Magazine article The Spectator

A Civilised Way of Death

Magazine article The Spectator

A Civilised Way of Death

Article excerpt

The Search for Immortality:

Tomb Treasures of Han China Fitzwilliam Museum, until 11 November 'Luxury high-rise duplex: lower floor comprising entrance hall with recessed guard posts, grand reception area, kitchen with crockery store, larders and walk-in fridge, armoury and staff WC; upper floor comprising master bedroom with two en-suite bathrooms, staff accommodation, guard rooms and safe deposit. Property provided with the latest hi-tech security systems and 24-hour manned guarding.'

Apart from the lack of a cinema and a gym, this property sounds just the ticket for the jittery billionaire looking to invest in London real estate. But its location is not the fringes of Hyde Park or the South Bank, it's the side of a mountain near Xuzhou in northeast China, and its accommodation is designed not for the living but for the dead.

Its suite of 19 rooms was cut into the rock of the Beidongshan Hills as the final resting place for a 2nd century BC King of Chu, and its contents are currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in the first UK exhibition devoted to the Han dynasty. Alongside grave goods from the tombs of the Kings of Chu, the 300 exhibits include ravishing finds from the tomb of Zhao Mo, a contemporary ruler of the vassal state of Nanyue in Guangzhou who liked to style himself 'emperor', and had tastes to match.

The Han dynasty, which ruled for four centuries from 206 BC to 220 AD, laid the foundations of the Chinese way of life - administrative efficiency tempered by Confucianism - and maintained an equally civilised way of death. For a culture believing in a twofold soul - a sentient body-soul 'po' that returned to earth and a spiritual soul-soul 'hun' that floated away into the ether - immortality meant keeping bodysoul and soul-soul together. To retain the 'po' in the body, the body had to be fed and watered, but it also had to be protected from the demons who would do their damnedest to get in and introduce decay.

Appearances demanded that in the afterlife the king and his concubines (who accompanied him on his last journey) were kept in the style to which they were accustomed. Catering standards had to be maintained. The King of Nanyue's storeroom held a 100-strong batterie de cuisine, including a bronze double boiler and an ingenious design of insect trap that Richard Dare might think of reissuing. Should supplies run low, there was a substantial kitty: more than 52,000 coins were excavated from Beidongshan. If you were a Han royal, you could take it with you - and that included your staff. …

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