China unearthed

A hidden history of tombs and offerings

Deep underground, the ancient inhabitants of what is now China built remarkable houses and palaces. But these dwellings were not homes for the living. Instead, the dead would be laid there, not to rest, but to live out their afterlife in comfort. The objects and attendants that accompanied them shed light on both the deceased and the birth of a unified China, as Jessica Rawson told Matthew Symonds.

The terracotta warriors are among the most renowned finds associated with a Chinese tomb, in this case the one belonging to the First Emperor. Further tomb finds, stretching back over thousands of years, offer a fresh glimpse of the development of ancient China. [Image: © Marco Clarizia | Dreamstime.com]

There is an old Chinese story, written down in the 7th or 8th century AD, about a man who sets out to meet friends living some distance away. The road is long, and as the sun dips in the sky it becomes clear that he will not reach his destination before darkness falls. By happy chance, the traveller comes upon an inn and decides to stay there. His night proves an eventful one. The man is summoned to help in a local skirmish and ends up participating in a battle, before returning to the inn and grabbing some well-earned rest. When he finally arrives at his destination and meets up with his friends, they upbraid him for being late. Worse still, an account of his adventures is met with disbelief. His friends insist that there is no inn, so they all head to the site together to establish the truth. Sure enough, there is nowhere to stay, just a cemetery. One of the tombs, though, looks disturbed. When the group investigates, they find that the tomb figures within had been decapitated: victims of the battle. During the night, the traveller had lodged with the dead.

This tale emphasises the dual status that tombs held. Not only were they burial places from the perspective of the living, but they were also residences for the dead. Archaeology shows that this tradition of building tombs, which served as homes for the afterlife, can be traced back thousands of years. As a group, these Chinese tombs represent one of the great marvels of the ancient world. Jessica Rawson, Emerita Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at Oxford, observes in her new book Life and Afterlife in Ancient China (see ‘Further reading’ box) that appreciating the achievements of ancient civilisations in some regions involves gazing up at their architecture; in China, you look down. There, deep within the earth, the dead were expected to live on in their tombs, accompanied by sumptuous goods that expressed their status and can be used to write their biographies. Collectively, these tombs also tell a bigger story about cultural change among a complex and shifting kaleidoscope of kingdoms and traditions. It is a story that departs in important ways from the accounts written up in ancient histories.

Ancient exceptionalism

A key challenge for understanding the early development of China from a Western perspective is how profoundly it differs from the trajectories and lifestyles familiar from, say, ancient Greece and Rome. ‘When seeking to understand a culture that is so different, I think one does have to pause and try to let your mind get around it’, says Jessica. ‘During the early periods, China was comparatively isolated. The region was separated from Iran and India by the high Tibetan plateau, which meant that all land connections across Eurasia had to come via the steppe to the north. Much was carried east by mobile pastoralists, who introduced various innovations to China, including metallurgy. It was only really from the late Roman period onwards that the oasis route, which we call the Silk Road, opened up. So, it is important to recognise that to a large extent China developed independently.’

‘One example of this is the absence of stone buildings of any significant age. Instead, Chinese architecture went in a different direction to familiar European styles. There were never buildings like Gothic cathedrals. This is because the Chinese had an alternative building material in the form of a yellow loess soil, which covers much of north China. The loess is a very malleable substance, and people could create city walls or big platforms simply by pounding it. Such platforms provide a suitable surface for extensive timber buildings, with the Forbidden City in Beijing presenting the prime example. Once the wood decayed, though, all that was left of the structures were the earth elements, unjustly giving an inferior impression of ancient Chinese architecture.’

The loess landscape, seen here with farming terraces. This soil proved suitable for creating building platforms and city walls, as well as digging deep tombs. [Image: courtesy of Jessica Rawson]

‘China also has a very different agricultural environment. One way to appreciate this is to look at the terrain. China consists of huge lowland plains, east of the high mountains that rise into Tibet and Mongolia; the south, too, is very mountainous. Agriculture developed on the lowland regions, but all areas along the immense rivers were marshy and prone to flooding. The Pacific Monsoon, bringing the rains, makes the whole country very humid in summer. So China’s main agricultural land is heavily connected with water, which means it is not very suitable for animals with hooves. When domestication occurred, it first involved dogs and pigs; sheep, cattle, and later horses were brought across the steppe and were pastured on the higher arid loess land. Therefore, central China did not develop or support what we call the mixed-agriculture of cropping and herding. Instead, it had – and still has – a very grain-based farming economy, which led to settled lifestyles, because – unlike herders – rice and millet farmers don’t need to move around. Once again, this situation is very different from Europe, and indeed the whole area to the west of Tibet, where there is almost always a mixture – sometimes more and sometimes less – of herding and cropping.’

While China adopted distinctive architecture and farming, the whole area was made up of many different regions with their own customs. Archaeology shows how some local traditions became widespread, with a key example being the written script we know as Chinese characters. This first emerged in the 2nd millennium BC among people living in the Yellow River area, where the first royal dynasties came to power around 1600 BC. This script was successfully exported southwards, where it was adopted by many groups of rice farmers, who grew powerful and wealthy in turn. It was not just writing that travelled south from the Yellow River, though. This region was also notable for adopting impressive tombs for the afterlife, and the ancestor cult associated with them. This family cult involved making regular offerings of food, as ceremonial banquets, to sustain the deceased. Jessica examines a dozen burials in her book to tell the story of how China developed over millennia. Here, we will provide just a taste of what six of them reveal.

The power of jade

This tomb at Fanshan contained 647 jade objects. It was 3.1m long and dug 1.1m deep into the ground. [Image: courtesy of Jessica Rawson]

While stone architecture remained alien to ancient China, some specific stone artefacts were highly prized. Nothing illustrates this better than jade, a term given to a variety of hard, silky, cloudy minerals, of which the most favoured and famous is nephrite, used from pre-historical times to signal status or create implements for making ritual offerings. Archaeological discoveries have revealed that an appreciation of jade can be pushed back long before the dawn of history. A fine example comes from the vicinity of the powerful ancient city of Liangzhu (south of Shanghai), which flourished from 3300 to 2200 BC. Excavations at nearby Fanshan revealed a tomb that contained a male occupant with 647 jade objects.

‘One has to think that this group of people, in what is called the Liangzhu culture, discovered a local stone – jade – that they thought was in some way miraculous,’ says Jessica. ‘It is very hard to work and the only way that the craftsmen could do so was by grinding it with a hard gritty sand. If you combine the sand with bamboo or string, you can create a tool that has a hard enough point or edge to do the job, but it is an incredibly laborious process. Why expend so much effort on it? They must have thought that jade would give them access to some kind of power outside of their own daily life. That is also why they buried so many pieces in tombs. We can see that the occupant wore jade – both around his head and hanging from his body – and he had axes made of jade, too. For a long time, the axe was the primary weapon in China, and remained important.’

This comb top features an image of a fanged monster, which was a popular motif on jade at Liangzhu. [Image: courtesy of Jessica Rawson]

‘There were more unusual artefacts in the tomb as well, such as discs and a type of tube, with a square cross-section and a central hollow column, that the Chinese call a cong. They must have been some kind of ritual implement, and were engraved with figures that were repeatedly cut into jade by members of the Liangzhu culture. These images feature the face of a large-eyed monster with fangs, who is being held by a man-like figure with clenched teeth and a headdress. Presumably the monster was some kind of spiritual figure that existed within these people’s world view. A few scholars have claimed that they know what the faces mean, but we need to be very cautious about assuming we can interpret the beliefs of a group who left no written records. Personally, I think it’s quite wonderful to meet something we don’t understand. What is certain, though, is that these objects had a kind of posthumous power, otherwise they wouldn’t have been buried.’

For a fascinating and engaging account of the story of China as told by its tombs, see Jessica Rawson (2023) Life and Afterlife in Ancient China (Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0241472705, £40).