Life and Afterlife in Ancient China


This authoritative work by one of the UK’s leading sinologists explores the early history and archaeology of China through 12 tombs and discoveries, some already well known in the West – including Sanxingdui with its otherworldly bronze figures and the astonishing terracotta army of the First Emperor at Xi’an – and others that deserve to be equally well known, such as the tombs at Bengbu and Lingshou, and the vanished city of Liangzhu with its ‘king cong’ fashioned from a massive block of jade.

It is as much an introduction to the geography and climate of China as an account of its archaeology and history. It is also part travelogue, part love letter to the incredibly rich culture of China, written in an engaging conversational style. It is an appreciation of the sites in their landscape setting, and a meditation on how geomorphology and the complexities of China’s more remote past ultimately shape the culture and thinking of the modern Chinese state and people.

The Loess Plateau plays a central and formative role in this story. Wind-blown deposits from the deserts of central Asia cover China’s landscape to a depth of 300m in some places. The semi-crystalline structure of the loess enabled the excavation of deep pits; unlike the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, the Chinese built down rather than up. The impressive tombs were palaces for eternity in which the Chinese elite were surrounded by the many beautiful things they had enjoyed in life, and sometimes their servants and closest companions.

The grave goods included provisions for feasting, with elegant cups, basins, and platters. The preparation of different food offerings is still enshrined in Chinese culture today. Jade was highly prized for its translucence, permanence, and sensual qualities, and provided protection against spirit enemies in the afterlife. Sets of bronze vessels, the product of sophisticated casting techniques, were used to make offerings to the all-important ancestors. This on-going belief system based on veneration of the ancestors and the associated investment in funerary rituals and structures is unfamiliar to many people in the West, but as with cuisine, architecture, and art, China, separated by the Tibetan Plateau, took a different path from the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean.

The contents of the tombs provide insights into Chinese political life of the time. This was often dependent on relationships mediated by the Loess Plateau with people from the steppe, who provided horses and access to wider transcontinental networks linking China with central and western Asia. The rulers of the plains referred to their horse-riding neighbours as barbarians, but copied their gold-decorated belts, chariots, and mounded tombs. For their part, the people of the steppe adopted aspects of Chinese material culture, even if they valued bronze vessels for recasting rather than for use in making cult offerings.

Jessica Rawson’s detailed examination of these tombs and associated grave goods reveals the lives of their occupants, in particular those of high-ranking women who entered diplomatic marriages and cemented alliances between political allies. The author’s exploration of funerary arrangements over several thousand years culminates in the tomb of the First Emperor, Huangdi, at Xi’an.

If one might venture a mild criticism of this work, it is in the narrative device of accounting for the origins of different aspects of China’s present in the past, and the very remote past at that. The reading of ‘the language of objects’ from the tombs and sites explored in this work deserves to be taken on its own very considerable merit. The range of knowledge is truly impressive, with informative asides about the importance of selenium for horses, Chinese mastery of cast iron technology (2,000 years before it was known in the West), Chinese coins, musical scales, poetry, and much, much more.

The work is illustrated throughout with detailed maps, plans, and diagrams of the sites, with colour pictures and drawings of the objects in the tombs, comprehensive footnotes, and bibliographic references to Chinese literature not readily available to the general reader.

Life and Afterlife in Ancient China
Jessica Rawson
Allen Lane, £40 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0241472705