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Funeral Finery

2,000-year-old jade and gold burial suits, found in some of China’s largest royal tombs ever discovered, highlight the opulence of ancient kingdoms and their rulers’ pursuit of luxury in the afterlife

By Song Yimin Updated Jun.1

A jade burial suit unearthed from a Han tomb in Mancheng County, Hebei Province in 1968 (Photo by VCG)

As the well-known Chinese proverb goes: “Better to be a shard of jade than a whole tile,” meaning a glorious death is preferred to a life of dishonor. Fondness for jade dates back to ancient times, and many Chinese still hold the smooth, semi-precious stone in higher esteem than gold.  

While jade has held ceremonial significance throughout Chinese history, jade burial suits reflect the pinnacle of reverence for the mineral. Comprised of rectangular tiles connected with metal wire, these suits adorned the remains of royalty during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). To date, around 20 jade burial suits have been unearthed in China, many discovered by happenstance. 

Accidental Discovery 
In May 1968, an engineering regiment of the People’s Liberation Army dug a tunnel into Lingshan Mountain in Mancheng County, Hebei Province, about 160 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Following a dynamite blast at the site, one soldier went missing. His fellow soldiers meticulously searched the area, ultimately finding him in a man-made opening hollowed out in the rock.  

To their astonishment, the chamber inside was not only immense – measuring 52 meters long, 38 meters wide and 6.8 meters high – but also filled with thousands of ancient bronzes, jade objects and pottery, among other artifacts found in different chambers.  

A seemingly inconsequential engineering mishap resulted in one of China’s most remarkable archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, astounding the world of archaeology.  

From the engravings on the bronze artifacts, experts from the provincial bureau of cultural relics determined that the tomb belonged to the king of Zhongshan. However, Chinese history records two Zhongshan states.  

One predates the Han Dynasty, founded by a chieftain of the Beidi, a group of northern steppe nomadic tribes during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE). The other was a small state that persisted from 154 BCE to 9 CE during the Western Han Dynasty. Based on the style of Chinese calligraphy engraved on the tomb (known as official script), experts determined it belonged to the latter Zhongshan.  

The tomb has an intricate layout, complete with an entrance passage, dual side chambers for storage, a spacious central area and a rear chamber housing a solitary coffin. Remarkably, this Han tomb appeared to have remained undisturbed by tomb robbers for nearly two millennia.  

As the first golden age in China’s history, the Han Dynasty marked a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, cultural influence, technological innovation and military might. In pursuit of eternal luxury, Han royals built lavishly furnished tombs to ensure their continued enjoyment of earthly pleasures in the afterlife.  

The tomb of the Zhongshan King remained largely undisturbed because it was hollowed out of a mountainside rather than under an earthen mound. The vast mountain range served as a natural barrier and hid it from view.  

The discovery of a rare Han tomb captured the headlines. However, deciding whether to excavate it proved challenging. The discovery was made in 1968, during the peak of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when mass campaigns aimed to destroy the “four olds” – old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits – qualifying the ancient artifacts as a target.  

The issue was brought to premier Zhou Enlai, who entrusted the matter to Guo Moruo, the renowned author and archaeologist who served as head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) until his death in 1978. Guo sent CAS archaeologists to collaborate with provincial bureau experts and soldiers on a secret excavation of the site.  

The excavation spanned six months and produced tens of thousands of relics. The tomb’s owner was identified through an inscription on a bronze piece that read “34th year.” Though the name of the king’s reign is not mentioned, historical records suggest that only one among the 10 generations of Zhongshan kings ruled for more than 30 years. This individual was Liu Sheng, son of the Western Han’s sixth emperor, Jing. He became the first king of Zhongshan in 154 BCE and ruled until his death in 113 BCE.  

Liu Sheng was notorious for his indulgences, particularly alcohol and women, and records suggest he fathered 120 sons. The many drinking vessels and drinking game coins discovered in his tomb testify to his extravagant lifestyle. Among his well-known descendants is Liu Bei, founder of the Shu-Han State (221-263), one of the three kingdoms that formed after the Han Dynasty’s collapse. 

Jade burial suits of Liu Sheng (front) and his wife Dou Wan, are displayed, Hebei Provincial Museum, Shijiazhuang, February 17, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

A copper pot unearthed from King Liu Sheng’s tomb in 1968, Hebei Provincial Museum, Shijiazhuang, February 17, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

Pricey Threads 
Among the numerous tomb treasures, the most striking discovery was Liu Sheng’s elaborate jade burial suit. The 188 centimeter-long suit consists of thousands of jade pieces, meticulously sewn together with gold thread. Also known as “jade caskets,” jade burial suits served as garments for deceased emperors and nobles.  

They were tailored to reflect rank. Emperors, esteemed nobles and officials wore garments sewn with gold thread. Suits for kings and princesses were threaded with silver, while other officials and nobles had suits stitched with copper.  

The luxurious design originates from the ancient belief that jade could absorb the essence of mountains, possessing the power to prevent bodily decay. Jade burial suits were mentioned in written records as early as the Western Zhou Dynasty, approximately 3,000 years ago. However, for millennia, there had been no tangible evidence of their existence – until the discovery of the suit crafted for Liu Sheng.  

A complete suit has six components: a head covering, upper garments, sleeves, gloves, trousers and shoes. Each part is crafted in various shapes of jade, all intricately designed and polished. Small holes are drilled near the corners of each piece allowing them to be woven into a suit. 
Liu Sheng’s suit uses 2,498 jade pieces and 1,100 grams of gold thread. The suit is broader in the chest and back, and bulges in the hips, perfectly contouring the body. All bodily orifices were covered, including the eyes, nose, penis and anus. The mouth is covered with a cicada design, which signifies rebirth. A pig figurine covers the anus, symbolizing abundance in food and clothing.  

Making such a suit is a complex process. Archaeologists theorize that ancient craftsmen tailored the suit on a wooden mannequin. They drew lines to divide the sections, then cut and shaped jade to fit each body part. Gold threads, typically 4 to 5 centimeters long, connected the pieces. The thinnest threads were no thicker than a strand of human hair.  

Crafting Liu Sheng’s jade suit would have taken a skilled artisan over 10 years to complete, although several craftsmen were likely commissioned for the piece. It is estimated to have cost the equivalent total assets of 100 middle-class families during the Han Dynasty. So exorbitant and labor-intensive were the suits, the pragmatic Emperor Wen of the State of Wei banned them during the Three Kingdoms period around 200 CE.  

As Han funerary tradition dictated couples be buried together, Guo Moruo deduced the tomb of Liu Sheng’s wife, Queen Dou Wan, would be located nearby. Identifying a similarly shaped hill roughly 100 meters away, the team indeed discovered Dou Wan’s tomb. Her resting place was even more spacious, and a second jade burial suit was discovered. Comprised of 2,160 jade pieces, the suit was stitched together using over 600 grams of gold thread.  

Hebei Museum houses these two jade burial suits, which are the earliest and finest among the more than 20 relatively complete jade burial suits discovered in China to date.  

Recognized as the largest, highest-ranking, and best-preserved royal tombs of early imperial China, the tombs of Liu Sheng and Dou Wan contained numerous national treasures, such as the Changxin Palace lantern and Boshan incense burner.  

These artifacts showcase the excellence of ancient Chinese craftsmanship and offer insights into the religious beliefs, social nuances and political agendas of early imperial Chinese rulers.

A jade carving with a pair of dragons, Hebei Provincial Museum, Shijiazhuang, February 17, 2023 (Photos by VCG)

The tomb of King Liu Sheng’s wife, Dou Wan, Hebei Province, February 14, 2023 (Photos by VCG)

A rosefinch-shaped candle holder, Hebei Provincial Museum, Shijiazhuang, February 17, 2023 (Photos by VCG)