Museum of Nanyue King – The Mausoleum Relics: Part 5 Fun and Games

What’s a banquet with fun and games? And the music and dancing? Who’s playing in the band? We take a look at the leisure activities that the King of Nanyue embarked on when he was alive.

所有文物皆是“西汉南越国时期 1983年南越文王墓出土 南越王博物院藏”,除非另外提示。 All artefacts are from the Nanyue period of the Western Han Dynasty (203-111BC), excavated in 1983 from the tomb of the King Wen of Nanyue, Museum of the King of Nanyue Collection, unless otherwise indicated.

As many as 81 musical objects were found in the tomb. Among them, there are a total of 50 musical artifacts (and the remains of a musician) in the East Side Chamber 东耳室, including a set of 14 Niu bells 钮钟, a set of 5 Yong bells 甬钟, a set of 8 Gou Diao 句鑃, 2 pieces of lacquered wooden Se 瑟, 2 pieces of lacquered wooden Qin 琴, 1 bronze bucket engraved with music and dance drawings, and 2 sets of 18 pieces of stone Bian Qing 编磬. The West Side Chamber 西耳室 includes 1 piece of bronze Duo 铜铎, 5 pieces of bells 铃, 1 piece of lacquered wooden Qin 琴, 1 piece of lacquered wooden Se 瑟, 7 pieces of round shaker 圆陶响, and 3 pieces of jade dancer. There are three jade dancers in the East Side Room 东侧室. There is also 1 bronze Zheng 铜鉦 and 9 fish-shaped shakers 鱼形陶响 hidden in the back storeroom 后藏室.

Having Fun in the 2nd Century BC

Illustration of the court of the King of Nanyue

All work and no play makes Zhao Mo a dull boy. From his tomb, we can seed some of the games and leisure activities popular during his reign.

六博祺 Liu Bo Chess

六博祺 Liu Bo Chess

Liubo Chess  is one of the most mysterious game of the whole human history. Liubo is an ancient Chinese board game whose rules are forgotten. The name Liubo comes from Chinese (六 liu = six, 博 bo = sticks). This game was played since the the Warring States era (4th century BC) and maybe much earlier (7th century BC) as it is quoted in Confucius’ Analects (Book XVII, 22): “It is difficult for a man who always has a full stomach to put his mind to some use. Are there not players of liubo and weiqi? Even playing these games is better than being idle.”

12 black and white chess pieces

The sets consist of a chessboard, 12 black and white chess pieces and 6 chopsticks used for playing. Two sets of different sizes were unearthed from the east chamber. The chessboard and chopsticks were found to be rotten.

Reconstructed chessboard

Two chessboards were found in the tomb among the relics in the East Side Chamber 东耳室. From the remaining gilt frame and holder we know the big chessboard is 60 cm and the small one 49 cm in side length both of which are square.

Apparently very popular during the Han dynasty (207 BC – 220 AD) when the best players were well respected and formed a teams, just like e-sports these days. It later vanished, probably outshone by the Chinese adaptation of Nard (a Backgammon ancestor) coming from India and Persia when the Tang (618-907) re-opened the Silk Road. The very last reference dates from the Song time (before 1162) where it was quoted as an “old game”.

圆雕长袖玉舞人 Dancing figure

The dancing figure is cut out of sapphire. The woman, hair done in a bun and wearing in long sleeved dress, is dancing with one arm hidden behind her back and the other waving above the head.

石砚与墨丸 Stone Ink Slab and Ink Pellets

3 sets of stone ink slabs and 4 rubbing stones were unearthed from the mausoleum. Also, one ink slab was found on the bar behind the gate, which suggests that they may have been left by workers after painting the wall of the antechamber.

石砚 Stone Ink Slabs

石砚 Stone Ink Slabs

园饼形墨丸 Ink Pellets

园饼形墨丸 Ink Pellets

The colour of the ink pellets is the same as that of the cloud pattern on the wall of antechamber.

弦舞钟磬 Chimes of Bells and Sonorous Stones

The musical instruments combine styles of entertainment of the Han, Chu and Yue Cultures and give an idea of entertainment in the imperial court of Nanyue.

The inscription on the Gou Diao 句鑃 (gōu diào, a kind of percussion instrument) said that they were “made by the Music Bureau in the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Wen” “文帝九年 乐府工造” suggests that the Nanyue Kingdom set up a Music Bureau just as the Qin and Han royalties did.

鎏金铜轸 (zhen) 、鎏金铜轸匙 Tuning Pins and Keys of a String Instrument)

鎏金铜轸 (zhen) 、鎏金铜轸匙 Tuning Pins and Keys of a String Instrument) wi th replicated Qin

Qin is the top of the list of four cultural skills of China, the other being chess play, calligraphy and painting (琴棋书画). The wooden sound board of the qin has already decayed beyond recognition, but 48 zhens and 3 tuning keys were found in the tomb. Which puzzled the archaelogists, how many qins where there in the tomb as most qin found prior to this period were either 5-string, 7-string or 10-string qin.



As recorded in the ancient books, zhens (tuning pins) are used for tuning the string instrument, which are turned into the correct pitch using the tuning keys, very much like how the modern day guzheng are tuned.

鎏金铜瑟枘 Gilt-Bronze Zither String Anchor (‘Se Rui’) 

鎏金铜瑟枘 Gilt-Bronze Zither String Anchor (‘Se Rui’) 

The Se is an ancient plucked zither of Chinese origin. It varied in size and construction, but generally had 25 strings with moveable bridges and a range of up to five octaves. It was one of the most important stringed instruments in China, along with the qin.

Twelve of these gilt-bronze pegs were found in the tomb. They were beautifully casted as hills with tigers and bears. So given the number, there were three se in the tomb, but they have all rotten away.

Percussive Instruments

Among the musical instruments found in the tomb, they were mainly percussive instrument, either pitched or unpitched like these pottery percussive instruments.

陶摇响器 Pottery Percussion Instrument

7 round and 9 fish-shaped pottery percussion instruments that are equivalent to the modern day shakers were found in the tomb. Hollow but with gravel inside, they rattled when shaken. These were the only pottery shakers found since the last finding was in the Neolithic civilisations.

Natural Moroccan Terracotta Clay Exfoliator

Before this, some were found in Qin dynasty tombs but they were not rattlers. At that time they were thought to be clay scrubbers used in exfoliation (I had one from Body Shop), but these proved that they were musical instruments.

“王”字铜铎 (dúo) Duo (Percussive Instrument) with Inscription

Duo are military instrument that are shaken like a modern day hand bell. These were also the models for the Dotaku in Japan. There is one particular duo that was inscribed with the character “王” or King, indicating its imperial status.

Dōtaku (銅鐸) are Japanese bells smelted from relatively thin bronze and richly decorated. Dotaku were used for about 400 years, between the second century B.C. and the second century C.E. (corresponding to the end of the Yayoi era), and were nearly only used as decorations for rituals. 

石编磬 Stone Bian Qing (Percussive Instrument) or Sonorous Stones

石编磬 Stone Bian Qing (Percussive Instrument) or Sonorous Stones

Bian Qing 编磬 were ancient stone percussive instruments. Two sets (one with 8 pieces, the other 10 pieces) were discovered in the tomb. They were badly damaged due to water damage and corrosion.

The short, wide part of the sonorous stone is called “Gu” while the long, narrow part called “Gu” (a different written character) on the top is the best place for striking it to produce a clear ringing tone.

“乐府工造” 铜句鑃 (gōu diào) Bronze Gou Diao (Percussion Instrument)

The Gou Diao is a percussion instrument native to the Yue people. It is made up of eight bronze bells of more than 190 kilograms. When I visited the museum, four were on loan to the National Museum of China for a special exhibition.

Each bell bears two lines of inscriptions, “made by the Music Bureau in the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Wen” “文帝九年 乐府工造” , which tell that the musicians of the Music Bureau cast the instrument in 129 BC. The bells are also number #1 to #8 in ascending tone.

铜钮钟 Niu Zhong Bell (Percussion Instrument)

铜钮钟 Niu Zhong Bell (Percussion Instrument)

The Niu Zhong Bell is usually used as the base for adjusting and tuning the other instruments in a band. The set of Niu Zhong unearthed from the tomb is composed of fourteen bells, and is struck using a wooden mallet (that was found decayed on the side of the bells).

When they were discovered, the rotten wooden frame was still clearly visible. Each bell was hung in the middle, so the bells were upright. There are two striking zones, so each bell can produce two tones. The range is equivalent to a modern tempered octave.

铜甬钟 Yong Zhong Bell (Percussion Instrument)

铜甬钟 Yong Zhong Bell (Percussion Instrument)

The Yong Zhong is a kind of percussion instrument necessary in aristocratic sacrificial ceremonies and royal banquets. Five pieces were found in the East Side Chamber. Five tones – Do/C/宫, Re/D/商, Mi/E/角, So/G/徵or征 and La/A/羽 or more accurately in this sequence So-La-Do-Re-Mi – missing Fa (F), Di (B).

The Yong bell is mainly divided into the following parts, the dance part 舞部 (the plane at the top of the Yong), the ping part 钲部 (the narrow strip area in the middle of the Yong), the seal part 篆部(both sides of the ping part), the drum 鼓部 (below the seal part), the piece part 枚 (the protruding buttons on the surface) and the 铣 (the the lower curved parts).

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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