top of page

A beauty from Mawangdui, and “Iron Ruyi-Sceptres” by Xie Ao 謝翱《鐵如意》

For those who are interested in Chinese history and archaeology, the Western Han tombs of Li Cang 利蒼 (d. 186 BCE) and his family (collectively known as the Mawangdui 馬王堆 site) in Changsha is definitely a super star. However, I have always been unlucky with my attempts to visit the Mawangdui treasures, which are housed in Hunan Provincial Museum. My first two visits to Hunan both fell within the period of the museum’s renovation project which turned out to have lasted five years. On my third visit, I finally managed to get into the museum, but at the end of my visit to the Mawangdui galleries, I saw a notice that Lady Xin Zhui’s 辛追 mummified body, arguably the star of all Mawangdui stars, was under temporary conservation just until the day after my visit. Then beyond the point of feeling annoyed or disappointed, I was quite amazed at my bad luck.

(The original site of tomb no. 1, where the body of Lady Xin Zhui was excavated; photo taken in 2017. Despite the international attention to the Mawangdui treasures, the archeological site looked very quiet.)

But I must say, to be fair, it was a very enjoyable and rewarding visit, even without seeing Lady Xin Zhui. The tombs were excavated in the 1970s. As scholars around the world devote themselves to researching the abundance of incredible manuscripts, textiles, lacquer ware, paintings, etc., Mawangdui has revolutionised our previous knowledge of first century China. The new museum combines the fruits of specialised study that has developed over half a century with modern technologies and ways of presentation, which has even won over a friend of mine who is not very keen on historical stuff. Moreover, the exhibitions are now available online as well as offline.

Perhaps precisely because I didn’t have the honour of seeing Lady Xin Zhui, I remember more of other gems I came across in the collection. I was particularly impressed by a set of performer figurines that I had never known before. Rows of musicians, dancers and singers are presented in a big glass case, with gentle lighting that gradually dims at intervals and brings different figurines or rows into spotlight in turns. The three females kneeling in the front line are believed to be singers, and the middle one has an astonishingly exquisite face of calm beauty undiminished through a millennium.

With most figurines in the collection posed rigidly and their faces carved stylistically rather than realistically, the face of the central singer is almost charged with a special magic that makes her the only one that breathes, smiles, and shines with colours amongst hundreds of her wooden companions. The nuanced look on her face was so instantly captivating that I was reminded of the shock when I first saw the Nefertiti bust at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

(Close-ups of the singer, and a few examples of other figurines)

But Nefertiti is elegant and warm. With her cheeks slightly sunken and lines visible, the bust gives such an intimate portrait of a human who ages with grace. The charm of the anonymous singer from Mawangdui, on the other hand, is somewhat imbued with mystery, distance, and a bit of creepiness. With a human-ish look, she stops just before entering the human realm, as if luring humans to her world to stay with her and her wooden friends instead.

The tomb owner took these figurines for the purpose of enjoying live performance in the netherworld. I wonder what kind of performance such an ensemble would put on. As Changsha was the centre of the Chu region, one may justly assume they would perform Chuwu 楚舞 and Chuge 楚歌 (dance and music of Chu), both of which are common images in literature. After Xiang Yu 項羽 (c. 232–202 BCE) famously sang a song of Chu before committing suicide and Liu Bang’s 劉邦 (256-195 BCE) favourite consort Lady Qi 戚夫人 (224 - 194 BCE) performed a dance of Chu when she lost the hope of making her son the future emperor, the music and dance of Chu became synonymous with sorrow, disappointment, and tragedy. In poetry, one hardly finds any joyful performances associated with the land of Chu.

To have a change of taste and move away from the old stories of Xiang Yu and Lady Qi, I have selected below a poem about a Chu-style performance adapted from a third century anecdote recorded in the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語. We are not sure whether the poet Xie Ao 謝翱 (1249-1295) indeed watched such a performance or whether he simply dreamt all that up as poets often do. But if artists could communicate in the netherworld and share their inspirations, Li Cang and his family might also be able to enjoy the same performance put on by their ensemble.


Inspiration: Shi Chong 石崇 (249-300), a statesman known for his luxurious lifestyle, [1] and Wang Kai 王愷 (fl. third century), the emperor’s nephew, competed to show off their wealth in every possible way. When Shi Chong saw Wang Kai’s beloved coral branch, [2] a gift from the emperor, he hit the coral with an iron ruyi-sceptre he was holding. [3] Wang Kai was of course enraged and believed Shi Chong did this out of jealousy. But Shi Chong didn’t seem to have a care and said he could give one back to Wang Kai immediately. Then, Shi Chong’s servants fetched several coral trees, each twice as tall and magnificent as the one he had just smashed, leaving Wang Kai in great embarrassment. [4]


“Iron Ruyi-Sceptres” by Xie Ao





Five immortals, or perhaps six, are

Strolling about, fighting under the moon.

[Their] shadows sway like clouds or mist;

[Their] voices fade into the silence of rills and rivers.





One of them rises up for a dance of Chu;

Another rises up to sing a song of Chu.

Both hold iron sceptres in hand

Smashing the coral branch.





One seizes it and holds it in hand;

Another, looking askance, passes by.

Yet another dances

Towards the others, rocking without end.





One claps [his] hands alone,

Clad in green creepers.[6]

Into the long night the heavenly sound is disappearing.

Round and round, what can be done about [this] melancholy?

* From Songshi chao 宋詩鈔, edited by Wu Zhizhen 吳之振 (1640-1717), 99.21b (Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 文淵閣四庫全書 edition, vol. 1461, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987).

[1] He was the owner of the splendid bathroom I blogged about last year: [2] For two examples of decorative corals from the Qing dynasty, see: and [3] The Palace Museum in Beijing is hosting an exhibition about ruyi 如意 from 10 Feb to 9 May 2021:, and an example of an iron ruyi-sceptre can be found here: [4] For the original text, see: (passage 8). [5] Red characters rhyme. [6] This has been an iconic Chu image since the Chuci 楚辭 (Songs of the South). The presence of the last person here is very interesting. He doesn’t seem to be one of the characters in the original anecdote but a viewer of the incident who contemplates this race of vanity as an outsider and a hermit-like figure. This frame narrative of the performance also prompts me to think about the extent to which the poet identifies himself with this performer. Another poem by Xie Ao expresses a similar mood, with him dreaming of a Daoist and then waking up to sing a song of Chu in the silence of a midnight mountain.


Copyright Declaration*:

The texts and images used on the website of Rachelle's Lab are either from the public domain (e.g. Wikipedia), databases with open data licences (e.g. Shuhua diancang ziliao jiansuo xitong 書畫典藏資料檢索系統, National Palace Museum, Taipei), online libraries that permit reasonable use (e.g., or original work created for this website.

Although fair use of the website for private non-profit purposes is permitted, please note that the website of Rachelle's Lab and its content (including but not limited to translations, blog posts, images, videos, etc.) are protected under international copyright law. If you want to republish, distribute, or make derivative work based on the website content, please contact me, the copyright owner, to get written permission first and make sure to link to the corresponding page when you use it.



*Read more about copyright and permission here.



bottom of page