Warring States Tomb of Marquis Yi




Marquis Yi's four-chambered tomb                                                                 

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl. 2.

The Warring States Period (475-221 BC) was a time of turmoil and violence, with constant warfare between the regional states, but it was also a time of great intellectual and artistic activity, when the intellectual traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism originated.  

As military conflict became more frequent and more deadly, one by one the smaller states were conquered and absorbed by the half dozen largest ones.  One of the more successful such states was Chu, based in the middle reaches of the Yangzi River.  It defeated and absorbed fifty or more small states, eventually controlling a territory as extensive as the Shang or Western Zhou dynasties at their heights. 

Evidence of the distinctive style of Chu court workshops can be seen in the objects found in the tomb of Marquis Yi.  Dated around 430 BC, this tomb is located in present-day Hubei Province (review map).  Inscriptions [included below for the Teacher's Guide] on the bronzes found at the site identify the tomb as that of a marquis of the state of Zeng, a small state then under the domination of Chu.  The tomb is 21m long, 16.5m wide, and 13m deep, making it 220 square meters in area.  It has four chambers.  The eastern chamber contained the marquis's lacquered double coffin, the coffins of eight young women, and a dog in its own coffin. The chamber also contained weapons, a chariot, and many personal items, including furniture, a zither, silk, and vessels -- but no bronze vessels. The central chamber seems to have been a ceremonial hall, with a large set of bronze bells and other instruments, as well as bronze ritual vessels. The northern chamber served as an armory and storeroom, the western chamber, where thirteen more young women were buried, as servants' quarters. 

MORE:  The young women were all between the ages of 13 and 25.  The eight in the eastern chamber were probably musicians who had entertained the marquis at court while the other 13 might have been concubines.  The practice of human sacrifice or "accompanying in death" was already unusual by this time.  


This bell is 36 1/2" high and weighs 236 pounds.  The 31-character inscription states that it was commissioned by a king of Chu in 433 BC for Marquis Yi.

What do you think is the significance of a gift like this?

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl. 22.

What do you notice about the layout of this tomb compared to earlier ones?  What changes in beliefs about the afterlife might this reflect?

SOME THOUGHTS:  Shang royal tombs such as Fu Hao's had been single pits, often of great depth.  The layout of the tomb of the Marquis Yi, however, attempts to approximate his living quarters as they had been during his lifetime.  It has several chambers, and objects are arranged in them as they would be in real life.  A tomb is now thought of as an eternal dwelling for the soul.  There will be more multi-chambered tombs in the Han dynasty, but the tomb of the Marquis Yi is one of the earliest known attempts to re-create a palace.  

Altogether Marquis Yi's tomb contained:

124 musical instruments, including bells, chimes, drums, zithers, pipes, and flutes
134 bronze vessels and other bronze household items
4,777 weapons, mostly made of bronze
1,127 bronze chariot parts
25 pieces of leather armor
5,012 pieces of lacquer ware
26 bamboo articles
5 gold objects and 4 gold belt hooks
528 jade and stone objects
6,696 Chinese characters written in ink on slips of bamboo

What do you notice about the variety and amount of burial goods compared with earlier tombs?

SOME THOUGHTS:  Because of peculiar underground conditions in central Hubei, many objects that have perished in tombs elsewhere have been preserved in tombs in this region.  Objects made of bamboo, leather, and wood have rarely survived from earlier tombs.  The large quantities of bronze objects and the inclusion of so many musical instruments, however, would seem to reflect changing views of what to put in tombs, or perhaps a more sumptuous life style at this small court.

This jade chain is formed of moveable parts joined by links.  Four of the links are partly of gold and can be detached; eight are created from openwork carving and can't be undone.  In addition to the openwork carving, the chain is also decorated with relief carvings of birds and dragons or snakes.  The chain can be separated into five pieces or joined into one, folded or opened.  


How difficult do you think it is to carve openwork in jade?

How do you think this was worn?


SOME THOUGHTS:  It's not known how this jade object was worn or used, though it must have been very precious to its owner.  Some have suggested that it was worn on the brim of some kind of headgear. 

Jade chain    Length: 48cm 

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian, 1 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), p. 148.


Some of the bamboo slips found in the tomb list the mourners at the funeral and the objects placed in the grave.  

Why is the discovery of writing on bamboo slips important?


ANSWER:  The Shang inscribed bones, used for divination, have garnered a great deal of well-deserved attention, but in fact the bulk of ancient Chinese writing was most likely done on bamboo or silk.    The discovery of the bamboo slips in Marquis Yi's tomb provides us with some of the earliest known example of writing on bamboo. 


Inscribed bamboo slips
SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl. 108.

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

Musical instruments  Bronze vessels

Lacquer ware Gold objects