Paintings on Silk in the Mawangdui Tombs and Early Han “Taoist” Beliefs

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.12, 2014


Paintings on Silk in the Mawangdui Tombs and Early Han “Taoist” Beliefs



Jiang Sheng


The paintings and symbols in Han Dynasty tombs contain an implicit intellectual logic whose core theme is the posthumous attainment of immortality. The nine suns depicted in the T-shaped silk painting in the Mawangdui Han Dynasty Tomb One attest to the belief that “All nine suns shine in the east once the nine heavens open” conveyed in Taoist documents. Taken together, the silk painting and the whole tomb complex show the belief in the attainment of immortality through release from the corpse as reconstructed by early Han “Taoists.” This group were the creators and proponents of this new belief system in the early Han Dynasty, in a crossover between the art of immortality and the new belief of Huang-Lao Taoism. The Mawangdui tombs demonstrate that the transformation from death to immortality was the supreme goal of Han tombs. Tomb burial, as a transitional link, had a unique function in the process of transformation, and its physical-cultural components were discourse symbols that constituted and expressed this process. The Han tombs express the belief, handed down from the Warring States period, in release from the corpse as the ultimate attainment. The Huang-Lao Taoism provided an intellectual interpretation that blended the two in a new belief system. Thus, the previous simple method of “shedding one’s mortal form and melting away” was transcended and “attainment of the Way” became a precondition of “attainment of immortality,” raising the level of the logic of posthumous transformation into immortality and providing a richer and more comprehensive intellectual foundation than the Warring States period belief in release from the corpse in the states of Yan and Qi. As a tangible example of belief in release from the corpse, the Mawangdui tombs constitute a symbolic expression of the belief in immortality of these early Han “Taoist” groups who “followed the great principle of Yin and Yang and accepted what was best in Confucianism and Mohism.”