C.5,000-6,000 BC
259 BC-220

Origins of Tombs

Early primitive societies had no ideas of tombs. When someone died, the body was simply buried or thrown away. As human society developed, superstition came to be practiced and burial gradually became an important matter. Thus, the tomb came into being and developed into an important element of hierarchical systems.

How did the ideology of tombs originate and develop? In short it came from the concept of soul, which perhaps emerged during the middle stages of transition from the primitive society. Frederick Engels said: "In remote antiquity, our forbears had little idea about the structure of the human body. Affected by the visions in their dreams they formed the idea that 'man's thinking and feeling do not come from the functions of body organs, but from the activities of the unique soul which exists in the body and separates from it at death.'"

From this concept came a belief that when people died their souls were still alive, leaving their bodies for the other world -- the nether world, and that they sometimes would return to human society to affect the living. As a result, people cherished memories of the deceased and, at the same time, developed a strange fear of death itself. Pushed by memories and by fear of death they came to embrace the ideology of burying the dead decently with funeral ostentation.

Since no one can know of life in the nether world, our ancestors used imagination to design the nether lives of the deceased according to what they saw in human society.

Archaeological discoveries tell that burial practices of the Upper Cave Men, who lived 18,000 years ago in the caves at Zhoukoudian, Beijing, reflect this religious concept of soul, though at a primitive stage. The Upper Cave Men entombed the dead in their lower residence caves, which had already become cemeteries, and distributed around the bodies of the departed grains of red iron ore, flints, stone beads, and animal teeth drilled with holes. Included among these were also production tools, articles for daily use and other ornaments.

This arrangement allows as to reconstruct the lives and priorities of the Upper Cave Men. Typical are sites of the Yangshao Culture during the late period of Matrilineal Commune about five millennia ago, such as Mt. Beishou of Baoji, Banpo Village of Xi'an, Yuanjun Temple of Huaxian County in Shaanxi Province, and Wangwan of Luoyang in Henan Province, bodies are found in lines row upon row, similar to the distribution of huts in villages where the occupants had lived. The heads of the bodies are arranged in patterns reflecting stable blood relationships of the clan system. The for-bears assumed that in the nether world the souls of the dead would continue to live in clans.

Quite a number of multiple-burial tombs have been discovered. In the graveyard at Banpo Village, Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, families are found buried together in one tomb. This indicates further advances in the burial system. Cemetery systems of this type lasted for a long time.

The chapter on "Protocol Official" in the Rites of the Zhou Dynasty notes special offices and personnel in charge of cemeteries. The tombs of this period consistently show that neither couples nor fathers and sons were buried together in the same tomb. However, in some cemeteries of clan communes, bones of children are found lying at the side of their mothers. This suggests that in the matrilineal communes children "did not know their father but did their mother."

Some clans living along the Yellow River and the Yangtze River and in some other regions developed an era of patriarchal commune, in which men played the principal part in agriculture, animal husbandry and handicrafts.

Gradually the primitive society was disintegrating and private ownership began to emerge. This historical change was clearly reflected in the tombs of that time. In a joint burial tomb at the Longshan Culture site of Hengzhen Village. Huayin County, Shaanxi Province, for instance, a couple are found buried together.

Especially notable is a tomb site (equal to Qiiia Culture) at Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture. Gansu Province, where a man and a woman are buried together; the man lying on his back with his legs stretched straight while on the right the woman lies on her side facing the man with her legs bent. This shows that the social position of women was declining to one of submission to men. In addition, there were changes taking place in burial objects. In the 120 tombs at Dawenkou, Tai'an County, Shandong Province, for example, all occupants wearing hair ornaments are buried with spinning wheels nearby while those wearing no hair ornaments are surrounded by farm tools. This suggests that contemporary working divisions, farming and spinning, respectively for men and women, were a common practice of that time which has been passed on for several thousand years.

At the Liujialin site in Peixian County, Jiangsu Province, marking the same cultural period as that of Dawenkou, a similar practice of extended burial of man and flexed burial of woman, was discovered in a joint burial tomb. Another made of burial appeared where grown-ups were lying on their back with extended legs while children lay on their sides with legs bent. This indicates that children depended on their parents. In one of the tombs at Dawenkou, two grown-ups and five or six children were found buried together, the woman in the middle holding two children in her arms. This tells us of the existence of joint burial of full families at that time.

Following emergence of the concept of soul, tombs became resting places for the soul. However, methods of burial changed as societies developed. Production tools, articles for daily use and ornaments were all used as burial objects in the belief that occupants of the tombs might need them in the nether world.

Clan members, or couples and their children, were buried together because they believed the dead might live together in the nether world. The concepts of strengthening the soul and of religious superstition extented both the form and the content of tombs and made the process of burial more complicated.

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