China unearthed: A hidden history of tombs and offerings

Deep underground, the ancient inhabitants of what is now China built remarkable houses and palaces. But these dwellings were not homes for the living. Instead, the dead would be laid there, not to rest, but to live out their afterlife in comfort. The objects and attendants that accompanied them shed light on both the deceased and the birth of a unified China, as Jessica Rawson told Matthew Symonds.


There is an old Chinese story, written down in the 7th or 8th century AD, about a man who sets out to meet friends living some distance away. The road is long, and as the sun dips in the sky it becomes clear that he will not reach his destination before darkness falls. By happy chance, the traveller comes upon an inn and decides to stay there. His night proves an eventful one. The man is summoned to help in a local skirmish and ends up participating in a battle, before returning to the inn and grabbing some well-earned rest. When he finally arrives at his destination and meets up with his friends, they upbraid him for being late. Worse still, an account of his adventures is met with disbelief. His friends insist that there is no inn, so they all head to the site together to establish the truth. Sure enough, there is nowhere to stay, just a cemetery. One of the tombs, though, looks disturbed. When the group investigates, they find that the tomb figures within had been decapitated: victims of the battle. During the night, the traveller had lodged with the dead.

The terracotta warriors are among the most renowned finds associated with a Chinese tomb, in this case the one belonging to the First Emperor. Further tomb finds, stretching back over thousands of years, offer a fresh glimpse of the development of ancient China. PHOTO: © Marco Clarizia |
The loess landscape, seen here with farming terraces. This soil proved suitable for creating building platforms and city walls, as well as digging deep tombs. 

This tale emphasises the dual status that tombs held. Not only were they burial places from the perspective of the living, but they were also residences for the dead. Archaeology shows that this tradition of building tombs, which served as homes for the afterlife, can be traced back thousands of years. As a group, these Chinese tombs represent one of the great marvels of the ancient world. Jessica Rawson, Emerita Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at Oxford, observes in her new book Life and Afterlife in Ancient China (see ‘Further reading’ box) that appreciating the achievements of ancient civilisations in some regions involves gazing up at their architecture; in China, you look down. There, deep within the earth, the dead were expected to live on in their tombs, accompanied by sumptuous goods that expressed their status and can be used to write their biographies. Collectively, these tombs also tell a bigger story about cultural change among a complex and shifting kaleidoscope of kingdoms and traditions. It is a story that departs in important ways from the accounts written up in ancient histories.

Ancient exceptionalism

A key challenge for understanding the early development of China from a Western perspective is how profoundly it differs from the trajectories and lifestyles familiar from, say, ancient Greece and Rome. ‘When seeking to understand a culture that is so different, I think one does have to pause and try to let your mind get around it’, says Jessica. ‘During the early periods, China was comparatively isolated. The region was separated from Iran and India by the high Tibetan plateau, which meant that all land connections across Eurasia had to come via the steppe to the north. Much was carried east by mobile pastoralists, who introduced various innovations to China, including metallurgy. It was only really from the late Roman period onwards that the oasis route, which we call the Silk Road, opened up. So, it is important to recognise that to a large extent China developed independently.’

‘One example of this is the absence of stone buildings of any significant age. Instead, Chinese architecture went in a different direction to familiar European styles. There were never buildings like Gothic cathedrals. This is because the Chinese had an alternative building material in the form of a yellow loess soil, which covers much of north China. The loess is a very malleable substance, and people could create city walls or big platforms simply by pounding it. Such platforms provide a suitable surface for extensive timber buildings, with the Forbidden City in Beijing presenting the prime example. Once the wood decayed, though, all that was left of the structures were the earth elements, unjustly giving an inferior impression of ancient Chinese architecture.’

‘China also has a very different agricultural environment. One way to appreciate this is to look at the terrain. China consists of huge lowland plains, east of the high mountains that rise into Tibet and Mongolia; the south, too, is very mountainous. Agriculture developed on the lowland regions, but all areas along the immense rivers were marshy and prone to flooding. The Pacific Monsoon, bringing the rains, makes the whole country very humid in summer. So China’s main agricultural land is heavily connected with water, which means it is not very suitable for animals with hooves. When domestication occurred, it first involved dogs and pigs; sheep, cattle, and later horses were brought across the steppe and were pastured on the higher arid loess land. Therefore, central China did not develop or support what we call the mixed-agriculture of cropping and herding. Instead, it had – and still has – a very grain-based farming economy, which led to settled lifestyles, because – unlike herders – rice and millet farmers don’t need to move around. Once again, this situation is very different from Europe, and indeed the whole area to the west of Tibet, where there is almost always a mixture – sometimes more and sometimes less – of herding and cropping.’

While China adopted distinctive architecture and farming, the whole area was made up of many different regions with their own customs. Archaeology shows how some local traditions became widespread, with a key example being the written script we know as Chinese characters. This first emerged in the 2nd millennium BC among people living in the Yellow River area, where the first royal dynasties came to power around 1600 BC. This script was successfully exported southwards, where it was adopted by many groups of rice farmers, who grew powerful and wealthy in turn. It was not just writing that travelled south from the Yellow River, though. This region was also notable for adopting impressive tombs for the afterlife, and the ancestor cult associated with them. This family cult involved making regular offerings of food, as ceremonial banquets, to sustain the deceased. Jessica examines a dozen burials in her book to tell the story of how China developed over millennia. Here, we will provide just a taste of what six of them reveal.

The power of jade

While stone architecture remained alien to ancient China, some specific stone artefacts were highly prized. Nothing illustrates this better than jade, a term given to a variety of hard, silky, cloudy minerals, of which the most favoured and famous is nephrite, used from pre-historical times to signal status or create implements for making ritual offerings. Archaeological discoveries have revealed that an appreciation of jade can be pushed back long before the dawn of history. A fine example comes from the vicinity of the powerful ancient city of Liangzhu (south of Shanghai), which flourished from 3300 to 2200 BC. Excavations at nearby Fanshan revealed a tomb that contained a male occupant with 647 jade objects.

This tomb at Fanshan contained 647 jade objects. It was 3.1m long and dug 1.1m deep into the ground.

‘One has to think that this group of people, in what is called the Liangzhu culture, discovered a local stone – jade – that they thought was in some way miraculous,’ says Jessica. ‘It is very hard to work and the only way that the craftsmen could do so was by grinding it with a hard gritty sand. If you combine the sand with bamboo or string, you can create a tool that has a hard enough point or edge to do the job, but it is an incredibly laborious process. Why expend so much effort on it? They must have thought that jade would give them access to some kind of power outside of their own daily life. That is also why they buried so many pieces in tombs. We can see that the occupant wore jade – both around his head and hanging from his body – and he had axes made of jade, too. For a long time, the axe was the primary weapon in China, and remained important.’

This comb top features an image of a fanged monster, which was a popular motif on jade at Liangzhu.

‘There were more unusual artefacts in the tomb as well, such as discs and a type of tube, with a square cross-section and a central hollow column, that the Chinese call a cong. They must have been some kind of ritual implement, and were engraved with figures that were repeatedly cut into jade by members of the Liangzhu culture. These images feature the face of a large- eyed monster with fangs, who is being held by a man-like figure with clenched teeth and a headdress. Presumably the monster was some kind of spiritual figure that existed within these people’s world view. A few scholars have claimed that they know what the faces mean, but we need to be very cautious about assuming we can interpret the beliefs of a group who left no written records. Personally, I think it’s quite wonderful to meet something we don’t understand. What is certain, though, is that these objects had a kind of posthumous power, otherwise they wouldn’t have been buried.’

Disturbing the dead

Because the dead were believed to live on in their tombs, they remained vulnerable to harm from the living. A remarkable instance comes from Taosi, a small city that was occupied from c.2300 to 1900 BC on the southern edge of the loess plateau in the wider hinterland of the Yellow River. Within the city, near a curious structure that may have been an observatory, lay the most substantial tomb known from the era. It was sunk about 8m deep into the earth, and marks a key step on the path to creating the remarkable underground residences seen in later eras. The Taosi tomb contained axes and jades, as well as traces of a ceremonial banquet. The occupant was probably a leader, but his afterlife did not play out according to plan.

Ya Chang’s tomb at Anyang is just over 6m long, and was dug about 6m deep into the ground. 
A bronze banqueting vessel for food, height 36.4cm, from Ya Chang’s tomb.
Fu Hao’s tomb was positioned near that of Ya Chang and contained a royal consort. Both had fighting skills as charioteers.

‘This tomb is really very interesting’, says Jessica, ‘because it was vandalised. We do not have many opportunities in China to meet such deliberate destruction in the past. One can meet it today, because people loot tombs, but the Taosi burial was clearly ransacked not long after it was installed. The damage occurred at a time of great change in Taosi – when many of its major buildings were destroyed – and of course people don’t like change. The disturbance of the tomb was definitely some kind of political act. If you believe in the afterlife, and at that time I’m sure everyone in the area did, then this vandalism is a critical move. Just digging up a tomb that is 8m down shows how serious the vandals were. Then you have the nature of the damage: not all of the valuable jades were removed, but instead the banqueting cups and the pigs to sustain the deceased were destroyed. This was a way to ensure that he could not go on living fully in the afterlife, and so prevent him from interfering in the lives of his rivals.’

Becoming establishment

This bronze face from Sanxingdui has protruding eyes and a trunk. It appears to represent an elephant and is 84.3cm in height.

Another example of how the dead could help or hinder living agendas comes from Anyang. This city was founded on loess to the north of the Yellow River and lay at the heart of ancient China. There, in around 1200 BC, a warrior named Ya Chang probably fell in battle, before being buried in a tomb about 6m deep. Ya Chang’s body is unusual because, in a region where most corpses were placed on their back, he was buried face down. He was also missing his right hand, which had been replaced with a miniature bronze version, allowing him to face the afterlife whole.

A bronze face, from Sanxingdui,with eyes that are typically used for human- like beings. It is 15cm high. 

‘They tried very hard to bury whole bodies’, says Jessica, ‘and no other examples of replacing a body part have been found in China. So this is a unique arrangement for an exceptional man. He was buried with a banqueting set of bronzes, too, as well as dogs and attendants. These attendants were not sacrificed, but interred with Ya Chang in order to assist him, most likely in fighting and hunting. Ya Chang’s tomb lay near that of a royal consort called Fu Hao, and she was also buried as a warrior. This was not a mark of great status, as fighting people weren’t regarded usually as of high status. The importance of these two people, though, is that they both started out as social outsiders. Their origins probably lie in the north, near the steppe. This would explain Ya Chang’s posture – his body was placed in the burial position favoured by his ancestors in the north, and he also had a few items in gold with him. There is no gold in the vast loess-covered areas of the Yellow River region.’

This extraordinary bronze figure from Sanxingdui has enormous hands and stands 1.72m in height. Photos: Ray Lui; Limin Huan  

‘You would normally expect someone of Fu Hao’s status to be in the royal cemetery, but she’s not. Instead, her tomb lies near the palace temple area in Anyang. Fu Hao was clearly a favoured wife of one of the early kings ruling the city. Large collections of cowrie shells and jade were found in her tomb, and these exceptionally valuable objects can only have been a royal gift. So why bury her away from the royal cemetery? We can see from the tomb finds that Fu Hao and Ya Chang both had renowned fighting skills, as charioteers. My speculation is that both of these warriors were buried in a position where they could defend the palace temple area in the afterlife.’

The complex tomb created for the Marquis of Zeng included a private chamber (9.25m long), an armoury, ceremonial hall, and a chamber containing women’s coffins.

A path not taken

The eternal defenders of Anyang show how outsiders could be assimilated into society. Far to the south-west of Anyang, though, another city was flourishing in the late 2nd millennium BC at Sanxingdui, in a basin of the Yangtze River. There, the contents of a set of sacrificial pits, rather than tombs, demonstrate that while some people and ideas could spread, others disappeared.

‘The finds at Sanxingdui are extraordinary,’ says Jessica. ‘No one can explain them. What is clear is that a quite separate group of people lived in the area and acquired some form of bronze-casting technology – probably from the north, but by way of the Yangtze. The people at Sanxingdui used this to express a unique world view, which is entirely distinct from what we see at Anyang, or anywhere else in the world. If these ideas had been expressed in wood or bamboo, we would never have known they existed, but fortunately the people used metal. What the inhabitants of Sanxingdui were doing was creating a visual picture of the universe – as they understood it – in bronze. So, there are bronze human-style heads, a few with gold masks, a towering bronze statue of a man with elaborate robes and enormous hands, bronze trees, and bird heads, as well as local forms of jade sceptres. Elephants can be seen playing a central role, carrying people on their backs. And there are many tusks in the pits. All this suggests some kind of myth or belief system that could be enacted as a performance.’

A concubine’s coffin from the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng.

‘If you look at the kind of performances we see in Anyang, there would have been a very formalised banquet, with 10 or 15 different types of bronze vessels being used to make offerings of food to the dead ancestors. But we don’t see that at Sanxingdui. Instead, we get the creation of an environment that was visualised by being cast in bronze. Ultimately, though, this bronze world was deliberately destroyed. A wealth of metalwork was buried in the Sanxingdui pits, during an era when metalwork was highly valuable. So the pits make a strong statement. The fact that the objects were treated like this suggests a wish to undo a way of life or placate spirits.’

Trophy tombs

While the wonderous bronze world of Sanxingdui came to an abrupt dead end, the deep tombs seen at Taosi and Anyang continued to spread and evolve. An example of the growing complexity of tombs can be found by jumping forwards in time to the small state of Zeng, north of the Yangtze River. There, in around 433 BC, a marquis by the name of Yi was placed in a tomb that comprised a main burial chamber with eight women companions, a ceremonial hall complete with a huge bell set, an armoury, and another chamber housing 13 women in coffins.

 This set of 65 bells belonged to the Marquis of Zeng.

‘Obviously tombs had developed a lot by then,’ Jessica observes. ‘Yi was immensely wealthy and powerful. No other tomb of this great size has been found complete with its contents in China, though this is partly because the royal tombs are not available for excavation. It’s worth noting that very few intact tombs on this scale have been found in the West, either. There’s Tutankhamun, and there’s the big tomb at Ur in Mesopotamia, and that’s about it. So Yi, really, is the Chinese Tutankhamun. What we seem to be seeing is a very rich and self-indulgent man. There is a large armoury, so he clearly went hunting and perhaps was involved in some skirmishing. His rooms in his afterlife palace, though, were above all for pleasure and ritual, and he took 21 women with him.’

This growing complexity of tombs ultimately culminated in one of the greatest archaeological marvels anywhere on the planet: the tomb of the First Emperor, created in the 3rd century BC, near Xi’an. It has been estimated that the wider tomb landscape may cover a staggering 50km². There, the Emperor was accompanied by high officials and military commanders, as well as stables, exotic animals, and – of course – his terracotta army.

A terracotta archer from the First Emperor’s tomb. The warriors must have been created to a given plan by parallel groups working at the same time.  

‘It’s mind-blowing, really,’ says Jessica, ‘it’s like a small city. The scale of it is, really, unbelievable. Coring has revealed that the tomb itself is cut 35m down into the ground with a shaft of a further 35m built above ground. After the funeral rites, it was all filled in again, and soil was mounded up on top to a height of more than the 55m remaining today. Just think about what that must have involved in labour! If archaeologists ever excavate the tomb, it will be an amazingly difficult task, and many of the contents will probably have been crushed by the weight of the earth. Interestingly, though, remote sensing suggests that the tomb chamber has a stone surround, from which one stone may have been found above ground. It was properly faced and inscribed with the script of that time. So perhaps the Chinese were starting to learn from contacts in Central Asia about the sort of stonework that we are familiar with in the West. After all, by this time Hellenistic customs were alive on the Oxus north of Afghanistan, and there were clearly many opportunities for communication.’

‘What has been underestimated hitherto for all tombs is that they needed to be elaborately planned. People would have had a project concept and involved many advisors, labourers, and skilled craftsmen. Building this particular tomb must have involved hundreds of thousands of people, as well as organisers and managers. This complexity also brings out the point that China had and has a tradition of large workshops. An organised population would have been very important. The terracotta warriors must have been made to a given plan – because they have a uniform height – and to produce them in such numbers meant they needed to be created by parallel groups working at the same time. We’re looking at the products of a highly managed labour force with a diverse range of skills.’

The tomb of the First Emperor, showing the central tomb, walled mausoleum, and funerary park.

Alternative history

How do the stories written by the tombs differ from ancient historical accounts? ‘There is nothing at all in the texts to tell us about how the fine bronzes, jades, and lacquers were made and used,’ Jessica points out. ‘All of that comes from archaeological analysis. Tombs are rarely, if ever, mentioned or described, so a whole repertoire of beliefs and practices is completely left out. The archaeological material gives us a much better sense of the different regions, too, with their variety of customs and contributions to China as a whole. You don’t find that in the texts at all. There are frequently authoritative, grandiose, and prosaic statements, telling us what is good and what is evil. The texts also describe royal lineages, omens, and battles, with the battles almost always being fought against enemies who were wicked or barbaric or somehow lesser beings. Archaeology gives us an alternative sense of the diversity of this vast continental power. It shows how allies could be found among outsiders and northerners, and how remarkable technologies were brought into China from elsewhere – when China was a thriving centre of early globalisation. Even the political picture we find in the texts is very one-sided.’ The history of China is much more luminous and diverse that the written histories would have us believe.

Futher Reading
For a fascinating and engaging account of the story of China as told by its tombs, see Jessica Rawson (2023) Life and Afterlife in Ancient China (Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0241472705, £40).

All images: Courtesy of Jessica Rawson, unless stated otherwise