Tomb of Nanyue King in Western Han Dynasty 西汉南越王墓

A tomb inside a museum that bears its name – Mausoleum of the Nanyue King is one of the few Western Han dynasty tombs that is found in Southern China.

In June 1983, the infrastructure department of the Guangdong Provincial Government was working on a small hill called Xianggang 象岗 on the side of the scenic Yuexiu Mountain 越秀山. The original nearly 50-metre-high hill has been cut off by 17 metres after three years of construction. Suddenly, the workers digging the foundation of the wall found a flat stone slab, which seemed to be an underground chamber peeping through the gap between the slates.

Mausoleum of Nanyue King

After three days of investigation and attempt to explore the tomb, the expert came to the preliminary conclusion that this is a tomb pf a royalty in the period of the Nanyue Kingdom of the Western Han Dynasty. The 2,000-year-old mausoleum of Nanyue King 南越王, Zhao Mo 赵眜, reqppeared to the world and is widely regarded as the largest and oldest stone chamber tomb in Lingnan Area (south of the Nanling Mountains) and one of the major archaeological discoveries in China.

Entrance to the tomb

The tomb of Nanyue King was discovered by chance in 1983, intact and had not been plundered. For a better preservation of the treasures, the rare relics found in the tomb were carefully moved out from the tomb. Therefore, there are no artefacts displayed in the tomb now.

However, the tomb with altogether 7 rooms itself is still a vital relic with strong features of Nanyue. It is made up of 750 huge stones, with colorful murals painted on the wall.

Colour-painted stone chamber tomb

Such a colour-painted stone chamber tomb has been proved to be the earliest stone tomb with painting in the area of South China since it was discovered.

The Tomb Passage and the Outlying Coffin 墓道与外藏椁

The Tomb Passage leads to the coffin chamber, and now remains only 10.3 m. It was, however, blocked by clay and big stones to prevent outsiders from robbing the tomb.

On the west side and near the door of the coffin chamber, there existed a rectangular wooden trunk called the Outlying Coffin which contained some large earthen jars with grains and fruit, and some funeral objects like ornaments for horses and carriages. This coffin has been rotten. Underneath the coffin were placed three wooden beams.

Remains of a sacrificial person lying on the east side of the Outlying Coffin and that of another person on the nearby were also found. Both of them might be the guards of the dead King.

A very smart contraption was used to “lock” the door from outside. On the floor behind the main door was a lever that would appear once the door was closed. This would lock the door from the inside.

The Antechamber 前室

The ceiling and walls of the Antechamber were beautifully decorated with cloud patterns painted in red and black. This room symbolized the parlour for the host.

On the west side of the room there were ornaments of horses and carriages, and on the east side there was a sacrificial person buried with a bronze seal. This was an official seal with a fish-shaped handle with the inscription Officer of Jingxiang. It is assumed that he could have been a eunuch and carriage driver buried with a bronze mirror and a group of jade wares.

Roof slab of antechamber placed on the roof of west side chamber

The Antechamber had a huge roof stone slab weighing about 4 tons. When discovered, the slab had been broken. After restoration and strengthening, it was placed over the tomb again.

This is called a door-top device, which is a cleverly conceived anti-theft device. It consists of five blade-shaped stone strips. The outermost two are fixed to the ground, and the three in the middle are light and heavy, which can move up and down, just like the seesaw we played with when we were children. When the tomb of the King of Nanyue is completed and the door of the tomb is closed, the front end of the top door will automatically warp up and hold the door from the inside. In this way, people outside will no longer want to push the door open.

The East Side Chamber 东耳房

This was the storeroom for ritual objects, musical instruments, table-wares, and wine containers. Three sets of Zhong 青铜编钟 and two sets of Qing 石编磬 (percussion instrument) in row, Qin 琴 and Se 瑟 (string instrument), Liubo chess 六簙棋 and different bronze wine vessels 壶、钫、提筒 were found. These show that the dead King lived in great luxury during his lifetime. Remains of a sacrificial person who might be a musician were found near the Qing. One of the slabs from the roof fell down and caused some damage to some of the objects. During the excavation and lifting of the broken slab, a hole was made in the ceiling of this room.

The West Side Chamber 西耳房

This was the storeroom for various kinds of objects and treasures that the dead King possessed during his lifetime.

View of the west side chamber from outside

They included objects for rituals, weapons, ornaments for horses and carriages, objects for daily use, gold and silver wares, medicines, jade objects, and silk fabrics, such as the gold-inlay ornaments for horses and carriages, tiger-shaped tally, the painted bronze mirrors, the bronze mirrors with a stand, many sets of jade sword ornaments and a box of ink pellets, and over 70 pieces of iron tools in different shapes. Most of the objects, piled up to 3 or 4 layers, were put in lacquer boxes, cases or bamboo chests wrapped in silk fabrics.

The Rear Storeroom 后藏室

This was the storeroom for the royal family. The room contained more than 100 large bronze and iron cooking vessels.

Traces of fruits, fish-bones, rice, birds and domestic animals and shells had been found here. Over ten pieces of clay seals with the inscription Officer Tai “泰官” (the official in charge of food and drink for the royal family) were also discovered. The seals might have been put in the room by Officer Tai before the burial. Two large Yue-style bronze Dings 鼎 (food container) and one large iron Ding weighing 26.2 kg unearthed from the tomb have also been placed in this room.

The West Side Room 西侧室

A total of 7 people were buried here, but no coffins were found. Among them, the bones of the two human sacrifices in the north are mixed with the bones of pigs, cattle and sheep, indicating that their status is very low. These may be the slaves who served the food during their lifetimes. It is worth mentioning that the livestock found here have been prepared with their heads and tails cut off, which may be prepared for sacrifice.

The East Side Room 东侧室

Four concubines were buried in this room. Each was in a lacquer coffin with seals and jade jewelry, bronze mirrors and some funeral objects.

Seals of the concubines

Lady Right 右夫人 was buried with several exquisite objects, a gold seal with the inscription “Seal of Lady Right” 右夫人璽, an ivory seal with the name “Zhao Lan” 赵蓝, and two sets of jade jewellery. Other seals were all made of gilt bronze with the inscriptions “Seal of Lady Left” 左夫人印, “Seal of Lady Tat” 泰夫人印 and “Seal of Lady (Unknown)” 口夫人印.

The coffins have been rotten, leaving only traces of Lady Left’s remains.

The Main Coffin Room 主棺室

The Main Coffin Room in the center of the rear part contains the inner and outer coffins which protected the dead King inside. Both coffins have been rotten, leaving behind only traces of the original screen and on the west side bundles of weapons including bronze dagger-axes, bronze cross-bows, arrowheads, and iron swords, spears and halberds.

Jade burial suit sewn with silk thread

The dead King was dressed in a jade burial suit sewn with silk thread with the head resting on the pearl pillow. Ten iron swords were put on both sides of his body. One of them, with the length of 1.46 m, is the longest Han Dynasty iron sword that has been discovered.

There were also nine seals buried with the body. They include the gold seal of “Emperor Wen” with dragon knob “文帝行玺” 龙钮金印, the gold seal of the “Crown Prince” “泰子” 金印, “Zhao Mo” jade seal “赵味” 玉印 and “Imperial Seal” jade seal “帝印” 玉印. The seals provide evidence for the identification of the owner of the tomb and the time of his burial.

About Nanyue Kingdom 南越国

With the unification of feudal China in 221 BC by Emperor Qin ShihuangNanyue 南越 was assimilated into the southern territories of the empire that included Sichuan (known as Bashu 巴蜀) and Guangxi (known as Baiyue 百越). But the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) was short-lived. What came next was nearly 400 years of Han Dynasty. 

Kingdom of Nanyue (206-111 BC)

In 206 BC, Zhao Tuo 赵陀 (240-137 BC), a Qin general stationed in the area taking advantage of the civil war that ensure after collapsed of the Qin Dynasty, declared the area the Kingdom of Nanyue 南越国. He made himself the emperor with the capital at Panyu 番禺. His successor and grandson was Zhao Mo 赵眜 (176-125 BC).

The Nanyue Kingdom was assimilated into the Han Dynasty, but Zhao Tuo was allowed to keep Nanyue as a vassal state. In 113 BC, fourth-generation leader Zhao Xing sought to have Nanyue formally included as part of the Han Empire. His prime minister Lü Jia objected vehemently and subsequently killed Zhao Xing, installing his elder brother Zhao Jiande on the throne and forcing a confrontation with the Han dynasty. The next year, Emperor Liu Che 汉武帝 刘彻 sent 100,000 troops to war against Nanyue. By the year’s end (111 BC), the army had destroyed Nanyue and established Han rule. The dynastic state lasted 93 years and had five generations of monarchs.

Tomb of Prime Minister Lü Jia and General Nguyễn Danh Lang in Ân Thi District, Hưng Yên Province, Vietnam.

Part of Nanyue became what was known today as North Vietnam after the takeover by Han. In Vietnam, the rulers of Nanyue are referred to as the Triệu dynasty. The name “Vietnam” (Việt Nam) is derived and reversed from Nam Việt, the Vietnamese pronunciation of Nanyue.

Tomb of Nanyue King in Western Han Dynasty 西汉南越王墓

Click on the link for a VR tour of the tomb.

About Museum of Nanyue King 南越王博物馆 (MNYK)

Officially known as Western Han Museum of the Nanyue King Mausoleum 西汉南越王墓博物馆, MNYK is always on the top list of things to do in Guangzhou for archaeological lovers and Chinese history and culture enthusiasts.

The museum was firstly opened to the public in 1983 and renovated in 2010. Inside the museum, you can find the original site of the tomb, more than 1,000 pieces of rare treasures unearthed from the tomb and a collection of ceramic pillows donated by Mr. Yeung Wing-Tak. Those elegant artefacts will take you to the exquisite life of Nanyue State 2,000 years ago.

Nanyue King Museum 南越王博物馆
Tel : +86 (020) 36182920(王墓展区), +86 (020) 83896501(王宫展区)

Opening Hours: open all year around from 9:00am to 17:30pm (on 28th February and 31st August of every year, it will be closed for maintenance), except every Monday.

Visited Jan 2022

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