Image Archaeology Relating to the Han Dynasty Belief in Taiyi



Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.3, 2014


Image Archaeology Relating to the Han Dynasty Belief in Taiyi



Wang Yu


The existing materials directly relating to the image of Taiyi (太一Supreme Unity) include two silk paintings at Mawangdui, two tomb frescos, one at Haotan and one at Yangqiaopan, a stone relief at Qilingang, and two types of bronze mirror, one with three sections showing immortals and one showing deities and beasts standing in rows. Of these, only the two silk paintings at Mawangdui and the relief at Qilingang show the image of the supreme heavenly emperor Taiyi. He is represented by a curtain at the mural tomb at Haotan and by a canopy in the tomb fresco at Yangqiaopan and on the threesectioned mirror showing immortals. This may be connected to the grade of the tombs. Although it was not until the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han that Taiyi was formally confirmed as the supreme heavenly emperor, the concept came from the Chu area between the late Warring States period and the early Western Han. In traditional Chu beliefs, Taiyi is closely related to the eastern sovereign Fuxi, which is why the silk paintings at Mawangdui show a figure with a human head and snake’s body like Fuxi’s. In the early and middle period of the Eastern Han dynasty, the Qilingang paintings show Taiyi entirely as an emperor. All the existing images of Taiyi appear in the environment of the belief in becoming an immortal, which centered on Kunlun, Tianmen, and Xiwangmu (西王母, Queen Mother of the West). This reflects the fact that the Taiyi belief and image have a close relationship with the Kunlun belief in becoming an immortal, and are components of this belief.