Hunan Provincial Museum, located in the city of Changsha, Hunan Province, has five permanent exhibitions in its permanent collection, among which the Mawangdui Han Tomb exhibition is the driving force of the museum's permanent collection. The museum also exhibits: bronzeware crafts dating from the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) and the Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasties; celadon porcelain wares (celadon is a type of Chinese pottery finished with a pale green glaze) produced in the kilns of the villages of Xiangyin and Yuezhou during the Eastern Han (CE 025-220), Sui (CE 581-617), and Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasties; underglaze porcelain wares, with hand-printed motifs, that stem from the kiln in Changsha during the Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) period; and masterpieces - or copies thereof - by famous Chinese artists and thinkers from the 4th century CE down to the beginning of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty.
Worthy of special mention is a duplication of the famous calligraphic work, Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion, by the Eastern Jin (CE 317-420) Dynasty 'Sage of Calligraphy', Wang Xizhi (alas, none of Xizhi's original works have survived). The "Preface" was written by Xizhi on the occasion of the publication of a collection of poems written by poets who had gathered at the village of Lanting, near Shaoxing, for the annual Spring Festival. The museum's permanent exhibits also include texts by famous Chinese authors from the period near the end of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. There are also cultural relics dating from the Kingdom of Wu (CE 229-280) of the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) period.
The common thread that unifies the objects on display at Hunan Provincial Museum is that they are all linked to Hunan Province itself, in one way or another. But the main focus of Hunan Provincial Museum, and the main focus of this introduction to the museum, is the impressive treasure trove of ancient Chinese "artifacts" that the Mawangdui Han Tomb complex yielded up, including a very well-preserved human corpse.
The Treasure Trove of the Mawangdui Han Tomb Complex
The Mawangdui Han Tomb site is located in an eastern suburb of Changsha near the Liuyang River, about 5 kilometers from the city center. According to legend, it is the tomb (mound, or "dui") of Ma Yin, the Han Chinese King ("Wang") of the Kingdom of Shu (CE 221-263), hence the name, Mawangdui. Among the three Han tombs it comprises, Tomb No. 2 is that of Marquis Quan Li Cang, the administrator of the then district of Changsha at the beginning of the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty, Tomb No. 1 is that of the wife the Marquis, and Tomb No. 3 is that of the son of the Marquis. In other words, Ma Wang ("King Ma") is himself not buried here. This is not at all unusual, for rulers of ancient China, desirous of entering paradise intact - and also with their "booty" intact - and thus fearing grave robbers, often had several "decoy" grave sites made to confound the grave robbers who would surely arrive one day.
The tomb complex also yielded up the remains of corpses, including a quite well-preserved female corpse that has been dated to the period of the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty, i.e., which has been beneath ground for upwards of two millennia. Although the remains most certainly no longer do justice to the appearance of the living individual, its present-day state is remarkably well preserved, with skin that is still moist and elastic - even after having been unearthed since 1972 - with an abundance of subcutaneous fat and a flexible parenchyma (i.e., the "organ" which keeps the skin functioning), and with internal organs that are still intact, all features that are highly unusual in archeological finds of this type.
The state of this corpse can be compared to a fresh corpse, in the sense that the limbs can be moved (the joints still flex), and the skin retains a "live" quality about it. This corpse bears no comparison whatsoever to a "preserved in a peat bog" corpse, whose organs have shrunk (whose entire body has shrunk) and whose skin has become leather-like from the tannic acid present in the peat. The corpse recovered from the Mawanghui Han Tomb complex is truly a miracle of antiseptics.
When the corpse was first unearthed, its state of freshness shocked the medical world, and it continues to attract scholars as well as curiosity-driven tourists. After anatomization, the body and the internal organs of the corpse have been put on display in a specially designed facility in the basement of the museum. The amazingly well-preserved state of this entombed corpse is further testimony to the highly developed state of science that prevailed in the ancient China that also introduced the world to paper, gunpowder, the compass, and the first moveable type.
The Mawangdui Han Tomb, which was opened for the first time (the grave robbers apparently hadn't gotten to it) by a team of archeologists in 1972, yielded up a mother lode of artifacts, most of which were in a near-perfect state, including numerous articles of clothing such as coats as thin as the wings of a cicada, floral-print gowns as fresh as if they were made yesterday, and a wide variety of items displaying delicate needlework. The tombs also yielded up bright lacquer works with illustrations in color, silk paintings in black & white and in color, exquisite silk books with rich contents, musical instruments, instruments of war, royal seals, and numerous tomb figures made of wood.
Tomb No. 1, which is the largest of the three tombs (it measures 19.5 meters in length, 17.8 meters in width, and 16 meters in depth) also contained an abundance of precious silk objects, yarn, and brocade. One of the most outstanding objects from Tomb No. 1 is a long-sleeved silk coat of 1.28 meters length that is as fine as gossamer (it weighs a mere 49 grams), yet is woven to be strong. Again, a tribute to Chinese technology that textiles of this sophistication could be produced at such an early period in time.
The coffin excavated from Tomb No. 1 is decorated with peculiar images of animals - and what appears to be gods - on its lacquered surface, the degree of craftsmanship of this imagery being very high.
A map excavated from Tomb No. 2 provided another surprise: its drawing technique is very advanced, the method of annotation being quite similar to that of a modern map. It was praised as 'a striking discovery' when exhibited in foreign capitals in Japan, in Poland, and in America, as well as in many other cities around the world.
The large quantity of silk books unearthed from Tomb No. 3 reveal records and literature of immense cultural and historical value. There are books that cover topics such as ancient philosophy, history, and science. In sum, there are 28 different categories of books, containing a total of 120,000 words. There are also several books with illustrations, most of which are "lost" ancient books in the sense that no other references, or cross-references, to these works exist.
Tombs Nos. 1 and 2 have now been sealed off (their contents can of course be seen in Hunan Provincial Museum), while Tomb No. 3 has been reinforced and left open in order to provide tourists a glimpse of the real thing. A new cover permitting light inside has been built for Tomb No. 3 in order to make it easier for visitors to view the tomb.
More than 3000 objects have been unearthed from the Mawangdui Han Tomb complex. Among the objects mentioned above are some 500 lacquer works that are as luxuriant and shiny today as when they were first created, as well as numerous silk paintings that are the earliest works hitherto discovered depicting daily life as it was lived in the China of the period in question. The physical surroundings of the museum as well as its tasteful mix of old and new architecture contribute to the overall positive impression that a visitor takes away on a visit to Hunan Provincial Museum. Indeed, the museum has become the landmark of the city of Changsa. Moreover, the Mawangdui Han Tomb collection has put the city of Changsa not only on the map of China, but also on the world map, as foreigners who have visited China - or who plan to do so - mention Mawangdui Han Tomb, together with the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army (the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of the city of Xi'an, in Shanxi Province), as absolutely must-see sightseeing visits.