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.

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


Teach China Team

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