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.
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.
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. 😉
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.
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).
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