestor worship became paramount in Chinese culture. The Chinese also believed in an afterlife where the worthy deceased would be joined with the ranks of ancestors. Natural phenomenon such as the earth, fire, water and agriculture became important deities that shaped the way the Chinese viewed the natural environment. These gods and forces in nature determined which potential ruler received the Mandate of Heaven. In other words, natural disasters and other signs in nature where seen as an indication that the gods did not approve of the current ruling family and wish for the people to rebel. This led to a dynastic system that continued until 1912. The funerary practices of the Chinese developed surrounding the ideas of ancestor worship, natural deities and the Mandate of Heaven. These ideas have inspired the creation of beautiful ritual bronze containers, massive “upside down” pyramids, mummies, jade burial suits, mausoleums and even an entire an 8,000 piece terracotta army complete with a full replica of a city, underground. Chinese religious beliefs have led to the creation of some of the most beautiful and fascinating structures in history.

The Tomb of Lady Fu Hao

Some of the earliest Chinese tombs were found during the Bronze Age which consisted of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The perfection of metal-working technology coupled with a developed religious foundation led to the production of thousands of beautiful bronze ritual vessels placed in the tombs of significant individuals. Bronze was incredibly difficult to create and therefore extremely valuable. The Chinese method of creating bronze was called the piece mold technique. First the container would be sculpted in clay and then soft clay was pressed into the dried clay to create a negative impression and create a mold. The model was then shaved down to become the core and the mold was reassembled around the core. Bronze was then poured into the space between the moldjkjk.jpg and the core and allowed to cool. (1)

The use of a ceramic mold made of tightly fitting sections made intricate shapes difficult so a greater importance was placed on surface decoration. Bronze was only common among the royal individuals like Lady Fu Hao. Lady Fu Hao lived during the Shang dynasty and died around 1200 BCE. She lived a lavish lifestyle as was one of the wives of the reigning Emperor Wu Ding. She was also a successful military commander and led several successful campaigns against surrounding tribes. She held an enormous amount of power in Chinese society and was held in high esteem. Her tomb was discovered in 1976 near the city of Anyang in northern China. Fu Hao’s tomb is one of the best preserved from the Shang dynasty. The tomb is a single large pit measuring 5.6 x 4 m. The chamber held a lacquered coffin which has since decomposed. (1)


The most astonishiuuu.jpgng part of this monumental discovery is the more than 400 bronze items that weapons, bells, mirrors and ritual vessels found alongside the coffin. (4) Along with other weapons found, this ax was probably used in the ritual sacrifices of the animals and human servants found in Fun Hao’s tomb. The presence of these sacrifices show that at this time, the Chinese had a similar view as the Egyptians to the afterlife. They believed that objects and people they were buried with would be used in the next life. (2) The center of the ax shows a human head with a tiger on either side. Tigers represent powerful energy in Chinese culture. May of the bronze containers found also contained food. The vessel on the right is called a zun vessel and it is used to hold wine. The creature stands on two legs and a down-turned tail forms a third leg. The back of the head serves as a lid with a bird and dragon as knobs. The creature is thought to be an owl or a parrot however the exact meaning of these symbols has been lost through the years. (1) (3)

The Tomb of the First Emperor

In 246 BCE, at the young age of 13, the legendary First Emperor of China assumed the throne. Shi Huang Di was the first emperor of the new Qin Dynasty which reigned from 246 to 206 BCE. During his rule, Shi Huang Di united his empire through canals and roads, standardized weights and measures and created the original Great Wall of China. In death however, the First Emperors fame and legacy would only become more fascinating.
Like most of the Chinese citizens during this time period, the First Emperor believed in a spiritual realm where the ancestors resided. However during the Qin Dynasty, new ideas started to develop and influence the Chinese view of the afterlife and the development of the religion of Daoism. People started to believe that it was possible to never die. Certain elixirs such as mercury and jade were thought to promote this process when swallowed. The idea behind this is that these substances would replace a person's organs when digested so therefore, the person would never die. The emperor became obsessed with achieving the impossible. He made regular trips to China’s sacred mountains to gather these “elixirs.” Ironically, many of these substances such as mercury are poisonous and are thought to have contributed to his early death. (6)
Even while he chased the futile dreams of immortality, the emperor prepared for a luxurious afterlife. Shi Huang Di’s mausoleum is one of the most elaborate structures in Chinese history. The famous terracotta army consists of 8,000 individualized sculptures placed according to rank. Horses, chariots and weapons complete the full scale army meant to protect the emperor for all eternity. In this discovery also comes knowledge of a development of traditional practices. Unlike earlier tombs such as that of Fu Hao which included sacrificed humans and animals, by this time the Chinese have substituted the physical victims for clay figures. (6)


The actual mausoleum of Shi Huang Di has not been opened since it was sealed in 208 BCE. Ancient texts tell of the models of palaces, pavilions and streams filled with mercury, which surrounded the coffin of the emperor and mimicked the landscape and buildings of the emperor's kingdom. How true are these stories? The high mercury levels of the tomb mound suggests that there may be some truth to them but no one knows for sure. The Chinese refuse to excavate the tomb for several reasons. In Chinese society today, ancestors are not always seen as friendly family members. If an ancestor is upset or disturbed, the wrongdoer might feel their wrath. The modern day Chinese fear the repercussions of disturbing the First Emperor’s tomb. Scientists in China also wish to wait until adequate technology is invented to preserve the anticipated artifacts that have lied buried for thousands of years. (6)

The Tomb of Xin Zhui
When I say “mummies,” your first thought is probably of Egypt but did you know that the best preserved mummy ever discovered died 2,100 years ago during the Han Dynasty in China? Her name is Xin Zhui or Lady of Dai. She was the wife of Li Cang, the Marquis of Dai (a nobleman) and she died at the age of 50 of a heart attack. By this time in Chinese history, knowledge of the human body and preservation of food was so developed, that it became possible to preserve a body for all of eternity, even in the wet, humid Yangtze River valley where the tomb was found. Lady Dai took every precaution to preserve her body in death because during this period, it came to be common belief that in order to enjoy the afterlife, one’s body and possessions must be intact for all eternity. When the tomb was accidentally discovered in 1971, Lady Dai was found in an airtight tomb 12 meters underground in 4 layers of coffins, each elaborately decorated. Her body was wrapped in 20 layers of silk, intended to suffocate bacteria. 5 tons of moisture absorbing charcoal and clay surrounded the tomb. The result of such extensive measures, is the best preserved ancient body ever found. Lady Dai’s skin is still moist and elastic and her hair, blood and organs remained intact. (7) (8)
Lady Dai today in the Hunan Provincial Museum

A cross section of Lady Dai's tomb

Three of Lady Dai's coffins



Although historians were thrilled by the discovery of such a well preserved body, art historians also marvelled at the perfectly preserved artifacts found within the tomb. Among the most impressive of the artifacts is the Funeral Banner of Lady Dai. This T shaped banner rested on top of the innermost of the four coffins. It can be divided into 4 registers: the heavenly realm, Lady Dai and her attendants, the body of Lady Dai and mourners, and the underworld. The banner also gives us some insight into how the Han Chinese viewed the afterlife. Dragons and immortals are shown to represent heaven and an unknown deity with a human head and a dragon body is depicted at the top of the banner. The sun and moon are emblematic of the spiritual realm. The underworld is populated by an unidentified deity, fish, snakes and goats. The portrayal of Lady Dai in the middle of the banner is understood to be a slightly idealized portrait of her in the afterlife. The mourning scene in the banner is also important for understanding the Chinese depiction of space through overlapping figures and showing objects in the background as smaller than objects in the foreground. (9)

Jade burial suits

Jade burial suits started to become popular among the Chinese elite during the Han Dynasty. The idea of using jade for burial evolved from the Qin Dynasty ideas of materials such as jade and mercury having eternal qualities to insure everlasting life. However, developments in Daoism caused these ideas to evolve. According to Chinese mythology, there are immortal beings who lived as humans but are now the highest and most influential ancestors and serve are a kind of “god” for the Chinese people. During the Han Dynasty, some came to believe that it was possible to become an immortal through the use of jade and the preservation of Chi. Chi is the life force of a person (what we would think of as a soul.) The Chinese believed that the Chi is contained in a person’s breath and each person on earth is bestowed with a certain number of breaths (or amount of Chi.) Therefore, by breathing slowly and regularly, a person’s Chi is preserved and they would live longer. Techniques such as yoga and tai chi were developed to practice this idea. The Chinese developed a sort of “formula” during the Han Dynasty that concerned the preservation of Chi. First, as soon as a person dies, all crevices in their body would be plugged with jade plugs to preserve any Chi that might accidentally have been left inside them. Then a person would be placed in a jade burial suit made of thousands of pieces of jade sewn together with either gold, silver or bronze wire according to the rank of the deceased. Each jade suit was tailored to the person and each is thought to have taken one person ten years to complete. The corpse would then be laid in a coffin for three days before being buried. Right before burial, the coffin would be opened again and if the body of the corpse had vanished and a feather appeared in its place, the person is thought to have become an immortal. This story bears some striking similarities to the Christian tale of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although Christianity's introduction to China is not officially documented until the seventh century, it is certainly possible that Christian ideas influenced and altered Chinese mythology toward the end of the Han Dynasty. Whether a person’s body actually ever was replaced by a feather, that’s hard to say but the idea spurred a craze for jade coffins all throughout the Han Dynasty for wealthy emperors and nobles. (10)

A Chinese Eastern Han (25-220 AD) burial suit with silver wire connecting the pieces of jade.

A close up of a jade suit

The Tang Dynasty Mausoleums specifically the Qianling Mausoleum

The Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) Mausoleums pioneered new concepts in funeral art that would become common among imperial Chinese tombs through the next several dynasties. 18 of the 20 Tang Emperors are buried in mausoleums scattered across the Guanzhong plain. One of the most famous and well preserved is the Qianling Mausoleum. One huge shift during this time period is the change from the construction of single person tombs to mausoleums that held several people or even several emperors. For example, following the precedent of the Tang Dynasty Tombs, the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties contains the tombs of 13 emperors all within very close proximity to each other. Another huge shift is the use of burial sights as monuments to the emperor and dynasty. During and prior to the Han Dynasty, the emperors biggest concern achieving everlasting life whether as an immortal or among the ancestors. Tombs were very impressive and large; but they were also primarily underground. The terracotta army, jade burial suits and priceless artwork buried with the deceased, were never meant to be viewed again. They served one purpose only, to protect the deceased and keep them comfortable in the afterlife. During this time period however, emperors start to cater the design of their tombs to the common people they expected to visit and pay their respects. Much of the art and architecture of these tombs was meant to be seen and appreciated to carry on the emperor's legacy and accomplishments. The layout of the mausoleums also reflects this purpose through the addition of the Sacred Way and impressive stone sculptures.
In the 7th century AD, the Tang Dynasty experienced a golden age of prosperity and wealth. Some of the surplus of riches accumulated by China financed the construction of huge mausoleums such as the Qianling Mausoleum. The Qianling Mausoleum serves as the resting place of the Emperor Gaozong and his wife Wu Zetian who became China’s first empress as well as other members of the House of Li, the imperial family of the Tang Dynasty. The Mausoleum is located on the top of Liangshan Mountain in the Shaanxi province of China and was constructed from 684 AD to 706 AD. The total site covers an area of .88 square kilometers and included 378 buildings. (14) Some of these buildings include a mortuary garden, memorial halls, lodges, chapels and imperial quarters where the souls of the deceased eat and sleep. The Qianling Mausoleum is the only Tang Dynasty tomb that has not been plundered since it was originally sealed and many of the original artworks surrounding the tomb survived in remarkable condition. In accordance with tradition, the design of the tomb is on a north-south axis. Leading to the mausoleum from the south is a spirit way which is flanked on both sides by stone statues. The idea of a spirit way was first explored at the end of the Han Dynasty but was unpopular until the Sui and Tang Dynasties. The stone figures include horses, lions, and ostriches which symbolized certain characteristics of the emperor and are meant to impress visitors. Some these statutes also reference the flourishing trade that China was involved in during the Tang Dynasty. Life size sculptures of men represent the sixty one foreign emissaries that attended the Emperor's funeral and was created by Empress Wu Zetian who wanted a reminder of their visit and the importance role the Tang Dynasty played in surrounding countries. The name of each individual and country is carved in the back of the statue. For an unknown reason, all the statues have been decapitated at some point in the distant past. (11) (12) (13) (14)


Another important asTang_court_playing_Polo.jpgpect of imperial tombs during this time period, were the adi.jpgdition of elaborate murals on the walls of tomb passage ways. 5 of the 17 attendants tombs at the Qianling Mausoleum have been excavated, and they almost all contain beautifully preserved examples of Tang mural painting. The murals in the tomb of Princess Yongtai depicts ladies in waiting. The women are clearly shown to upper class women by their elaborate hairstyles and colorful clothing. The women are idealized but also individualized with different facial expressions for each. They hold various objects in their hands, ready to serve their mistress. In this mural we seen a further progression from sacrificial victims, to terracotta substitutes and now to mural paintings of the maids and servants of the deceased. In the tomb of Zhang Huai, further examples of the luxury of the royal family are shown by the twenty figures on horseback playing polo. The posture of the men is strong and dignified but the scene is also energetic and chaotic as the players frantically try to win the game. The exact purpose of these beautiful murals is unknown. They were most likely used as decoration for the bare walls of the tombs and to remind the deceased of the pleasures they enjoyed on earth. (11)

The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong
The developments to the design of mausoleums during the Tang Dynasty set general guidelines that were generally followed by emperors until the Republic Period in China during which Mao Zedong served as Chairman of the Communist Party of China. Mao Zedong's mausoleum is located on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and it was constructed in 1976. Mao Zedong was embalmed and his body is currently on public display in a crystal coffin in the mausoleum. Mao Zedong was obviously a very important political figure to the Chinese people so the construction of his mausoleum and decisions that were made regarding the design of the building had much more to do with the political importance of this person then any spiritual beliefs Mao Zedong may have had. For example, the building was includes building materials, plants, rocks, porcelain and granite from all over China to symbolize the unification of the country under Mao Zedong. The mausoleum was also constructed by more then 700, 000 volunteer Chinese citizens as a symbol of appreciation and respect for their leader. In front of the mausoleum where there would typically be religious or symbolic sculptures of the emperors character, their is a sculpture of Mao leading a revolution. In more recent centuries, mausoleums have become less about the religious beliefs of the ruler and more about the political importance the mausoleums holds with the Chinese citizens. (15)

As religion, cultural beliefs and technology developed and over the course of Chinese history, the design of mausoleums and the artwork they held changed drastically.

1. __https://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/archae/2fuhbron.htm__
2. __https://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/archae/2fuhmain.htm__
3. __http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/china_4000bce_bronze.htm__
4. http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/lady-fu-hao-and-her-lavish-tomb-shang-dynasty-002278
6.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6zcd68h-hs 7.__http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/enduring-mystery-lady-dai-mummy-001357__ 8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXgyLYtRrFw9. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/imperial-china/han-dynasty/a/funeral-banner-of-lady-dai-xin-zhui 10. __http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/archae/2liujade.htm__11. http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/qianling-mausoleum-heavenly-hexagram-00184712. http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/atam/115372.htm13. http://www.chinahighlights.com/xian/attraction/qianling-tomb.htm14. https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/qianling/15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mausoleum_of_Mao_Zedong