Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mawangdui, Hunan Museum, Changsha

mawangdui mummy
The over 2,000-year-old Mawangdui mummy is amazing, but it's not the only amazing thing on display at this special exhibit at the Hunan Provincial Museum (image from http://www.goutx.com/)

There’s something so fascinating about mummies, allowing human corpses to (no pun intended) survive for thousands of years.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Hunan Museum continues to pack in the visitors, with the body of Lady Dai — dating back more than 2,000 years ago — on display as part of the Mawangdui exhibit.

Of course, you won’t see the body right upon entering the exhibit. They’ve made it the climax, letting visitors, at last, see Lady Dai lay to rest safely beneath protective glass. And it’s just as well. In life, the journey itself is often as valuable as the destination — and in the Mawangdui exhibit, the artifacts are as curious and spectacular as Lady Dai’s mummy.

The Chinese discovered the Western Han Dynasty Mawangdui (translated as “horse king mound,” a reference to the saddle-like hills where the tombs lay) tombs in 1972 around Changsha, Hunan Province. While one (Tomb 2) had fallen prey to tomb robbers, Tombs 1 and 3 rewarded archeologists with a rich collection of historical artifacts, including lacquerware, silk texts and, of course, one amazing ancient corpse.

Besides the mummy, what makes the collection so special?

For one, the food remnants hidden in the exquisite dishes — including lotus, jujubes and grains. That’s one dinner that lasted (almost) an eternity.

Mawangdui Daoyin
The Daoyin exercises depicted on a painting from Mawangdui were a predecessor to Tai Chi (image from http://www.hnmuseum.com)

One painting depicts a group of Tai Chi-like exercises (called Dao-yin), more than 10 centuries before Tai Chi even officially existed.

The Western Han people understood the sun as the center of the universe thousands of years before Copernicus, according the silk texts buried in the tombs. They even accurately predicted the orbits of Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn. And if all of that sounds mind-blowing, well, other texts explained sexual health, the best positions and more (the Joy of Sex for the Western Han?).

While we’re on the subject of texts, the Mawangdui tombs gifted us with the earliest versions of the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, two of the most important classic works in China.

Mawangdui wooden coffin
The Mawangdui wooden coffin stands almost 7 meters, or about 20 feet, high. (image from http://www.bbcmart.com)

But, perhaps the most impressive artifact is the outermost wooden coffin (Lady Dai was entombed within four coffins), which stands almost 7 meters, or around 20 feet, high. There’s no intricate decoration, color or even glossy sheen on it. Yet, my husband and I gaped at it more than anything else, and gasped as the structure dwarfed us and everyone else wandering about that last, and final, room. It almost overshadows Lady Dai’s corpse.

Almost. But, let’s face it — a huge wooden coffin could never, ever trump a 2,000-plus-year-old mummy. 😉

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When to visit

The Mawangdui (马王堆) exhibit is at the Hunan Provincial Museum (湖南省博物馆, 0731-84535566-8605), located at 50 Dongfeng Lu (东风路50号). Hours are 8am to noon and 2:30pm to 5pm Monday through Friday, 8:30am to 5pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free with a valid ID such as a passport or Chinese ID card. Since this is indoor, come on down, any time of the year.

Getting there

By Plane: Changsha International Airport offers easy access to the city. You can either take a bus into town (~15 RMB per person) and then get a taxi to the academy, or simply take a taxi directly to your destination.

By Train: Changsha is on a number of important routes, including Guangzhou-Beijing, Beijing-Guilin-Kunming, and Guangzhou-Xi’an-Lanzhou. There are also daily trains to Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Where to stay

We stayed at Daronghe Holiday Hotel (大蓉和假日酒店, 0731-888-1888), at 188 Furong Zhong Lu, Section 2, Changsha (长沙市芙蓉中路二段188号), nestled in the Helong Stadium (和龙体育馆). The rooms are very modern, clean, and include all local and long distance charges in the room fees. Rooms start at around 200 RMB/night, and there’s a Carrefour nearby.

This hotel is currently not on Ctrip, so if you want to book, try calling them. Otherwise, find more hotels by booking — online, as I did — at Ctrip.com (no deposit needed, and you can cancel easily, if necessary).
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This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.

To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives. Y9QVTMMZJ38X

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8 thoughts on “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mawangdui, Hunan Museum, Changsha

  • September 9, 2010 at 7:33 am
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    I spent my first year in China in Changsha, and visited the Hunan Museum within a couple of weeks of arriving. It is indeed an awesome museum (although I didn’t get anywhere near as close to the mummy as your photo suggests you did). Well worth visiting for all the reasons stated above and, if you’re lucky (as I was), more.

    I would add to your “When to visit”: Try to avoid summer. It is intensely hot and humid with rain that often steps beyond abundant, and a major risk of flooding (the museum is right next to Martyr’s Park, which features lakes linked to one of the minor local rivers, although it is on raised ground).

    Reply
    • September 9, 2010 at 7:36 pm
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      Thanks for the comment, Chris! Wow, I didn’t realize summers brought heavy rains, and the potential for severe floods. Glad you pointed this out.

      Reply
  • September 11, 2010 at 11:06 pm
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    Chinese history is pretty fascinating (or at least I think so). Did you ever check out any historical reenactments?

    Like sometimes there are shows or demonstrations where you could see live battle scenes, rituals, machines or any other activity (like the Ancient Chinese version of soccer) how it was like back then.

    Reply
    • September 13, 2010 at 12:45 am
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      Thanks for the comment, Friend. I agree — Chinese history is amazing. It’s been a while, but I have seen a few re-enactments. I remember visiting a park in Kaifeng where they had people dressed in Northern Song clothing and demonstrating the work and trades of the period, in this village that replicated a famous Northern Song scroll painting. Very cool stuff.

      Reply
  • December 12, 2012 at 7:09 pm
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    High Jocelyn,
    This post really interests men. As a Chinese raised overseas I have always had a deep fascination with our ancient culture. If possible could you please give me more information on the park in Kaifeng you visited wherein people dressed in Northern Song clothing? I would really love to visit it! Btw, I don’t know about you, but in terms of Chinese dramas I like watching historical fiction/nonfiction pieces most, but that excludes anything about the communist party and national party and ww2-Asia for that matter. Have you seen the condor trilogy? I’m a sucker for those types of period dramas. :3

    Reply
    • December 12, 2012 at 7:34 pm
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      @partingways, thanks for your comment! I’m a little confused, since you posted this on an entry that isn’t about Kaifeng. When I looked through my posts about Kaifeng, I couldn’t find any place where I referenced any such park. Perhaps you could help refresh my memory?

      Reply
  • December 12, 2012 at 9:08 pm
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    @Jocelyn,

    It was in one of your reply comments in this post 🙂 here:
    “Thanks for the comment, Friend. I agree — Chinese history is amazing. It’s been a while, but I have seen a few re-enactments. I remember visiting a park in Kaifeng where they had people dressed in Northern Song clothing and demonstrating the work and trades of the period, in this village that replicated a famous Northern Song scroll painting. Very cool stuff.”
    And also, I just wanted to say, that it has been great reading your posts and insight into Chinese culture (Many of which are new to me, as my mum is really quite traditional I thought I’d heard it all). And your posts about relationships and racism really gave me a lot of hope and courage. Thank you so much for this!
    I will be following you from now on (though I have no idea how other than favorite-ing your blog website :O), so I wish you all the best ^^!

    Reply
    • December 13, 2012 at 3:15 pm
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      @partingways, oh, doh! I didn’t realize it was something I wrote in the comments. Sorry!

      You know, I’m not really 100 percent sure what the name of that place was. You’ll have to forgive me, I visited it prior to learning Chinese and was escorted there by my college (the college I taught English for at the time, who paid our entrance fees). I suspect it is the Song Dynasty Theme Park (or something like that) — you might try doing a search online.

      And thanks for your warm comments. 🙂

      Reply

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