Rising Dragon: Ancient Treasures from China

Equipped for the Afterworld

Ceramic miniatures tell us about ancient Chinese views of life in an underground afterworld. Made specifically for use by the dead, they were unfit for use by the living. They were not toys, but captured the essential spirit of the real items that they imitated and could serve in the spirit world just as effectively as the real thing. The spirit was thus provided for without great expense. Several categories of activities important to the deceased were served by them. To carry on ritual practices, there were ceremonial cauldrons and incense burners. Most of the models served utilitarian, domestic needs. Lamps lit the dim underworld. For preparing food there was a wood-fired stove; drink came from a wellhead with dipper. Game boards, popular 1500 years ago, afforded entertainment and social opportunity.

As the Chinese still sat on the floor in those days (ca. 600), supporting the upper torso was an issue. Several props for the upper body met different needs. Laden with ceremony and protocol was the semicircular rail standing on three "animal" legs. For reading, writing or other handwork, look below at the rectangular table with slatted ends that stood over the lap of one’s folded legs. A long, slender armrest could be used for casual sitting. Fancy shoes, rounded toes upturned, were proper footwear for audiences at the royal court; high-topped felt boots were appropriate to outings and hunting parties in the underworld.

Alas, the underworld was not exempt from taxes or bureaucratic government. Models of bulging "granaries" with conical lids held play money to pay taxes and fees to officious bureaucrats who ran the underworld. The elaborately roofed architectural model with studded door high above its basement was a strong room for valuables. There were crooks even in the afterworld. Other miniatures representing storage baskets for clothes and cosmetic containers ensured proper personal attire and grooming.

Apart from equipping the deceased for an ongoing existence in the afterworld, generously providing for the dearly departed would ensure his contentment, thus fending off the return of his shade to haunt the world of the living in protest.

Tomb Miniatures for Use in the Afterworld, Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.)
2006.13.2.1-24

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