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

Burial of Sacrificial Objects with the Dead


Burying valuable objects with the dead has been a practice in China for several thousand years. In addition to gold, silver and other valuables, burial objects include daily necessities, arts and crafts, the four treasures of study (writing brush, ink stick, ink slab and paper), books and paintings, tools of production and scientific and technological devices, and these have turned many tombs into priceless underground treasure houses, telling the vogues of the times. Clothes, hats and ornaments, silk and linen fabric, bronzes, jades, porcelains and pottery, lacquer-ware and wood and gold and silver objects were often made for special burial purposes, thus reflecting fairly well the craftsmanship, life styles and customs, artistic styles and scientific and technological levels of the times. As historical evidence, unearthed cultural relics are more reliable in depicting conditions of the times, as well as being better preserved than objects handed down from generation to generation.


Sealed off from air and sunlight and changes of climate, temperature and humidity for hundreds of years, objects of burial show little disintegration, remaining almost as they were when they were placed in the tomb. They are of inestimable historic and cultural value, especially those from imperial tombs, as the richest and most precious of all, because they are collections of the enormous wealth created by the ancient laboring people and crafted by the wisdom and skills of veteran workers and talented smithies of the time.


Burial of objects, with the dead in imperial tombs, went through a process of development similar to that of tomb construction.


1) The primitive burial. Early primitives paid little attention to burial of the dead and even less attention to inclusion of burial objects. Subsistence societies of the time had few objects to bury with the dead. Burial of certain survivors and of funeral objects with the dead were natural development following emergence of the conscious act of burying the dead.


In burying the bodies of their deceased, it was natural to include things which had been used by the deceased. Such inclusions may have had two purposes: first, a tribute to the memory of the dead, an act of affection; secondly, the acts were the products of concepts of the soul.


It was thought that when people died they would live in the nether world in much the same manner as they had lived in this worldly world and thus would need their working tools, daily necessities and beloved playthings. In the hope that the dead might live a more convenient and comfortable life, survivors supplied them with these amenities as part of a tomb burial.


Excavations suggest that burial of sacrificial objects with the dead started from formation of the primitive clan system. In the lower levels of the site where the Upper Cave Man lived about 18 thousand years ago, a young woman, a middle-aged woman and an old man were found buried with cultivating and household tools and ornaments including flints for lighting fire, stone-made tools and animal teeth, with holes, used as ornaments.


As the clan commune developed into the matrilineal and patrilineal society, productivity developed and the number and quality of funeral objects also increased. Burial objects in a tomb from that time typically include a set of three to five pieces of pottery for cooking, mixing, water hauling and storing food or drinking water; a small number of implements; a few ornaments of bones--hairpins and beads, jade pendants and pottery rings, and some weapons. Burial objects predated coffins, since no burial structure was evident by this time.


The unearthed sacrificial objects of that period were articles for daily use though quite limited in number. The kinds, quantity and quality of funeral objects buried with the dead of one clan are similar to those found in graves of members of other clans. Since durable implements such as stone knives were used frequently, they were seldom buried. From the funeral objects we can judge the social state and general prosperity of the primitive clan commune according to the numbers and types of objects found in their graves.


In line with the development of the patrilineal clan commune, surplus products appeared and divisions into extremes of rich and poor occurred, measured by the differing ranges of items being used. The funeral objects reflect differences through the quantities of implements and exquisite ornaments that symbolized the individual's ability to accumulate property in his lifetime.


In the neolithic culture tombs at Qingliangang, Yingyangyin to the north of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, 70 percent of funeral objects unearthed were household implements and other precious articles. One of the tombs contained 12 stoneware items, four pieces of used pottery, 11 jade and agate ornament pieces, and more than 20 stone tools.


Among the tombs of the Dawenkou Culture site, Tai'an, Shandong Province, those with rich burial items usually contained 30 to 40 objects, and the richest one had as many as 180. They include exquisitely painted, black and white potteries, well fashioned stone and bone tools and intricate ornaments. In some of the tombs, combs and ivory pots with complex carved designs were found. In contrast, in tombs of the same period at some other places, only a few, and even in some cases, no burial objects were found. The disparity in burial objects reflects divisions into two extremities of the rich and poor: the slave society was in its embryonic state.


2) Burying the living with the dead and offering sacrifice of the living. After emergence of classes in the history of human society, exploited and oppressed people lived a miserable life for several thousand years. Tragedy appeared continuously and the most tragic occurred in the slave society. In the slave society slaves were sold, given as gifts or even slaughtered like animals. The historic tragedy of slavery is typified in the burying and offering of live slaves as sacrifices to their dead owners.


In a large tomb of the Shang Dynasty (c.16th-1lth centuries BC) at the Northwest Ridge of Houjia Village, Anyang, Henan Province, for example, a slave holding a dagger-axe was buried with a dog at the center of the pit's bottom and eight other slaves, each with a dog and holding dagger-axes, were distributed to the four corners of the pit. Once this had been done, the inner and outer coffins of the slave owner were laid down. Then, at the top of the outer coffin, weapons and guards of honor were placed. The passages around the chamber were filled with slave bones. Judging from the excavation, it appears that a group of slaves were first buried in a coffin chamber filled with tightly packed earth, leaving an opening at the southern end.


Ten to twenty more slaves with their hands tied behind their backs were led in a row into the passage, forced to stand in rows west and east of the coffin chamber and to kneel facing the chamber where their heads were cut off. These bodies were covered with earth which was also packed tightly. Their heads were then buried in outer rows as the bodies had been buried. In this tomb, altogether 59 bodies without heads in eight rows and 73 heads in 27 groups were discovered. As skeletons and skulls, other bones were found in scattered and broken conditions it is difficult to determine how many sacrificial bodies are in the tomb. Most of the slaves buried in the tomb were youngsters, even small children. In the Yin Ruins, Anyang, this kind of tragic scene was found in every imperial tomb; some were buried alive, some were killed before entombment.


Generally speaking, big imperial tombs contain 300 to 400 slaves. In one of the big tombs, Wuguan Village, for example, 41 male and female slaves were buried along the sides of the funeral chamber, in addition to 52 heads being placed all around. To the south of the tomb, four rows of burial pits each contains 10 headless skeletons. Altogether there are 152 identifiable individual bodies.


Besides burial of live slaves with their deceased masters, slave owners killed many slaves when they offered sacrifices to their ancestors or gods. For instance one oracle bone inscription records a ceremony for offering sacrifices. It states that "30 male and 30 female salves are used as sacrifices."


In the tomb grounds of the Yin Ruins at Wuguan Village, nearly 2,000 skeletons were found in 184 pits in 1976, each pit containing 8 to 10 remains. Hundreds of slaves were then cooped up and victimized as beasts of burden when burial or sacrificial ceremonies were held.


These tragic practices lasted over a thousand years in China and declined gradually until they ended in the feudal society. During the Spring and Autumn (770 BC-476 BC) and the Warring States (475 BC-221 BC) periods writers recorded the tragedies.


On Control of Burial Ceremony by Mo Tzu states that "slaves killed as offerings by a king number several hundred; by a general, gentry or a man of rank, several to a few dozen."


3) Funeral objects. Funeral objects are first recorded in the Rites of the Zhou Dynasty, they are divided mainly into two categories: Figurines and everyday useful articles or items. Figurines are made in various shapes, such as figures of human being, birds and beasts, used articles, houses and weapons. Everyday, practical items encompasses a wide variety.


In the 3,000 years from the later period of the slave society through the feudal society a set of complicated rites for tomb burial accumulated and the protocol for funeral objects used in tomb burials is so varied that comprehensive listings are difficult.


To understand fully the use of funeral objects, one must have a brief introduction to the origin and development of the figurines which became very important.


Figurines were at first made of wood or other materials in the shape of human figures to replace the sacrifice of live slaves. Replacement of live objects by figurines then extended to domestic animals, birds and beasts, and various articles and wares. The use of figurines in place of live slaves and animals in burial and sacrificial ceremonies developed gradually over a long period. In the beginning, perhaps the later years of the slave society, slave owners, recognizing that mass slaughter of slaves, oxen and horses was a waste of resources, started using figurines in their place. In the Yin Ruins, Anyang, male and female figurines, their hands fastened with fetters and handcuffs and made of a dark, bluish gray clay, were found. However, the replacement by figurines did not develop rapidly. Live burial of slaves and animals continued even into the time of Confucius (551 BC-479 BC). He hated live sacrifice but could not accept the replacements, saying "the one who creates burial figurines will have followers, for the figurines are remainders of the use of human sacrifices." He also said, "Those who make figurines are not benevolent.''


Many and varied types of materials were used and processed to make figurines, including fire clay, wood or stone, gold, silver, bronze and lead. Moreover, many were woven with straw or paper. During the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods most of the figurines were carved of wood. They had silk clothing, hair ornaments or hats, and some of them had designs painted on their bodies. At Jincun Village, Luoyang, Henan Province, metal figurines have even been found from this period.


The terracotta figures unearthed in recent years from the three pits 1.5 kilometers from the east gate of the outer wall of Emperor Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum in Lintong, Shaanxi Province, is a major archaeological discovery. Various life-size warriors, horses and chariots, exquisitely crafted, are placed in battle array, totally as many as 10,000 pieces. If these warriors and horses had been replaced by real, living sacrifices, what a tragedy that would have been! In contrast to these were more than 200 horses found buffed alive in a pit in Linzi, Shandong Province.


Figurines made in the Han Dynasty are not so big as the terracotta figures but many and different varieties are fashioned such as riding and shooting, dancing and acrobatic figurines. In addition to figurines of humans there are pottery figurines of houses, towers, wells and kitchens as well as figurines of pigs, oxen, sheep, dogs, roosters and ducks.


"The chief craftsman in the East Garden is responsible for making articles and wares used in tombs" is recorded in the "Picture of Officials," History of the Han Dynasty, showing that the manufacture of figurines and other funeral objects had become a specialized trade. Three-color glazed figurine making in the Tang Dynasty reached a summit in the molding art. Most of the female figurines from that time have full figures, reflecting appreciation of beauty which prevailed in the flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty. Many other figurines bear such features as sunken eyes and high noses, giving the effect of images of central Asians and Europeans.


Besides the figurines mentioned above there have been quite a number of three-color glazed camels loaded with goods discovered, reflecting the development of transportation between east and west in the Tang Dynasty.


Patterns and styles of figurines at different times reflect different social customs and life habits. For instance, this is as found in a poem of Bai Juyi (772-846), a great poet in the Tang Dynasty, who wrote in the line "Two eyebrows painted to resemble a flat '' (eight) character," which did exist on female figurines of that time. In Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589), aesthetic standards favored the thin, pretty and handsome, reflected in unearthed figurines.


After the Tang Dynasty, funeral objects were replaced by paper figures for burning, and stone-carved guards of honor appeared. These were not buffed in tombs but were put at the sides of spirit paths to the tombs. Funeral objects placed in the tombs shifted to pearls and jades and functional articles and wares.


Of course, the change was not complete. In the tombs of the Ming Dynasty, pottery figurines of humans and horses were found but they were fewer than before.


Articles of daily use and other wares for funeral objects appeared after emergence of tomb burial in the primitive society and the quantity become greater and things used became much more valuable, splendid and precious as social productivity developed.

Funeral objects found from the Shang and Zhou dynasties mainly consist of wine vessels, cooking vessels, food containers, sacrificial vessels and utensils, weapons, tools, and ornaments. Sacrificial vessels in the Zhou Dynasty were used to indicate the wealth and social status of the nobility, especially the number of ding (tripod) and qui food vessels were determined by the social status. Bronzewares developed to an unprecedented high level and many bronzewares were made in excellent patterns and rich decorative designs, used as burial objects and splendid records of the bronze culture.

China was also known as a country with well-developed silk weaving. After the Spring and Autumn (770BC-476 BC) and the Warring States (475BC-221 BC) periods silks fabrics were frequently used as burial objects. For instance many silk fabrics, embroidered silk and clothing embroideries unearthed from a Western Han tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, are excellently done and in bright colors.


Among them is a long gauze gown of light color weighing less than 50 grams. In Jiangling, Hubei Province, a large quantity of silk embroidered fabric, bed sheets, quilt and clothes were unearthed in exquisite design, form and color, dating back to the Warring States Period. This shows that silk embroidery then had already reached a high artistic level in China.


A large number of lacquer wares were excavated from the tombs of the Warring States Period and the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), which had formed the main part of burial objects at that time, marking great achievements in lacquer ware making in ancient times. Lacquer wares excavated from the tombs of the Warring States Period at Changguan, Xinyang, Henan Province and those a Western Han tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province, are all exquisitely done, large in size and great in number. Conditions underground are so suitable for preservation of these wares that they looked as though they were new when they were dug out.


China was regarded as a center for porcelain ware. Its ancient porcelain wares rank first in the world. Although pottery and porcelain cannot corrode, they break easily, so few pottery and porcelain ware pieces have been handed down through generations. However, a large number of precious pottery and porcelain ware pieces were well preserved in the ancient tombs, including painted pottery of the primitive society, big mouth proto-porcelain jars of the Shang Dynasty, painted pottery of the Han Dynasty, celadons of the Western (265-316) and the Eastern Jin (317-420) and the Northern and Southern Dynasties, tri-colored glued pottery of the Tang Dynasty and the exquisite porcelain wares of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Especially important are the pottery and porcelain wares of the early periods in history, and nearly all tombs have produced examples.


In addition, of course, the ancient tombs preserved other burial objects, such as gold, silver, jade stones, pearls, cultural relics and antiques, inscription tables, stele engravings, bamboo slips, paintings and calligraphy.

Lacquer fragments excavated from the Yin ruins in Heber

Bronze jia (wine vessel ) of the Yin Dynasty

Four-sheep zun of the Shang Dynasty


Round ding (three-legged tripod) of the Zhou Dynasty

Cold ornaments of the Huns dating from the Warring States period excavated in Inner Mongolia

Two-scribe figurine of the Warring States period

Bamboo tablets representing the power of Lord excavated in Hubei

Lacquer coffin of the Western Han excavated at Mawangdui, Changsha

Porcelain jar of the Shang Dynasty

A chime of bells dating from the Sui of the Spring and Autumn period unearthed at Suizhou, Hubei


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