The Fragrant Tomb of Lady Dai

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Born into nobility, Xin Zhui rose even higher when she married Li Cang and became the Marquise of Dai (popularly known today as the Lady Dai). Li Cang’s appointment as the Chancellor of the Changsha Kingdom elevated the power couple even higher. By 168 BCE, Xin Zhui was 48 years old and one of the wealthiest people in the Han Empire, but she wasn’t without her problems.

Lady Dai suffered from what 19th-century doctors called the ailments of luxury. Xin Zhui had diabetes, hypertension, gallstones, liver disease, lumbago, arteriosclerosis and coronary thrombosis. This was most likely brought on by a sedentary and opulent lifestyle that few of her contemporaries could relate to.

Then one fateful summer day, the Lady enjoyed a meal of fresh melon and, within two hours, had a fatal heart attack.

We know about Lady Dai’s final meal and health conditions from an autopsy conducted almost 2,000 years after her death. Xin Zhui’s body is one of history’s most comprehensively preserved mummies. In fact, you have likely seen photos [c/w human remains] of her. They may not be the most flattering portraits of the Lady, but the level of preservation in this two-millennium-old body is truly astounding. This led to many sensational stories about what alchemy preserved her and what magical liquid was at the bottom of her coffin [1]. 

Modern wax effigy of Lady Dai as a young woman. Hunan Provincial Museum

However, her elaborate tomb is often overlooked in Western coverage of Lady Dai. 1,400 artefacts were stored in her grave to assist Xin Zhui in the afterlife. These items include 100 silk garments, 162 carved wooden figurines of servants, 182 pieces of lacquerware, and lots of aromatic materials.

Today we will explore the aromata of Lady Dai’s tomb and what role they played in the life and afterlife of Xin Zhui.

Fragrance in Han Dynasty China

To understand why Lady Dai’s tomb is filled with aromatic materials, we first need to understand what those materials meant to her and her community. I think this line from Edward Schafer’s The Golden Peaches of Samarkand sums it up beautifully, even though he is speaking of the period directly following the Han Dynasty,

“In the medieval world of the Far East, there was little clear-cut distinction among drugs, spices, perfumes, and incense-that is, among substances which nourish the body and those which nourish the spirit, those which attract a lover and those which attract a divinity.”

Aromata played an important but ambiguous role in Han China. The lines were blurred between cosmetic and medicine, culinary spice and incense, secular fragrance and divine offering. There was no need to define these materials so narrowly. Instead, their multiple functions showed the aromata’s potency to heal and nourish in various ways. 

For instance, we know Sichuan pepper (花椒; huajiao) today as a culinary spice. Historically, however, Sichuan pepper wasn’t just a seasoning. It was used in traditional herbal remedies, and its tingly hotness showed the medicine’s effectiveness. Its inclusion in many traditional dishes began as a health aid as much as a flavour. Sichuan pepper was valued in pomanders, perfumed sachets, and other aromatic garments for its bright, spicy lemony-floral scent. It was even ground into paste and added to plaster to scent elite interior spaces and contribute to the humoral quality of hot-dryness in the room. During the Han Dynasty, the emperor’s private rooms became known as the Pepper Chambers for this reason. 

Sichuan pepper was also used in incense. The use of incense in China in the days of Lady Dai was far from ubiquitous. Incense was mainly limited to ceremonial use in Daoist practices or by the elites to scent garments.

Wagtails and Sichuan Pepper Album leaf. Painting. Emperor Huizong. c.1100 CE

Sichuan pepper was also an expensive spice to cultivate and became symbolically connected to concepts of morality. The odour of Sichuan pepper was thought to soothe ancestors and mediate between the state, humans, and spirit worlds. Sichuan pepper became a crucial religious offering and governmental gift for these reasons. As the poet Zai Shan said, 

“Fragrant is their aroma,
Enhancing the glory of the State.
Like pepper is their smell,
To give comfort to the aged.”

The Role of Grave Aromatics

The treatment of Xin Zhui’s body and the disposition of her tomb make clear that three central concepts were observed in her burial. Firstly, filial piety (孝; xiao) or the virtue of respecting one’s parents and ancestors. Lady Dai’s family filled her tomb with items that showed their care and concern for her comfort, as well as luxurious gifts that bestowed the honour they felt she deserved. That included aromatics that would soothe and comfort her spirit. 

Secondly, her burial continues Yangsheng (养生; nourishing life). Yangsheng is an umbrella term for a collection of self-cultivation practices, diets, philosophies, and spiritual/political beliefs. It is focused on longevity, quality of life, and immortality. Just because someone died doesn’t mean the pursuit of Yangsheng ends, only that its objective transforms. The type of immortality one hoped to achieve through Yangsheng was to transcend and become a Daoist Xian, a spiritual immortal. Grave goods and funerary offerings would help the dead continue to pursue Yangsheng. As Schafer alluded, aromatics are part of that physical and spiritual nourishment.

Lacquer tray and dishes, Tomb 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha. Hunan Provincial Museum.

Thirdly, the Lady’s tomb goods make it clear that an afterlife was expected. On her funeral banner, we see scenes of the adventures facing Lady Dai. The bottom panel of the banner depicts the underworld. Above that is the material world, where we see the Lady’s funeral. Lady Dai is wrapped in an embroidered shroud made in the Han longevity pattern. A similar shroud was found in her tomb. In the painting, she lies on a dais as her family leaves funeral offerings. Above that scene, we see Lady Dai in the afterlife wearing a gown in the same longevity pattern. She is leaning on her cane, which she was buried with. In the upper part of the banner, a set of gates separate the afterlife from the celestial realm, which is filled with mythical creatures. A third version of Lady Dai exists in this upper register. Young and beautiful, she is at ease in this final scene, riding on a dragon’s back, having become a Xian.

The central panel of Lady Dai’s Funeral Banner shows the Lady in the afterlife with attendees and her cane. Tomb 1  at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Provincial Museum.

Just as we see the shroud become a gown and the continued need for a cane, her grave items were expected to benefit her in the afterlife. Xin Zhui’s tomb is filled with articles from her life and mingqi (冥器; spirit objects) created specifically to give her things in the hereafter that couldn’t be buried with her, like her servants.

Wooden mingqi dressed in silk, representing a court singer. Tomb 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha. Hunan Provincial Museum.

All these items are there to aid Xin Zhui in her transition. They were to nourish and comfort her in the afterlife and help her as her spirit ascended. Aromatic materials were needed for that spiritual transition. Smells cannot be seen but still exist. Scent permeates the barrier between the material and immaterial. We see reference to this ephemeral world even in the art of Lady Dai’s grave goods. Her lacquerware features rushing winds turning into dragons, and plumes of smoke with mythical beings dancing on their crests. It’s not hard to imagine that these creative depictions of moving air are intended to be aromatic.

Stylized cloud forms and mythical creatures, detail, black outer coffin. Tomb 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha. Hunan Provincial Museum.

Aromatic (and Toxic) Preparations

Before burial, Xin Zhui’s body was washed and treated with yet-to-be-identified plant matter and mercury. These practices were not done to preserve the body, though they did probably slow bacterial growth. Instead, they were a form of sympathetic magic. Mercury was associated with immortality and the mythical Elixir of Life. Many Yangsheng preparations of the time included it. In fact, this is why the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang, drank a concoction of mercury to achieve immortality [2]. 1st-century historian Sima Qian also wrote that the emperor’s burial chamber featured a giant replica of his territory, including 100 rivers of mercury to represent the 100 rivers of China now eternally unified under his rule.

Burial Mound of Qin Shi Huang. Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China.

This was long considered a fanciful legend until Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army was found in 1974, and his burial mound was identified. The tomb has not been opened, but soil tests on the burial mound show mercury levels 100 times higher than normal [3]. Fear of injury and serious environmental pollution due to mercury is partially why the tomb hasn’t been opened. As an aristocrat, Lady Dai wouldn’t have access to rivers of mercury. Still, her body being washed in this element aligns her on a spiritual and cultural path with the first emperor.

While we don’t know the exact herbs used in her washing, we have data from other burials and aromatics from her tomb to provide signposts. Her body was almost certainly prepared with local indigenous herbs. This is pre-Buddhism, and the costly imports of sandalwood and agarwood had yet to arrive in China. Instead, materials like ginger, sweet grass, and jade orchid would have been used in body preparations. These materials were simultaneously perfuming elements, medical substances, and magical symbols.

Jade Orchid

Pockets Full of Poesy 

Before her body was tightly wrapped in layers of silk, a xiangnang (香囊; perfumed sachet) was placed in each of her hands. The Lady’s xiangnangs were simple silk pouches filled with flax and aromatic herbs, specifically wild gingerlesser galangalJapanese cinnamoncommon gingersweet grassSichuan pepper, and jade orchid. These aromatic pouches had multiple purposes. They were used in life to fragrance one’s clothes, for enjoyment, or to avoid foul odours that were thought to cause illness. 

Lady Dai’s Xiangnangs. Tomb 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha. Hunan Provincial Museum.

They were also a charm against the Five Poisons and other evils. The xiangnang were placed in Lady Dai’s hands as an aromatic comfort for her spirit, perhaps against the odours of her decay. They would ward her against evil and help her navigate her spiritual journey to the celestial realm. As Vivianne Lo states in, Scent and synaesthesia: The medical use of spice bags in early China,

“The placing of the bags is sure testimony to the practical use of
aromatics in mediating between life and death and provide another
sensory dimension to the journey to Heaven depicted on the funeral
banner that adorned her coffins: the preservation and perfuming of
her body and the elegant progress of Lady Dai into the afterworld
were two purposes that were not mutually exclusive.”

However, the perfumed sachets weren’t the only aromatic comfort provided for her in her tomb. Her pillow was stuffed with Eupatorium fortunei, known in the West as pink frost and is a relative of the European herb boneset. In Chinese, it is called peilan (佩蘭). Historically peilan played a significant role in Chinese perfumery and scent culture. Peilan is comparable to lavender and was used similarly to encourage relaxation and sleep. It is also considered hot and dry in Chinese humoral medicine, thus making it a perfect medicamentum to offset the cold dampness of the grave. 

Lady Dai’s funeral pillow. Tomb 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha. Hunan Provincial Museum.

Lady Dai’s funeral pillow was explicitly made for her tomb. The fact that these aromatic considerations were still being made for a dead woman further reinforces the importance of filial piety, nourishing life, and preparing the dead for the afterlife. 

Incense and Clothes 

Lady Dai’s stores were also prepared for eternity. Four additional perfumed sachets were found, as were boxes of lesser galangalJapanese cinnamonsweet grasspink frostginger, and, most prominently, Sichuan pepper. The largest lacquer box in her grave contained nothing but Sichuan pepper.  

Lady Dai’s censer. Tomb 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha. Hunan Provincial Museum.

 Also included in her grave goods was an incense censer pre-packed with lesser galangal, sweet grass and jade orchid for burning. Lady Dai’s simple clay censer may seem quite rustic compared to her other items, but incensing was not common in China at the time, and the fact that she has a censer at all is quite extraordinary. It would be almost 40 years after her death that the Silk Road would be fully underway and nearly 100 before Buddhist monks from India would arrive. These two events dramatically changed the scent culture of China. A look into the aromata of Lady Dai’s tomb gives us a snapshot of elite life before those two monumental events. 

Lady Dai’s lacquerware vessel containing spices. Note the cloud motif. Tomb 1  at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Provincial Museum.

By the end of the Han dynasty, luxury imported aromata from Southwest Asia, Africa, and the West became essential grave goods, as did elaborate censors covered in Daoist and Buddhist icons. In 168 BCE, however, those outside influences had yet to reach even an aristocrat like Lady Dai. Her censer was a functional item from her life used to perfume her clothes and space. For all we know, the incense found in the censer was placed before her death, prepped for the next day’s dressing that never came. 

Censer Cover. Tomb 1  at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Provincial Museum.

We know pre-Silk Road secular incense was heavily associated with garments. Lady Dai doesn’t just have a censer; she has a bamboo and silk diffuser. This item would have been placed over the censer and draped with clothes. This act served multiple purposes in keeping with the multi-functionality of Chinese aromatics. It perfumed the clothes and potentially fumigated them of vermin or miasmas. The mix of aromata used would also have deeper cultural meanings and could be a way to convey personality, mood, or messages to those around you, of course, without saying a word.

In the End

If I leave you with only one thing, let it be the fact that Lady Dai’s tomb is bursting with sensorial material intended for no one else but her. To truly understand Han elite burial, we must realise these post-mortem sensory elements. Her tomb was designed to stimulate, nourish, and protect her. It was created with the belief that she would experience these stimuli through her senses, which would survive in some capacity after her death. Not only does this information potentially aid in a better understanding of the Han Dynasty, but it provides a powerful case study for the discourse on embodied rituals in death practices. 



[1] In reality, it was condensation caused by her grave being disturbed and purgative from the body. It was no magic embalming fluid.

[2] If the emperor did consume a mercury-based Elixir of Life, it most certainly killed him.

[3] It is estimated that one metric tonne of mercury still exists in the tomb. In normal conditions, a pea-sized drop of mercury would take 384 days to vaporise fully. In an airtight tomb, it is essentially immortal and terribly toxic. 

Header Image: Detail of Lady Dai’s internal coffin featuring lacquer-painted images of mythical creatures and stylised clouds.