Tech2000-year-old jade 'funerary suits': A glimpse into Chinese royal burials and their alleged path to immortality

2000-year-old jade 'funerary suits': A glimpse into Chinese royal burials and their alleged path to immortality

Jade burial suit
Jade burial suit
Images source: © CC BY-SA 4.0, Public domain | Huanokinhejo

6:59 AM EST, January 13, 2024

Jade had a monumental significance in Chinese culture, dating back to the Neolithic period, around 3000–2000 BC. The Chinese made tools and weapons from it and associated it with purity and indestructibility.

The stone was also thought to bring luck, hence it was commonly referred to as the 'Stone of Heaven'. Over time, it was believed to possess magical properties and was used during various ceremonies. It was also popularly crafted into jewelry.

The extraordinary significance of jade to the Chinese

During the reign of the Han Dynasty from 206 BC to 220 AD, jade acquired yet another crucial role and found its way into graves. As IFL Science points out, jade suits are documented in Chinese literature around 320 AD, but until the end of the 20th century, they were considered mythical.

A turning point came in 1968 when archaeologists discovered the undisturbed tomb of the Han Dynasty ruler, Liu Sheng, and his wife, Princess Dou Wan, in Hebei Province. This discovery, deemed one of the most crucial archaeological finds of the 20th century, verified the existence of jade suits.

Liu Sheng and Dou Wan were interred in apparel comprising a total of 2498 pieces of jade, which were stitched together with 2.4 pounds (or 1.1 kilograms) of gold thread. UNESCO reports that the creation of these suits took ten years and that the type of thread used was indicative of the individual's societal standing.

Gold thread was used for rulers, silver for princes and princesses, copper for aristocrats, and silk thread for people of a lower rank. Everyone else was denied the 'privilege' of a jade suit.

The Chinese believed that these suits not only provided protection from malevolence but also conferred immortality. However, the use of jade suits for burial was prohibited in 223 AD by Emperor Wen Di.

The Emperor concluded that the suits enticed thieves to loot and desecrate graves to salvage the gold thread. Today, these burials are considered among the most valuable in history. Even though they did not grant immortality to the members of the Han Dynasty, their aesthetics still marvel observers today.

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