Noble Tombs at Mawangdui Resources

Grades 9-12, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History Resource Collection
  • Pic. 2: Dating to around 168 BCE, the Daoyin tu was discovered in the burial materials of Mawangdui 馬王堆 (near Changsha; Hunan)

Cosmic Journeys and The Search For Immortality (Grades 9-12)

National Cente

The character Xian, translated as “Immortal” or “Transcendent.”

Is there life after death? Can one’s lifespan be significantly extended? Can a human being live forever? Many religious and cultural traditions considered these questions. More than two thousand years ago the Chinese also began pondering them. Some of the answers affected how they buried the dead and sacrificed to ancestors. Others involved techniques for extending life and becoming immortal that not only shaped aspects of Daoist religion, China’s indigenous faith, but also suffused folklore, literature, and the visual arts.

The Mawangdui tombs provide a striking picture of early Chinese beliefs in the afterlife. (See Lady Dai’s Outer Coffin) The lacquerware, clothing, domestic objects and foods buried therein show that during the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) “tomb furnishings and grave goods were thought to provide for the deceased a celestial palace with all the comforts of an idealized home” (Beningson 2005: 1). These objects also reflect the luxurious material culture enjoyed by the ruling elite of south central China.

The idea that it was possible to extend life and even live forever also become important during the last centuries before the beginning of the Common Era. The famous “Physical Exercise Chart”(Daoyintu)(See Pic.2) from the third Mawangdui tomb shows breathing exercises and gymnastics practiced for good health and extending life (chang sheng) reminiscent of the qigong practiced today both in China and all over the world.

It was also believed that one could become immortal by eating various plant or mineral substances. Becoming immortal, however, “was not to live permanently on earth. . .but rather leave this world as a xian or Immortal” (Yü 1964: 89).

Those who achieved immortality would go to live in two paradises. One paradise was a group of islands in the Eastern Sea called Penglai; the other was the Kunlun mountain range located in what is today northwest China’s Xinjiang province (Kohn 1993: 49).

All these concepts—the afterlife, extending life, immortality—are seen in the Mawangdui tombs and other Han dynasty art. This lesson combines the Mawangdui finds and other Han artifacts with excerpts from relevant texts.

Essential Questions What ideas about life after death and extending life became important in early imperial China? What is Daoism? How do the visual arts express feelings and ideas without using words? Conversely, how do words express visual concepts without using images?

Instructional Objectives Students will become familiar with early Chinese views of the afterlife and immortality as well as some of the images, symbols, and stories that infused them with meaning. They will be able to compare China with ideas of transcendence developed in other societies, past and present. By closely reading and comparing visual and textual documents, students will also be able, in the words of the National Standards for Arts Education, to “use the resources of two or more disciplines in ways that are mutually reinforcing, often demonstrating an underlying unity.”

Resources/Materials Ten documents numbered in sequence. The first five are visuals, the last five are texts. Each students gets all ten documents.

Time: Three class sessions.

Daoism or Taoism?

Taoism with a “T” is Wade-Giles romanization, an older system still used in many scholarly publications. Daoism with a “D” is the pinyin system used in the People’s Republic of China and, ever more widely, in books for both scholarly and general audiences.

Preparing the Lesson
(1) All students should explore the Han dynasty section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History and look at the China Institute slide show introducing the Noble Tombs at Mawangdui exhibition.

(2) Have students visit the BBC’s Religion & Ethics—Taoism website. They should read “Taoism at a Glance” and “Concepts Within Taoism” in the “Beliefs” section, with special emphasis on the “Qi” and “Immortality” sections.

Each student gets all ten documents. The teacher begins with some general questions about Daoism and, in response to student comments, writes notes on the blackboard. A consensus is arrived at concerning the basics of Daoism.

1st Day: Each student gets all ten documents. The teacher begins with some general questions about Daoism and, in response to student comments, writes notes on the blackboard. A consensus is arrived at concerning basic Daoist ideas.

The class is divided into five groups and each group is assigned one of the visual documents. Groups discuss their visuals attempting to (1) define which Daoist ideas they represent and (2) how line, color, shape, and movement add to the ways these images express ideas and emotions.

2nd Day: The class is divided into the same five groups and each group is now assigned one of the text documents. Groups discuss their documents attempting to (1) define which Daoist ideas they represent and (2) define aspects of the documents’ style. For instance, does the writer use special words or terms to affect the reader and express emotions and ideas? Are some of the texts more visual than others?

3rd Day: Students form new groups. Each group should now ideally consist of “experts” on all the visuals and all the texts. The teacher tells the class they will now be pairing texts and visuals. After group discussion, each group in turn presents their pairs, the teacher making notes on the board. (Although others are possible, the table below gives appropriate pairings.)

After the pairs have been established, the class discusses the basic ideas each pair expresses. Also, which is more effective: text or visual? Are there things texts can do which visuals cannot and vice-versa?

Relevant Standards National Standards for Arts Education, Content Standard 6; National History Standards, Era 3: Classical Traditions, Major Religions, and Giant Empires, 1000 BCE-300 CE.

Extending the Lesson To learn more about Daoism and the arts see Taoism and the Arts of China from the Art Institute of Chicago. For ideas on transcendence and the afterlife in world religions, see the the BBC’s Religion & Ethics — Religions website.

The “Guiding and Pulling” Chart (Daoyintu)

This chart was found in Mawangdui Tomb No. 3. It shows forty-four people—men and women, young and old—engaged in a kind of gymnastics believed to heal some diseases and extend life. The chart is considered the ancestor of the exercises called qigong practiced today in China and all over the world.

“Guiding and pulling” (Daoyin) refers to the different postures involved in these exercises. The physical basis for daoyin is qi. In the last centuries before the beginning of the Common Era the Chinese came to believe that the whole world and everything in it was made of qi. Qi was the basis of Chinese medicine. Wellness was the result of qi circulating freely throughout the body. Exercises could help qi circulate properly.

The philosopher Zhuangzi (4th century BCE) criticized those merely interested in extending life through exercise. In the process he gives readers the names of some exercises:

“To huff and puff, exhale and inhale, blow out the old breath and take in the new, do the ‘bear stride’ and the ‘bird stretch,’ and to be interested in nothing more than longevity, these are the methods of those who practice the ‘guiding and pulling (of the vital breath) (daoyin)’” (Zhuangzi 15; Roth 1999: 170).

Lady Dai’s Outer Coffin

The Marquise of Dai was buried with over 1,400 objects to accompany her into the afterlife. The compartments surrounding her three nested coffins contained food, clothing, utensils, pillows, and wooden figurines of servants and musicians. In addition, great pains were taken to preserve the corpse—so much so that when unearthed almost two thousand years later, it was extremely well-preserved.

The outer coffin is decorated with whirling cloud-like bands ridden by a host of human, animal, and animal-like figures (details, below). While Lady Dai’s tomb and her preserved corpse point to an afterlife resembling the world of the living, the coffin’s decoration hints at liberation from the everyday world.

This figure is playing a plucked instrument called a qin. It has seven silk strings and was favored by members of the upper classes.

This figure is an Immortal (xian). Notice the wings and the plants he holds. He might be drinking dew from them—dew was part of an Immortal’s diet.

A Cosmic Journey on a Dragon (or Dragon Boat)

This third century painting on silk is one of the earliest existing Chinese paintings and is from the same area as the Mawangdui tombs. It’s believed to be a “name banner” used in funeral rites. It was found face-upward on the top of the deceased person’s coffin.

Many scholars believe it represents a heavenly journey. The traveler is accompanied by a carp swimming underneath and a crane standing on the back. Both animals had magical power to help people achieve immortality.

Two Immortals and Plants of Immortality

Two Immortals (Xian) from a Han dynasty stone carving. They have wings and carry stalks of straw or hemp, symbols of immortality. They’re walking among what seem to be plants or mushrooms. These might be the same as what the Immortal from Document 2 (detail, left) seems to eating or drinking. According to Daoist tradition, Immortals don’t eat grain, they inhale the wind, sip dew, and ride on clouds.

Detail from Lady Dai’s outer coffin.

A Han Dynasty Incense Burner

Mountain-shaped incense burners from the Han dynasty have survived in great numbers. This one is cast in bronze and comes from Hunan, the same province where the Mawangdui tombs were found.

On the base, a giant stands on a group of fantastic animals. On the peak of the mountain is a bird thought to be a peacock.

Mountains were associated with the Heavens. High mountain caves were thought to give birth to clouds. With fragrant smoke curling out of its openwork caves, this incense burner would resemble a magical mountain hidden by clouds—a magic kingdom of the Immortals.

The Holy Man and Cosmic Flight in the Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang) is believed to have lived at the end of the fourth century BCE. Little is known about his life and career. The book named after him is not only one of the fundamental Daoist texts, but is also one of the most admired works of Chinese philosophy and literature.

His accounts of the “Holy Man” provide the earliest expression of an important Daoist theme, that of cosmic flight. Also, the Holy Man’s diet—not eating grain, sucking the wind, drinking dew—points to the search for longevity. In this context, “Holy Man” (Shenren) is synonymous with “Immortal” (Xian).

. . .there is a Holy Man living on faraway Gu’she Mountain, with skin like ice or snow, and gentle or shy like a young girl. He doesn’t eat the five grains, but sucks the winds, drinks the dew, climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful. . .Though flood waters pile up to the sky, he will not drown. Though a great drought melts metal and stone and scorches the earth and hills, he will not be burned (Zhuangzi 1.5; Watson 1964: 27-28).

Poem on the Mighty One

This is a section from a poem by Sima Xiangru (179-117 BCE), a famous Han dynasty poet. He was also a contemporary of the nobles buried in the Mawangdui tombs.

This poem describes escape “where far from the dust of this world, the poet no longer sees anything, neither the sky above nor the earth below” (Robinet 1997: 36). The theme of a cosmic journey became important in Daoist meditation and religious writings.

In this world there lives a Mighty One
Who dwells in the Middle Continent.
Though his mansion stretches ten thousand miles,
He is not content to remain in it a moment
But, saddened by the sordid press of the vulgar world,
Nimbly takes his way aloft and soars far away.
With crimson carriage flags interwoven with crystal rainbows,
He mounts upon the clouds and wanders on high;
He raises his long standard of yellow flame
Tipped with multicolored plumes of shimmering radiance,
Streaming with starry pennants
And banderoles of comet’s tails.
Drifting with the wind, he threads his way;
With banners fluttering, he wanders aloft.
He snatches a shooting star for a flag
And sheathes his flagstaff in a broken rainbow.
A blaze of vermilion, dazzling the eyes,
He whirls before the gale and drifts upon the clouds.
. . .Beneath him in the vastness, the earth has disappeared;
Above his head, the heavens vanish in endless space.
Gazing about, his eyes swim and grow sightless;
His ears are deafened and discern no sound.
Riding upon the Void, he mounts on high,
Above the world of men, companionless, to dwell alone (Watson 1968: 332, 335).

Living in Harmony with the Seasons

By the end of the second millennium BCE ideas about extending life or just staying healthy became closely connected with qi.

Qi was the basic stuff of the universe. A person was born through accumulation of qi; a person died when his/her qi dispersed. Illness was the result of an imbalance of qi. Wellness was the result of qi circulating freely throughout the body. Exercises could help qi circulate properly.

Living in harmony with the seasons was also important. This document is from one of the basic texts of classical Chinese medicine. It describes summer, when growth is at its height, and winter, when the world is at rest.

The activity of qi is symbolized by yin and yang, words now part of everyday English. In summer, yang is at its height as crops grow and the weather is hot. In winter, yin is dominant as nature sleeps and growth slows to a standstill.

The three months of summer one calls “thriving and fulfillment.” The qi of Heaven and earth mingle, the ten thousand creatures flower and ripen. Sleep at night and rise early, don’t be too greedy for the sunshine, restrain your feelings, let flowering fulfill its growth, allow the qi to seep out from you, as though something you desired were on the outside.

—This is the response to the qi of summer, the way to nourish the growing up. If you go against it you will harm the heart and in autumn will suffer from fevers; there will be too little provision for the gathering in.

. . .The three months of winter one calls “the shutting up and storing away.” Water freezes, the ground cracks, don’t put strain on the Yang. Sleep early, rise late, be sure to wait for the sunshine. Keep intent as though lurking, hiding, as though there was something you had already succeeded in. Avoid the cold, stay near the warm, don’t allow the seeping through the skin which lets the qi be quickly stolen away.

—This is the response to the qi of winter, the way to nourish the storing away. If you go against it you harm the kidneys and in spring will suffer from impotence; there will be too little provision for the giving of life (Adapted from Huangdi neijing suwen; Graham 1989: 352-354).

Mountain Climbing to Reach the Heavens

Mountains were close to the heavens. Certain mountains—Kunlun in the northwest and Penglai in the Eastern Ocean— were home to those who had become immortals.

This document is from a book called Huainanzi, a second century BCE text roughly contemporary to the lives of the Mawangdui tombs’ occupants.

If one climbs to a height double that of the Kunlun Mountains, that peak is called Cool Wind mountain. If one climbs it, one will not die. If one climbs to a height that doubled again, that peak is called Hanging Garden. If one ascends it, one will gain supernatural power and be able to control the wind and rain. If one climbs to a height that is doubled yet again, it reaches up to Heaven itself. If one mounts to there, one will be become a god (Huainanzi 4, “Zhuixing”; Major 1993: 158-159).

Biography of an Immortal

This account of an Immortal named Gu Chun is from a book traditionally believed to have been written in the first century BCE by a scholar named Liu Xiang. It contained the biographies of many Xian, people who had achieved immortality.

Gu Chun held an official post in the reign of Emperor Cheng (r. 32-7 BCE) of the Han dynasty. Stricken with disease, he died except that his body did not grow cold. His relatives carried out the funeral ceremonies and went into mourning, but they were reluctant to nail up the coffin. Three years later, Gu Chun reappeared, sitting upon the railing of one of the town gates and still wearing his cone-shaped official hat. All the people in the town were amazed. His relatives came to bring him home but he would not go with them. They opened his coffin, and found grave-clothes but no corpse. For three days and nights Gu Chun remained where he was. Then he transported himself to the capital at Chang’an and took up a similar position above the Heng Gate. As soon as his people heard of it, they went after him and tried to get him to return. Again he departed, and took refuge on Mt. Taibo. A shrine was then built for him on the mountain, to which he would come from time to time and stay for the night (Adapted from Giles 1979: 29-30).

Beningson, Susan L., and Cary Y. Liu 2005.
Providing for the Afterlife. New York: China Institute Gallery.
Giles, Lionel 1948.
A Gallery of Chinese Immortals. London: John Murray. Reprint 1979, New York: AMS Press.
Graham, A.C. 1989.
Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court.
Harper, Donald 1999.
“Warring States Natural Philosophy and Occult Thought.” In Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (eds.). The Cambridge History of China—From the Ori gins of Civilization to 221 B.C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 813-884.
Kohn, Livia 1993.
The Taoist Experience. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Loewe, Michael, and Edward Shaughnessy 1999.
The Cambridge History of Ancient China—From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Major, John S. 1993.
Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Robinet, Isabelle 1997.
Taoism—The Growth of a Religion. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Roth, Harold 1999.
Original Tao—Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sivin, Nathan 1977.
“Chinese Alchemy and the Manipulation of Time.” In N. Sivin (ed.), Science and Technology in East Asia. New York: Science History Publications, pp. 108-122.
Watson, Burton 1964.
Chuang Tzu—Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press.
___ 1968.
Records of the Grand Historian of China—Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Vol II. New York: Columbia University Press.
Yü, Ying-shih 1964.
“Life and Immortality in the Mind of Han China.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 25 (1964): 80-122.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: Grades 9-12, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History Resource Collection


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.