Han Tomb of Liu Sheng



To see archaeologists working on the tomb click here  [in this teachers' guide shown below].

Entrance to Liu Sheng's tomb   

SOURCE:  Xin Zhongguo chutu wenwu (Beijing: Waiwen chubanshe, 1972), pl. 94.



This photo was taken in 1968.

Is the sophistication of this dig more or less than you would expect?

SOURCE:  Zhonghuarenmingongheguo chutu wenwu zhanlan (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1973), p. 68.
MORE:  Modern archaeology has a relatively short history in China; it was not until the 20th century that systematic excavations of archaeological sites were undertaken.   The first excavations, in the 1920s and 1930s, were led by foreign archaeologists and yielded rich discoveries that encouraged Chinese scientists to enter the new field themselves.  In addition, the People's Republic of China, with its ideological commitment to a materialist view of history, has favored archaeological research.

The Chinese imperial period began with the unification of China in 221 by the state of Qin and the consolidation of a huge empire under the succeeding Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220).  Consolidating the empire involved not merely geographical expansion, but also bringing together and reconciling the ideas and practices that had developed in the different states.  The new state incorporated elements of Legalism, Daoism, and Confucianism in its ideology but the officials who administered the state came to be identified more and more with Confucian learning.  Reflecting the development of religious practices during the Warring States period, Han art and literature are rich in references to spirits, portents, myths, the strange, and the powerful. 

In 1968 two tombs were found in present-day Mancheng County in Hebei province (review map).  The first undisturbed royal Western Han tombs ever discovered, they belong to the prince Liu Sheng (d. 113 BC), who was a son of Emperor Jing Di, and Liu Sheng's consort Dou Wan.  The structure and layout of the tombs departs from earlier traditions in significant ways.  To see a drawing of Liu Sheng's tomb and learn about its layout,  click here. (In the Teachers' Guide, this is below.)

Drawing of Liu Sheng's tomb     

SOURCE:  Wang Zhongshu, Handai kaoguxue gaishuo (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1984), p. 87.

Liu Sheng and Dou Wan were buried in two separate caves hollowed out of a mountainside.   Each tomb has an entrance passage, two side-chambers for storage, a large central area, and a rear chamber in which the coffin was placed.  The central chambers in both tombs originally had wooden structures with tile roofs, which have since collapsed.  

Liu Sheng's tomb:

Entrance passage: 65 feet long.

South side-chamber: Chariots and remains of horses.

North side-chamber: Vessels and jars for wine, grain, fish, and meat; Cooking utensils and tableware.  

Central chamber: 50 feet long by 40 feet wide.  Large canopies, bronze vessels, lacquerware, pottery, and clay figures of attendants.  

Rear chamber: Lined with stone slabs.  Coffin placed on north side; a room on the south side of the chamber contained small stone figures of servants, wine flasks, lamps, and an incense burner. 

What are some differences in terms of tomb construction between this tomb and the earlier ones examined?

How do the contents of the tomb and the division of burial goods reflect changing beliefs about the afterlife? 

What is the likely significance of the stone and clay figures?


SOME THOUGHTS:  Liu Sheng's tomb shows the shift from burial pits to horizontal rock-cut chambers.  The stone-lined rear chambers are part of a trend toward greater use of stone in mortuary structures.  

In the central chamber everything is laid out for a sumptuous banquet involving the tomb occupant as the host, seated in a tent-like canopy.  Row of tables were set up for the imaginary guests.  

Liu Sheng's tomb contained over 2,700 burial objects. Among them, bronze and iron items predominate.  Altogether there were:

419 bronze objects

499 iron objects

21 gold items

77 silver items

78 jade objects

70 lacquer objects

6 chariots (in south side-chamber)

571 pieces of pottery (mainly in north side-chamber)

silk fabric

What do you notice about the number of bronze objects relative to the number of iron ones?

To the left are gold and silver acupuncture needles from Liu Sheng's tomb.  

How do these compare with acupuncture needles today?

Why include acupuncture needles in a tomb?  

Acupuncture needles Length: 6-7cm 

SOURCE:  Wenhuadageming qijian chutu wenwu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1972), p. 16.

To the left is a dagger made of iron.  

Why were weapons increasingly made of iron instead of bronze?  

Iron dagger                                                    Length: 36.4cm, Width: 6.4cm 

SOURCE:  Wenhuadageming qijian chutu wenwu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1972), p. 17.


ANSWER:  Iron is tougher than bronze and the cutting edge is harder.  Iron also occurs much more widely than either copper or tin (the two main components needed to make bronze), making it much cheaper. Of the weapons in Liu Sheng's tomb, more were made of iron than bronze. 

Move on to view some of the objects from this tomb:


  Bronze objects

Jade objects