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A noble find reveals the life in the past
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-12-03 08:48

Chicken fighting, women dancing with long silk sleeves and other colourful mural portrayals of the ancient Chinese captivated archaeologists when they entered an ancient tomb in Shaanxi Province.

The hostess and her female guests constitute a part of the murals found in an ancient tomb in Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province. [file photo]
The murals have been considered a rare find, according to Cheng Linquan, deputy director of the Xi'an Research Institute of Archaeology.

They provide visual evidence for the study of the lives of the ancient Chinese in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) and of the development of Chinese art.

The tomb where they were discovered recently was chanced upon at a construction site of Xi'an University of Technology, in the capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

Dating back to the Western Han Dynasty, it is located in the southern suburbs of Xi'an, once the capital of the Western Han Dynasty. Back then, it was called Chang'an.

Local farmers say the tomb area was once a huge mound of earth. It was leveled off in the late 1960s and early 1970s for farming.

A tunnel led to the main tomb which has a main burial chamber and two side chambers.

The main chamber is 4.6 metres wide and 2.08 metres long with a height of 2.1 metres. The murals cover all the walls.

It seems the ancient artists first coated the wall with white plaster and then sketched their works with red, blue, black and other pigments.

The murals on the eastern side all feature men travelling in horse carriages. Some are on hunting trips, chasing game, or pulling full a bow, about to shoot a dear, or holding a long spear in pursuit of a wild bull, or getting off a horse to pick up the loot. Wild pheasants soar into the air, while the wounded bull are seen struggling on the ground.

Much of the paintings on the western wall were damaged. Only its centre part is visible. In this scene, the host and his guest sit on the ground, chatting and laughing while watching a chicken fight and flanked by waiting servants .

The painting on the southern wall of the chamber portrays the hostess and her female guests. Kneeling upon wooden mattresses, the women enjoy a dance show. Round stands are placed in front of the women and lacquer cups are laid on the stands.

The roof of the chamber seems to depict the afterlife of the protagonists when they die and rise to heaven, as the clouds show. They are accompanied by the sun, the moon, a dragon, crane, phoenix and among other "heavenly" creatures.

According to Cheng, an expert on relics of the Han Dynasty, this was the sixth Han tomb with murals found in Shaanxi, and the eighth Western Han tomb with murals in the country.

It is still too early to tell who is buried in the tomb.

The first Han tomb with murals was found early last century, and most are located in Central China's Henan Province.

Palace murals

The discovery follows the finding of fragmented murals of the same period from broken pieces of walls at the ruins of a Han Dynasty palace in Xi'an earlier this year.

The unearthed ruins of the imperial palace, covering an area of 2,000 square metres, are located in the northern suburbs of Xi'an. The broken pieces were found in the northwestern part of the imperial palace called Changle.

Liu Qingzhu, a researcher with the Archaeology Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the fragmented murals were the first batch of the Han Dynasty murals found in palace ruins.

Leading the archaeological team investigating the Chang'an city site, Liu said he and his colleagues have selected some 30 broken pieces as good samples. Liu said the samples may help fill up gaps in the study of the ancient murals from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) on.

According to historical records, murals were a very popular medium for decoration from royal palaces to common homes to tombs in the Han Dynasty. A few palace buildings were noted for these murals, as ancient imperial annals recorded.

However, a Han Dynasty palace in good condition has never been found.

The Changle Palace was once the residence of the emperor's mother, and Liu said it shouldn't be less important than the palace resided by the emperor himself.

In fact, the palace ruins showed that the emperor's mother held enormous power over the state affairs, no less than that of the emperor, Liu said.

For 200 years, the Western Han Dynasty was plagued by the intervention from the families of the empress or emperor's mother. As a result, the palace where the emperor's mother resided also witnessed discussions over the state affairs between the emperor's mother and her son.

The mural fragments were unearthed from a palace construction with its bottom half built underground.

Zhang Zhenfeng, a member of the archaeology team, said the building is located in the southeast corner of the palace. But he speculates the murals must have come off from the roof of the building.

The archaeologists lament it is very hard to tell what the broken murals depict, as there are few documents and relics to compare them with.

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