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Treasures of the Mawangdui tombs come to Santa Barbara

'Noble Tombs at Mawangdui: Art and Life in the Changsha Kingdom' runs at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through Dec. 13.

September 20, 2009|Scarlet Cheng

The tomb raiders dug down 30 feet into Mawangdui -- a mound in Hunan, China, long known as a burial site for ancient nobility -- but they missed the mark. At some point they did find, and loot, the nearby tombs of her husband, the Marquis of Dai, and their son, but hers was the larger one, and more luxurious. That is because Lady Dai, as she is now known, outlived both of them and had more time to prepare for her trip to the afterlife.

In 1972, more than 2,000 years after her death in 163 BC, Lady Dai was finally discovered. Her tomb was miraculously intact -- China's equivalent of King Tut's -- and it was carefully excavated amid the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Now 70 pieces from this and the two neighboring tombs have made their way to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the second and last stop of the first exhibition in the United States dedicated to the treasures, "Noble Tombs at Mawangdui: Art and Life in the Changsha Kingdom" (through Dec. 13).

"The artifacts from this tomb are incredible," says Willow Weilan Hai Chang, the director of the China Institute Gallery in New York, where the exhibition opened earlier this year. As an archaeology student in China, she remembers that the finds were "wonders of our study." For her it has been a coup to arrange the loan from the Hunan Provincial Museum.

"The works are of great craftsmanship and quality," says Susan Tai, curator of Asian art at the Santa Barbara museum. "They provide a window into the history of ancient China. In some ways it's more significant than the terra-cotta warriors."

The objects -- textiles, lacquerware, personal accessories, carved figurines, and text and painting on bamboo strips and silk -- tell of social customs, religion and the life of the rich and privileged (on exhibit will be fragments of exercise charts). What makes these artifacts especially important is that the Changsha kingdom of Lady Dai's time was pivotal in the formation of Han culture and, in turn, Chinese civilization.

Lady Dai's tomb was laid out in a rectangle. In the center chamber lay her body, wrapped in 18 layers of silk and linen, then encased in four coffins. Around her, four chambers contained her personal effects and provisions. Since death was thought a relocation to another life, she had food and serving vessels, trunks of fabric and clothing. There were also small figures made of carved wood to represent servants to serve her and a quintet of musicians to entertain her. Chang quotes a classic Han dynasty saying, "We serve the deceased one just as if they were alive."

Perhaps the most famous object from Mawangdui is the T-shaped painted banner that draped Lady Dai's coffin. Here, it will be seen in reproduction -- the original so highly prized, and fragile, it's not permitted to leave China. Covered with swirling patterns, magical animals and figures, the banner tells of ancient religious beliefs including reincarnation. Lady Dai stands in the center, the tall figure with attendants, being prepared for her journey to the afterlife. Above her are various figures of legend, including the two gatekeepers to paradise and, above them, Nu Wa, the legendary great ancestor of the Han race, entwined with a serpent.


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