In this episode, Cortney & Ellen discuss everyone's favorite 2,000 year old Chinese mummy who dreamed of immortality. How was this ancient Han dynasty woman's body so well preserved? Why did she drink mercury regularly and how do we know? What do objects in her tomb have to do with lunar exploration and Netflix? Tune in to find out!
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Cortney Chaffin 0:08
Hi, I'm Cortney.
Ellen Larson 0:10
And I'm Ellen.
Cortney Chaffin 0:11
We're the hosts of Of the Earth a podcast dedicated to digging into the many connections, complexities and contradictions of Chinese art and culture, across time and space.
Ellen Larson 0:24
In this episode of Of the Earth, time travel with us 2000 years into the past, as we discussed the tomb of a Mercury drinking aristocratic woman who longed for immortality, and may very well have achieved it.
Cortney Chaffin 0:49
Ellen Larson 0:50
Cortney, what's up?!
Cortney Chaffin 0:51
So in our last episode, we talked about contemporary artist Cao Fei and her recent retrospective at the UCCA Staging the Era and it got me thinking about ancient Chinese tombs. I mean, when am I not thinking about ancient Chinese tombs, right?!
Ellen Larson 1:11
That is a very good point. Recently, you've been talking to me about your kitchen remodel. And to be honest, I was a little bit surprised when you weren't going with Chinese tomb chic.
Cortney Chaffin 1:26
I wonder what that would look like. Oh wow, Yeah. Now I'm going to spend some time thinking about that.
Ellen Larson 1:32
I think that there would be lots of vessels.
Cortney Chaffin 1:35
Yeah, lots of bronze vessels. Some lacquer ware, some really cool auspicious hybrid animal imagery.
Ellen Larson 1:47
Those horned creatures, right?
Cortney Chaffin 1:48
Yeah, horned creatures, for sure. Antlered things.
Ellen Larson 1:52
I'm sure that there are lots of people who would be very, very happy to provide you with some antlers for your home decor. But perhaps back to the conversation at hand. Right? I am curious, what about our last conversation made you think about ancient tombs?
Cortney Chaffin 2:12
Well, in particular, I was thinking about how the construction of a space for the burial of the dead is kind of an exhibition space. The ancient Chinese were similar to the ancient Egyptians in that they buried the dead in multi chambered underground tombs, filled with a selection of personal objects, as well as objects that were made specifically to aid the spirit of the tomb occupant in the afterlife. The selection of artifacts buried with the dead and their placement in the tomb is so intentional. It's basically a massive curatorial project on the part of the deceased's living descendants, don't you think? Yeah, and with the personal belongings, they choose to bury in the tomb. They are in essence creating a retrospective exhibition of the tomb occupant's life.
Ellen Larson 3:09
I love thinking about tombs as like this ultimate curatorial project of temporalities. I mean, speaking of Egyptian tombs, right, like we all know, the story of King Tut, right? And so like, in addition to including objects that King Tut used in his lifetime, you know, there were also items that he would use in the afterlife, like food, clothing, weapons, even the super cool scarab beetle made of lapis lazuli, and even like meat mummies, which are supposedly like cuts of meat that were wrapped in linen, and then placed inside these containers to sustain the pharaoh during his journey to the afterlife. But I'm really curious, do you have a specific Chinese example in mind?
Cortney Chaffin 3:58
I do. And you know, I do like that you are seeing this comparison with Egyptian tombs because there are definitely, you know, a lot of connections that we can see between the ancient Chinese and the ancient Egyptians. Not connections in terms of they were in contact with one another--I don't mean that, but it's sort of interesting, in that the way that they viewed the afterlife is is so similar. But with regard to Chinese examples, there are so many that I can think of, and that I could talk about, but one in particular sort of sticks out in my mind, and that is the tomb of Lady Dai. Lady Dai was an aristocratic woman who lived in south China, south of the Yangzi river, and she died around 168 BCE, and we get that date from the material in her tomb. Lady Dai's tomb was furnished with objects she used in her lifetime like kitchen ware she had like our plates and bowls and beautiful wine cups.
Even the first pair of chopsticks that we've ever discovered in China was unearthed from lady Dai's tomb. She had cosmetics and silk clothing. So all of these types of things that she used while she was alive in her past, but then it also contained objects that were made for her future present in the afterlife like her exquisitely painted coffins, her wooden tomb figurines, and a gorgeous silk narrative painting. If we compare this to the Cao Fei exhibition, there are similar dichotomies between the real and the imagined, or the virtual, and the past and the present. Within the tomb, Lady Dai exists in divergent, but yet overlapping temporalities. And I can't help but imagine Cao Fei and Lady Dai sitting down together in Cao Fei's canteen to share dumplings and discuss all the things they have in common, which I personally think are many.
Ellen Larson 6:06
I know I love this image of these two women, right? Both from southern China, sharing a xiaolongbao and a bubble tea while Cao Fei attempts to explain to Lady Dai the wonders of Tik Tok, or Douyin in China.
Cortney Chaffin 6:22
Can you even imagine what lady Dai would think about Tik Tok?
Ellen Larson 6:26
I mean, maybe she would make up her own Tik Tok dance, or you know, do like a tutorial or something?
Cortney Chaffin 6:32
Yeah, I can just imagine her, you know, doing a really cool Chu related dance. So because lady Dai was from an area that traditionally was occupied by this really rich, imaginative and innovative culture Chu.
Can you can you imagine us doing Chu dances on Tik Tok?
Ellen Larson 6:55
All the kids.
Cortney Chaffin 6:56
Yeah, everyone, let's make it a thing.
Ellen Larson 6:58
Let's make it a thing.
I mean, as you know, I am fascinated with time studies, right. And so I really like thinking about this idea, just how Cao Fei is interested in bridging the real with the virtual in terms of how technology shapes the lives of people living in China today. There seems to be this kind of overlapping interest in imagining how the real becomes the virtual within the context of preparing for the virtual, so to speak afterlife within the context of ancient China. But I think before we get into that, it might be important to fill our listeners in on the amazing fact that when Lady Dai's tomb was discovered in the 1970s it was in perfect condition, right? Untouched by grave robbers, with the entire contents of the tomb perfectly preserved, including the body of the tomb occupant. So it's like the perfect time capsule.
Cortney Chaffin 7:59
Yeah, it was an amazing discovery. When most people think about China, they don't think about mummies, right? I mean, we think about the ancient Egyptians and sort of the traditional idea of what a mummy looks like. The ancient Egyptians carefully embalmed the dead, removing all the organs and moisture from the body to dry it out, and to prevent further decay. This is really different from what we see in ancient China. The ancient Chinese did not practice embalming, or any other mummification techniques. But in the region where lady Dai was buried, there was a particular cultural practice of packing layers of white clay, charcoal, and pounded earth around the multi chambered wooden burial encasement at the bottom of the vertical pit where the tomb occupant was laid to rest with their belongings. With Dai's tomb, those who buried her packed these layers so well that they sealed the tomb airtight, halting the decay of Dai's body. Imagine the archaeologists' surprise when they removed her body from three nesting coffins and 20 layers of silk shrouds and clothing to discover a 2000 year old woman in a perfect state of preservation.
Ellen Larson 9:21
The image that I have in my mind as the people opened up the tomb would be something more likened to Sleeping Beauty woken up after a very long sleep. But isn't it right that after her body was removed from the tomb and exposed to the air, she just started to immediately decay even so much that now she like straight up looks like Sloth from The Goonies.
Cortney Chaffin 9:48
Oh my gosh. Yeah. So although the discovery of Dai's tomb really enriched our knowledge of Southern Chinese culture during the Han Dynasty, and especially about the life and local beliefs of a southern woman, we can't deny that there's a sadness to the disruption of her tomb, and to her body that was so carefully laid to rest. You know, there is sort of that feeling that, you know, maybe this is something that we shouldn't be doing, right? Digging up tombs. But a lot of the time in China, what we have is salvage archaeology, where there's a huge building project and apartment complex, or they're building a new railway. And what's great is that, you know, in China, there are archaeological teams standing by so that if construction is going on, and they hit a tomb, they immediately call the local archaeologists to come out and dig the tomb carefully, you know, take the time that they need to excavate the tomb. And so you know, we often see situations like this, where there's no other choice because you're going to disrupt the tomb anyways. So Lady Dai, her body did start to decay almost immediately after they opened the tomb. But scientists did attempt to halt the further decay of her body, but she certainly doesn't look like she did when she was first excavated, and her skin was still soft and elastic. She now resides in the Hunan provincial museum in a preservative cocktail of some sort, to prevent further decay. One thing that's really interesting, though, is that an autopsy was performed after she was excavated, and it was recorded on film. So you can actually watch the autopsy today. But the autopsy is really interesting, because you can see the doctor, you know, performing the autopsy, like picking up her arm and sort of bending her joints. And it's like, she hasn't been dead, definitely for 2000 years. It's more like she died recently. Right? The autopsy also revealed some interesting insight into Lady Dai's life, her death and her belief system. We even know what her last meal was just before she died.
Ellen Larson 12:19
Right! Didn't they find like melon seeds in her stomach?
Cortney Chaffin 12:22
They did. It's amazing. So yeah, she ate like, like a honeydew melon, or, you know, a type of cantaloupe melon, right before she died.
Ellen Larson 12:34
So those seeds she hadn't yet digested though, is so cool. Can you imagine 2000 year old melon? Like is there anywhere else in the world where you could find preserved melon seeds from 2000 years ago.
Cortney Chaffin 12:52
Yeah, it's just so incredible. We also learned that she had a broken wrist that was set incorrectly, and she had hardening of the arteries. Scientists believe that she had a heart attack or acute gallbladder disease, and this may have led to her death. However, strangely, the autopsy also revealed she had a high accumulation of lead and mercury in her body. So we believe she ingested mercury on a regular basis.
Ellen Larson 13:27
Wait, wait, wait . .
So you're suggesting that our girl was sipping mercury and tonic every night?
Cortney Chaffin 13:34
Mm hmm. Something like that. The area where Lady Dai lived in South China was traditionally Daoist, and many Daoists of the time believed in immortality, and they avidly pursued it. We learn from ancient Daoist texts that the ancient Chinese believed Mercury, which is derived from cinnabar, was a key ingredient in elixirs of immortality. I should mention that lady Dai's husband and son died before she did. I've always wondered if she was concocting mercury elixirs for the whole family, which ultimately may have led to their early demises.
Ellen Larson 14:14
Okay, so this is making me think about all of those targeted ads that I receive on Instagram for modern elixirs of immortality, so to speak, you know, I'm talking about serums, potions, collagen drinks. So we might think that drinking Mercury is a little crazy. But you know what our future generations going to think about Goop influenced wellness trends, such as activated charcoal, you know, that actually prevents our bodies from absorbing nutrients or like appetite suppressant lollipops, even pee facials, I mean, and don't get me started on those Jade eggs that go in your you know what?!
Cortney Chaffin 14:54
Oh my gosh, I don't even know what a pee facial is. This is the first time I'm hearing about pee facials. This just shows how much in common we have with the ancients. Not much has changed, right? We are still seeking after immortality and everlasting youth.
So basically what you're saying is that Lady Dai pretty much invented hashtag self care. And speaking of, what's your favorite kind of self care? I'll go first. I would say it's popping a few Lexapro and falling asleep in the kiddie pool.
That's good to know. My self care is Door County cherry Siren Shrub with some Tapped maple syrup, Hendrick's gin, and tonic.
Ellen Larson 15:40
Wow. Okay, so back to this idea about the tomb and overlapping temporalities.
Cortney Chaffin 15:48
In Dai's tomb and in many ancient Chinese tombs, in fact, the constructed tomb space and arrangement of burial furnishings presents a way to experience overlapping forms of time. Dai's past as a wealthy wife of a Marquis, her present in death as a corpse in a tomb, and her imagined future in the afterlife confront one another in the constructed space. Dai exists in these different temporal spaces within the tomb simultaneously. On the one hand, she was buried with objects that imply she could continue to cook with all the ingredients and kitchen ware she used in her lifetime, and apply cosmetics as if she never passed away. But on the other hand, imagery on her coffins and other objects found in her main burial chamber suggest she also had a journey to make into the afterlife to the mystical world of the immortals. Much of this can be explained by the belief in the southern region of China where Lady Dai lived at the time, that a person had two souls, a hun soul that makes a journey after death, and a po soul that continues to reside in the body in the tomb.
Ellen Larson 17:10
You know, this all reminds me so much of Cao Fei's Nova, where after the scientist's son is transported into the computer, right, he lives in this virtual space of what's called time postponement. And in this space, there are objects from the past that are at the same time of or even for another time. I'm thinking particularly of this moment where the boy watches this older woman use this old vintage style Chinese mailbox to mail a letter. But then suddenly, there's this message that pops up in the form of like this computer generated hologram that reads your mail was sent. Or this moment when a street food seller advertises so called made to order magnetized eggs, whatever those are, right? So I'm wondering if you could tell us more about the objects made for Lady Dai's time in the afterlife?
Cortney Chaffin 18:11
Sure. So lady die was buried in a series of three nesting lacquered wood coffins, decorated with motifs related to her imagined future, the ultimate destination of her spirit, the world of the immortals. The iconography painted on the coffins of feathered and mortals amidst stylized clouds, and auspicious animals kept Lady Dai's spirit focused on her destination. We learned from early Chinese texts, especially the poem Zhao hun, in the Chu ci or the Songs of the South, that there was anxiety that the soul would get distracted, and wander off to encounter malicious environmental forces and ominous creatures, like a nine headed serpent that swallows humans like sweet jam, or soul catching giants and wasps as big as gordes. Visual imagery of the world of the immortals and other objects in her tomb, like a silk banner draped over her inner coffin were used to prevent the soul from distraction and wandering off into such dangerous situations. The banner is probably the most significant artifact found in the tomb. So it's this T shaped silk, and it's painted with rich mineral pigments. It was found draped over her innermost coffin. So it's a real personal and private object. The fact that it was draped face down tells us that this is for Lady Dai's eyes, right? It's for her viewing.
Ellen Larson 19:54
Cortney Chaffin 19:55
So the imagery on the banner is a narrative and it takes Dai, or us as contemporary viewers, on a journey through time and space, both terrestrial and otherworldly. Now the banner is important to us today as one of the very first silk paintings in Chinese history, but for Lady Dai, this object was invaluable as a guide way through time and space to help her spirit navigate the dangerous journey through the afterlife.
Ellen Larson 20:30
So what you're saying is the banner, it's a personalized guideway, an object made specifically for Lady Dai, like how do we know that it depicts Lady Dai specifically? And is not just sort of like a generic product for mortuary industry? Like, I mean, how do we know that it's not just from, you know, an ancient Chinese equivalent to a home goods are an Ikea?
Cortney Chaffin 20:55
Great question. And funny that you mentioned that because I like to imagine that there was a Chinese equivalent to Home Goods or IKEA in ancient China, you know, where people could go and they could kind of select what types of imagery they wanted in their tombs. In fact, we see this in some areas in China during the Han Dynasty, where you could get a sort of a prefabricated brick with a scene of acrobats or a scene banqueting and it's sort of very generic,
Ellen Larson 21:25
so I'm not too far off here.
Cortney Chaffin 21:27
No, no, but that's not the case with this particular object. So with Lady Dai's banner, first, I should mention that the banner is a narrative that's arranged and read from bottom to top, starting with an underworld, and then leading up to Dai's funeral, and then up to her resurrection and then her ascension into the world of the immortals.
Yeah. So in the funeral scene at the bottom of the banner, we see funeral participants around a table with offerings. So we see vessels which you mentioned earlier, right. So the typical type of funerary offering in ancient China and beneath the table, there's this oval shaped bundle, and it is painted in a very specific pattern, a silk pattern that matches one of the silk shrouds that was used to wrap Lady Dai's body before it was placed in the nesting coffins. So we have that sort of visual match between what we see on the banner and what Lady Dai's body was actually wrapped in. So we think that that's the funeral scene, Lady Dai's body is there, you know, before they placed her in the coffins, and then, you know, interred her in the tomb. In the next scene on the banner, moving up, we see a woman hunched over a cane with three female attendants behind her and two male attendance kneeling in front of her, and she wears the same silk pattern as the one represented in the funeral seen below. So we have this continuous narrative, right? So Lady Dai as a corpse, and then Lady Dai, she's sort of arisen from the dead. We know from the autopsy report that she had a bad back and likely walked with the support of a cane. So that's sort of added evidence that okay, yeah, this figure was also the largest figure in this particular scene. So the artist uses hierarchic scale to identify this as our main character here, these connections help us identify this figure in the painting as Lady Dai. So this is this is real personal, sort of portrait of Lady Dai's journey. One problem is that in the scene at the very top of the painting, which depicts a popular tale of immortality, we don't see a female figure in the same silk pattern as we do in the two scenes below. However, there are two female figures represented. One is at the top center of the painting, and this is a half woman, half snake. Some think that this figure might represent Lady Dai transformed in the afterlife. But in Chinese mythology, there is a half female half snake goddess creator. And so I tend to lean to think that this is probably the creator that's represented here. The other woman in the top part of the painting is nestled into the wing of a dragon that is taking off for the moon, and this likely represents the moon goddess Chang'E.
Ellen Larson 24:51
Ooh, Chang'E. She is such a baddie, right?! Chang'E, she's the one who stole the elixir of immortality from her husband the Archer Yi, right?! You know, he was awarded the elixir after shooting nine of 10 suns that would otherwise have destroyed the planet after they all rose at once, but she wanted the elixir for herself. So she takes it to the moon.
Cortney Chaffin 25:14
That's right, she fled to the moon with the elixir, and she was turned into a toad as a punishment for stealing from her husband. And so next time there's the full moon, don't forget to look for the toad in the moon. We are no longer looking for the man in the moon, we are looking for the toad in the moon. So the goddess Chang'E, she also has a rabbit companion, which you can also look for the rabbit in the moon or the bunny, you know, making the elixir of life on the moon. So on the banner, the toad and the rabbit appear, and they're situated next to a crescent moon. So you see this figure of Chang'E nestled in the wings of the dragon taking off with the moon. And there we see that transformation of Chang'E into this toad, who forever exists in immortality on the moon.
Ellen Larson 26:06
You know, speaking of Chang'E, forever existing and immortality . . .
Did you know that China's first lunar probe was named Chang'E 1 in the goddesses' honor.
Cortney Chaffin 26:18
I know. Isn't that so cool. So now our listeners, now they know why the lunar probe was named Chang'E.
Ellen Larson 26:25
That's right. Just some Chang'E trivia for you.
Cortney Chaffin 26:29
Yeah. Hey, there's also an adaptation of China's story on Netflix called Over the Moon, which I thought was such a sweet retelling of the story of Chang'E.
Ellen Larson 26:40
Netflix if you're listening. Anyway, back to Dai.
Cortney Chaffin 26:45
Yes, back to Dai. So, considering that Lady Dai was drinking mercury elixirs regularly, it's not surprising to see a famous story that references the acquisition of an elixir of immortality on this very personal to object.
Ellen Larson 27:03
Okay, so here's the million dollar question, right? Do we think Dai achieved immortality?
Cortney Chaffin 27:11
I would say so. Don't you think? I mean, could she have even imagined two girls 2000 years in the future sitting in North America, podcasting about her? I mean, most of us are lucky if someone three generations down the line remembers us after we die. Right?
Ellen Larson 27:31
That's a good point.
Cortney Chaffin 27:32
Yeah. And this is an immortality as Dai imagined it, but I think she'd be delighted to know that she continues to live on in the minds of future humans, not just in China, but on a global scale.
Ellen Larson 27:47
And not just in our minds, but also in our hearts. Thanks, everyone for tuning in. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our podcast wherever you tune in and leave us a review. Stay tuned for our next episode. You can also follow us on Instagram at Of the Earth podcast.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai