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Dynasties Witness Rise and Fall of Chariots


In Chinese history the burying of horses and chariots was part of a strict sacrificial system.

Since the 1930s, Chinese archaeologists have discovered many chariot burial sites mainly in north and central China.

Zheng Ruokui, a research fellow with the Archaeology Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, painted an outline of the chariot burial system in a recent issue of the Chinese journal, Cultural Relics World.

Yin: Start

Historical records show that chariots were already in extensive use in the Xia Dynasty (BC 21st-16th c.). But the earliest chariot burial site found so far dates back to BC 1250-1192, or the rule of King Wuding in the Yin Dynasty, a special term Chinese archaeologists give to the later half of the Shang Dynasty (BC 16th-11th c.).

This early discovery was made in 1933, when Chinese archaeologists found one chariot at Hougang, Anyang of central China's Henan Province. The area had been capital of the Yin Dynasty and caught international fame in the early 20th century with the discovery of inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells.

As more Yin Dynasty chariots are brought to light, researchers are able to learn more about the burial system.

Burying only the chariots or the horses is rare for the people of the Yin Dynasty, although a total of 25 chariots and 37 horses have been found respectively in the two sites.

The mainstream fashion was to bury both horses and chariots at the same site. The chariots were either dismantled or kept intact. The slain horses were put in pairs either facing or with their backs towards each other under a single straight shaft.

Sometimes, grooms or dogs were also put into the site as part of the sacrifice.

Besides being buried in the same tomb with their masters, the chariots and horses could also be put into a separate site, by which they became "public" sacrificial items for previous rulers buried in the nearby area.

Only about 60 horse and chariot burial sites have been found out of the 10,000 tombs of the Yin Dynasty discovered so far. This signifies the high status of the chariots at that time.

"Riding in a chariot was like driving a top-level limousine today," said Zheng.

Reform in Zhou Dynasty

As the Zhou Dynasty (BC 11th c. - BC 256) carried on the cream of the strict social system of the Shang Dynasty, the chariot burial system prospered and deviated from the old rules in later years.

Over 100 chariot burial sites of the Zhou Dynasty have been found in a much more extensive sphere.

In 1964, a giant horse burial site was found at Linzi of East China's Shandong Province. Archaeologists later excavated 228 horses from the site which most experts believe were intended for Duke Jingong (ruled BC 547-BC 489) of the Qi Kingdom.

It is estimated that well over 600 horses are buried in this single site. This is the largest site of horse sacrifice found so far in China.

Around 1991, archaeologists were thrilled to find about 50 chariots with some 100 horses that were used for battles from 11 burial sites located within the cemetery of the Guo Kingdom, in Sanmenxia of Henan Province.

This site is by far the earliest, biggest and richest among all the chariot burial groups found in China.

Compared with previous times, horse and chariot burials in the Zhou Dynasty show several changes.

In some sites, horses were buried alive.

Putting more than one chariot into a site apparently grew increasingly fashionable. For dukes of the kingdoms, usually over 20 chariots were buried alongside or one after another in one site which was better constructed than in earlier days.

The chariots of the Zhou Dynasty grew from a single straight shaft to two or three curving shafts. The invention of an umbrella shielding the riders is also eye-catching.

In the Warring States Period (BC 475-BC 221), China underwent a chaotic transfer from a slave to a feudal society. Many ancient rules were simply ignored or changed.

As this reform touched every aspect of social life, people started putting model horses and chariots made of wood, mud, or clay into the burial site to replace real ones.

Another interesting example of this change is the tomb of Liang Ji, a noblewoman of the Guo Kingdom. According to the strict sacrificial rules set up in the early Zhou Dynasty, she could have only five chariots and ten horses as her sacrifice. But at her tomb in the cemetery of the Guo Kingdom in Sanmenxia, Henan Province, there are 19 chariots with 38 horses.

Qin and Han: Withering

Bronze chariots and horses grasped the genre in the Qin (BC 221-207) and Han (BC 206-AD 220) dynasties, while burying real horses and chariots still appeared attractive for some nobles.

In 1980, six years after the discovery of the terracotta warriors near Xi'an, ancient capital of Qin and Han, in today's northwest China's Shaanxi Province, two bronze chariots again excited people's imagination about Emperor Shihuang of the Qin Dynasty.

While the bronze horses were kept in good condition, the chariots had been broken into 3,010 pieces, said Wu Yongqi of the Emperor Shihuang's Terracotta Museum. Through eight years of hard work, Wu and his colleagues restored the chariots into original shape.

One for battle purpose and another for comfortable travel, the two bronze chariots meant that hundreds of fine craftsmen worked together for a long time.

Although fewer chariots were buried in the Qin and Han periods, they still symbolized the rulers' high status.

With the excavation of more horse and chariot burial sites, Chinese archaeologists will paint an ever clearer picture of the ancient ritual system, said Zheng Ruokui.

(China Daily March 14, 2002)

In This Series

China Makes Largest Ming Dynasty Archeological Find After Ming Tombs

Ancient City Unearthed Near Tomb of Hanjing Emperor

More Ancient Tombs Discovered in East China

Archaeological “Bombshell” Unearthed in Henan Province

How Tang Tri-color Simplified Imperial Burials

New Discovery at 2000-Year-Old Tomb

Boat-Shape Coffins Unearthed in Chengdu

1000-Year-Old Horse Graves Unearthed in Chongqing

Largest Ancient Sacrificial Site Found in Inner Mongolia

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