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Mawangdui Han Tombs


In the early 1970s, miracles excavated from the east suburb of Changsha, capital of central China’s Hunan Province, thrilled the whole archaeological world.

Now widely known as Mawangdui, the site was a set of three tombs that belong to an early Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE ~ 9 CE) noble family – Marquis Dai (personal name: Li Cang), prime minister to Prince of Changsha.

The remains of the Marquis, his wife (Lady Xin Zhui) and son were buried in the tombs. The over-2100-year-old female corpse captured immense interest. It was such an excellently-preserved mummy that researchers were able to perform an autopsy on her body. Her skin and parenchyma were still soft and flexible, and the joints could move. The autopsy suggests that the Lady, in her fifties at the time of death, probably died from eating a melon as seven score of musk melon seeds are found in her digestive system.

Mawangdui Tombs

The excellently-preserved mummy. Airtight sealing, deep burial and the mixture of charcoal and white kaolin helped create a dry, low-temperature, germ-free conditions of environment. What else could have contributed to the excellent preservation?

The corpse is now being preserved at Hunan Provincial Museum, along with most of the other over 3000 relics excavated from Mawangdui Han Tombs.

A second stunning discovery at Mawangdui was a fine silk gown of Lady Xin Zhui. Though measuring 128cm in length, the gauze is extremely fine so that the gown weighs merely 49g – something modern craftsmen have failed to reproduce. Crowned as “the Kingdom of Silk”, China boasts a long history of silk textiles. In certain Tang Dynasty poems, some varieties of silk were described as “thin as cicada wings” and “light as smoke”. The silk gown found at Mawangdui bears hard evidence to such a description, indicating that silk reeling and weaving techniques had already been so developed by early Han Dynasty.

Mawangdui Tombs

The fine silk gown that weigh merely 49g. 

A military map unearthed from Mawangdui strikes the audience wherever it is exhibited. Drawn on a piece of silk, the map bears a system of place marks very similar to modern maps.

Mawangdui Tombs

Military map

Next come the T-shaped silk banners. They were hung at the funerals and then draped on the coffins. The Chinese conception of the cosmos and afterlife at the time is depicted by the designs on them. The upper section of the banner represents heaven and the bottom section the hell. Amid the host of Taoist symbols, messengers from the “heaven” are being sent to fetch the Lady from the underworld to heaven.

Mawangdui Tombs

The T-Shaped Silk Banner

Various daily utensils used at the time were buried with the family, too. Among them were over 500 articles of lacquer wares – then affordable only to the wealthy. It was likely that the noble household led a life of extravagance. The patterns on these lacquer wares are fairly exquisite and elegant, representing the level of craftsmanship of the time.

Lacquer Wares Unearthed from Mangwangdui Han Tombs


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Cosmetic box of the Lady

A popular ancient gambling kit

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A set of dishware, food trays etc.

Soup/wine Ladle

Burial customs seemed to have changed by early Han Dynasty; lacquer wares were replacing bronze wares. It is said that a lacquer ware cost at least ten times as much as a bronze.



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