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Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

I was a bit hard on China in yesterday’s post about toxic sludge left over from refining rare earth elements (I was actually angry at myself for not being a natural businessman, not at the Chinese for ruining the Earth with industrial poisons). Today, therefore, let’s cleanse our palettes by looking at some exquisite treasures which were found in a medieval Chinese tomb! The grave was discovered by construction workers in Nanjing in 2008, but is just now being showcased to the world. It belonged to “Lady Mei” a noblewoman who died in 1474—just 18 years before Columbus discovered the new world. Lady Mei was 45 when she died. Her epitaph reveals that she was a concubine who was married off to the Duke of Yunnan when she was an “unwashed and unkempt” maiden of 15. Lady Mei outshone the Duke’s two senior wives by bearing a son, but her biography also indicates she had a lively mind and no small share of strategic and political genius. Reading between the lines, it seems like she ran the Duke’s vast household (and possibly Yunnan) for twenty years (during the strife and court turmoil of the feuding Zhengtong and Jingtai Emperors and the mad incompetence of the Chenghua Emperor no less).

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

You can read what is known about Lady Mei’s fascinating life here, but for today’s purposes let’s look at some of the otherworldly jewelry found in the tomb.

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Ming dynasty art is my favorite Chinese art! The artists of the Song dynasty were more inventive (and perhaps had greater raw talent). The artists of the Ching dynasty had a more eye-popping palette and crafted designs with more ornate flourishes. The artists of the Tang dynasty were more cosmopolitan and outward looking. The artists of today certainly know how to make ugly wretched junk which celebrates the dark magic of marketing. But the artists and artisans of the Ming era were unsurpassed at finding perfect proportions and color combinations. They blended the diverse regional and international elements from around all of China into a perfect lavish synthesis of styles which is instantly and indelibly Chinese.

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (“lotus petal” decorations and Sanskrit in gold with sapphires, rubies, and one turquoise. (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Look at how Central Asian decorative motifs mix with Southern Asian religious designs all within a rubric of ancient patterns from the Yangzi heartland! The bold yellow of the jewels is perfectly matched by the equally rich colors of carved rubies, sapphires, cats’ eyes, and turquoises.

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei's Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei’s Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Each of the pieces of jewelry looks like something the queen of heaven could be wearing in a Chinese myth. These pieces are hairpins, bracelets, and a perfume box, but they have the splendor and unrivaled workmanship of crowns. Indeed, Lady Mei might as well have been a sovereign. Contemporary Yunnan has approximately the same population as contemporary Spain. The Yunnan of Lady Mei’s day was likewise probably about the same size as Spain just before it unified and took over the Americas.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

It is astonishing that these treasures have been lying in the earth, waiting for some developer to build a supermarket or condominium. Lady Wei’s opulent grave goods are exquisite—the undying glory of Ming craftsmanship still dazzles like nothing else.

Ximen Bao was an engineer and a rationalist who lived during the warring states period in China.  He served as a magistrate for the Marquis Wen, who ruled the territory of Wei from 445 BC-396 BC.  During that time, the province of Ye (in what is now Hebei) began to decline and falter.  The Marquis sent Ximen Bao to find out what was wrong.

China 400 BCE: The Warring States (Thomas Lessman–Source Website http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

Ximen Bao visited the main town of Ye on the river Zhang.  He was dismayed to find the fertile countryside depopulated.  Whole families were fleeing productive farms and leaving the rich land fallow.  The peasants feared the capricious god of the river, who could cause flooding and death (or alternately draught and starvation), but they feared the crushing taxes imposed upon them by the regional governor even more.  Most of all, they feared a local witch who selected a maidens from the area as a “brides” for the river.  Chosen girls were dressed in finery and tightly bound to sumptuously decorated floating platforms–which were then sunk.  These human sacrifice extravaganzas were the purported cause of the high taxes as well.  The governor levied annual taxes for the ceremony and then kept a majority of the proceeds for himself and his cronies.  People who complained discovered that their daughters were chosen as brides.

Upon finding this out, Ximen Bao arrived at one of the marriage “celebrations” with a troop of Wei soldiers.  As the ceremony started, he proclaimed the girl unworthy of the river god.  He commanded the witch to go down to the river bed and ask the river god whether the previous brides had been satisfactory.  When she began to equivocate, the soldiers threw her into the river (where she quickly sank beneath the current).  When the witch didn’t return, Ximen asked the governor’s cronies to see what was taking her so long.  The soldiers then threw them in the river to drown as well.

Ximen Bao Sends the Witch to Visit the River God

Ximen Bao sarcastically suggested that the witch and the officials were having lunch with the river god.  He was about to send the regional governor to fetch them, when the governor fell to his knees and begged forgiveness for the scheme. Ximen Bao stripped the governor of position and holdings (and then probably tortured him to death–as was customary at the time).  He used the proscribed wealth to build a series of dams and irrigation canals to bring the unruly river under control.   Ximen Bao is still revered for being the first Chinese official to tame a river by means of civil engineering, cunning administration, and, above all, the ability to see that religion was a con trick.

In China, famous generals, courtiers, and scholars have a tendency to undergo apotheosis: their lives and deeds become integrated into religion and folklore as they gradually come to be venerated as gods and immortals (in the way Yuchi Jingde became a door god).   Today Ximen Bao is venerated in China not as a supernatural being but rather as something much more rare and useful–an honest and clear-headed official.

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