Chariot and Horse Burials in Ancient China

By Liancheng, Lu | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview
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Chariot and Horse Burials in Ancient China


Liancheng, Lu, Antiquity


Later in this number of ANTIQUITY is a review, page 930, of our knowledge, direct and often indirect, about chariots and wagons in the Europe of 2000 years ago. How much greater is our knowledge in China, where sacrificial burials of vehicles with their horses and drivers may give evidence of chariots by the fleet!

From at least the 13th century BC, the Shang royal families, the dukes and some important aristocrats owned chariots. The earliest examples of burials of chariots, horses and their drivers are found at Shang and Zhou sites at Anyang in Henan and Xi'an in Shaanxi. The horses and drivers were slaughtered and buried with the chariots in specially prepared pits around tombs for use in the after-life (Kaogu 1984b; Wenwu 1988). This practice became part of a burial system that lasted for about a thousand years -- from the Shang (c. 1300-c. 1050 BC) down to the Qin-Han period (221 BC-AD 220). Chariot and horse pits were components of a hierarchical order that manifested itself as much in death as it did in life. All burials reflected the social structure, ritual systems, military organization and economic activities of early Chinese society. For this reason, excavation and study of the early Chinese chariot and horse pits have become major aspects of Chinese archaeology.

The structure of the chariot

The earliest discoveries of the Shang chariots were made after excavations in the 1930s at the site of Yinxu near the present-day city of Anyang (see MAP, p. 823 of this issue, which is common to this article and Jessica Rawson's). One hundred burial pits of the Shang, the Western Zhou, the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods have brought to light several hundreds of chariots in Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Shandong, Hebei, Inner Mongolia and Hubei provinces. The shape and structure of the Shang chariot seems to have appeared fully formed (Shi Zhangru 1968; Kaogu 1984b), and only minor changes were made to Western Zhou and later chariots (Zhang Changshou et al. 1986; Yang Hong 1980: 79-93). All the chariots had one draught-pole, two wheels and a rectangular chariot box; they were pulled by two or four horses.

During the Shang (c. 1300-c. 1050 BC) and Western Zhou periods (c. 1050-771 BC) chariots had one draught-pole made of a single piece of wood, about 300 cm long, with a slightly narrower front end curving upward. At right angles to the pole was a wooden yoke from 110 cm to 140 cm long, and the pole and yoke were held together with a leather thong. The pole and the yoke cannot have been fastened too tightly, since some slack must have been left between the draught-pole and the yoke to enable the chariot to be driven in different directions. Below the yoke hung two chevron-shaped 'yoke saddles' to accommodate the horses. The rear end of the draught-pole had flat surfaces; it sat directly on top of the axle. The axle was about 300 cm long. The chariot body was mounted so that the axle was centrally below it.

The frame which supported the chariot box was made of four pieces of wood, with the front and rear pieces fixed into notches on the draught-pole; the other two pieces rested on wooden axle-pads, and both of these were made fast to the axle with leather straps (Wenwu 1983: figure IV/4; 1991: 5). The much later miniature chariot in bronze from the tomb of the First Emperor of Qin, the unifier of China in 221 BC, has enabled us to identify such components of earlier chariots (Dewall 1990: 57). Indeed, throughout this article reference will be made to this bronze model, as we have used it to interpret more surely evidence from the many earlier excavated chariots.

Most chariot boxes were rectangular, although some were oval, especially those made of rattan. They were enclosed by boards or a railing, with an average height of 30-40 cm. Some had an extra railing, high above the box, for passengers to lean or hold on to when standing in the chariot. There were two types of floor in the chariot boxes.

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