Museum of Nanyue King – The Mausoleum Relics: Part 6 Daily Lives of Nanyue

This is the last segment of the items excavated from the tomb of the King of Nanyue. The unearthed relics from the Tomb serve as valuable evidences for the study of the history of early development of Lingnan Region.

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.

Daily Lives in 2nd Century

The unearthed daily-used utensils vary in forms and types, including lacquer screen, bronze mirrors, clothes, ornaments, bronze burners and lamps, medicine and tools, ink slabs and pellets. The number of lacquers illustrates the frequent use of them in the Nanyue Kingdom.

鎏金漆木屏风 (复制品) Gilded Lacquered Screen (Replica)

鎏金漆木屏风 (复制品) Gilded Lacquered Screen (Replica)

Uniquely structured, the screen has two doors in the middle and the crossbeam on top of it was decorated with pheasant feathers and carvings of double-faced animal head. The boards were painted with cloud pattern in red and black colors.

Top Ornaments in shapes of Vermillion Bird and Monster Masks

Top ornaments are ornaments on the top bar of the screen. There are five pieces which are made of bronze and plated with gold. Two of them are in the shape of the Vermillion Bird 朱雀 (top-left), three of them are in the shape of Monster Masks 兽面纹 (middle-left). On their heads, a circular tube can be found, probably used to hold a feather.

Screen Support in “Pu” Dragon Shape

This pair of Pan Dragon bronze support (bottom-left) was used to hold the lacquered screen on bottom corners. The support is formed by a dragon (which looked like Donkey from”Shrek”), two snakes and three frogs.

Screen Support in Shape of a Yue Warrior

This pair of Yue warrior bronze support (right) was used to hold the lacquered screen on bottom corners. The body of the bronze support is composed of two parts. The upper part is a right triangle that fits the screen corner. The lower part is the figure of a Yue warrior with bulging eyes, holding five snakes in his hands and mouth.

熏炉灯具 Burner and Lamp

Burners and lamps were commonly employed in daily life at that time. Incense was burned to perfume and fumigate the air and was popular among the noble class. In the tomb of Zhao Mo, 13 incense burners consisting of 2 pottery and 11 bronze burners were unearthed. What’s unique is that 5 four-piece incense burners 四连体铜熏炉 have been found, which breaks the records in terms of quantities. The remains of frankincense are the earliest incense found in China.

四连体铜熏炉 Bronze Incense Burner with Four Small Boxes

The incense burner, with four small boxes lying side by side but not connected on the bronze support, may have had four types of incense burned at the same time. Most of the incenses at that time were imported from Southeast, South and West Asia. This was a cleaver way to mix the different ingredients to create a new fragrance before mixed fragrances were invented.

单体铜熏炉 Single Compartment Bronze Incense Burner

Incense had a wide range of uses in ancient China. People not only made incense bags, but also smoked, applied and even drank them. In particular royalties, nobles and literati of all dynasties have highly regarded incense, believing that it is a wonderful thing for nourishing temperament and enlightening talents. In daily life, whether it is reading, writing, or talking to people, they all like to use incense as a companion, and then use it as an expression of “formality” 礼.

豆形陶熏炉 Dou-shaped Pottery Incense Burner

The pottery incense burner unearthed in the tomb is divided into three types: Dou-shaped, box-shaped and canister-shaped. The most common is the Dou-shaped incense burner.

It has a shallow belly. The cover is pierced with geometric pattern to let the fragrance out. The exquisite pottery incense burner is a representative of the essence of Yue-style pottery. In terms of time in history, the ones found here are earlier than the Boshan-style incense burner 博山式熏炉 in the Central Plains.

铜灯 The Bronze Lamp

铜灯 The Bronze Lamp

Two lamps made of bronze are found in the mausoleum. The lamps have three protruding nails to hold wicks. It’s made up of three part, lamp holder, lamp stand, lamp plate. They bear an inscription which indicates their weights.

药材药具 Medicine in the 2nd Century BC

A total of over 240 pieces of iron wares were discovered in the tomb of the Nanyue King. It was the largest number of iron wares unearthed from the tombs during the Nanyue Kingdom Period. Among them, more than 120 pieces are iron tools, including various types, such as agriculture, fishery and handi-craft, etc.

陶瓿 Earthen Bu (vessel)

Chinese medicines and medicinal tools such as mortar and pestles were unearthed from the West Side Chamber 西耳室. Also found was an earthen Bu which contained a small number of black round pills, which were carbonized.

Right beside the king was found a half full box of pills, suggesting that he was addicted to the fantasy of living forever and corroborates the record of the ill health of the king.

杵臼 (chu jiù) Mortar and Pestle

杵臼 (chu jiù) Mortar and Pestle

This is a set of medicine pounding tools. All together two sets of mortars and pestles were unearthed from the west side chamber. One is a bronze mortar and pestle while the other consists of an iron pestle and a bronze mortar.

五色药石 Medicine of Multi-Coloured Stones

五色药石 Medicine of Multi-Coloured Stones

The Emperors of the Qin and Han periods were addicted to the fantasy of living forever, and they had strong faith in the medicine of multi-coloured stones called “Wushisan” 五石散; they are basically sulphur, red arsenic sulphide, amethyst, ochre and turquoise. They are still used in modern TCM, and when used in moderation do have medicinal properties.

铜镜服饰 The Bronze Mirrors and Clothing Accessories

Over 500 pieces of bronzes were excavated from the tomb, which included 39 bronze mirrors, 36 garment belt hooks and 16 pairs of ornaments in the shape of tablets. The Bronze Mirror with Painting and the Composite Bronze Mirror are rarely seen works of art.

Fit for the King

The Kings had daily things like mirror, belts and other necessities to make life better buried with him for his afterlife. These items are different in terms of material used, as well as some of them will bear his seal to indicate ownership.

绘画铜镜 Bronze Mirror with Paintings

There were 6 bronze mirrors that belonged to Zhao Mo, and 4 of them were painted mirrors. Among the four bronze mirrors, rust remove treatment is only done on this one. It has a diameter of 41cm. This is the largest bronze mirror with paintings ever found from the Han dynasty tomb excavations so far.

A swan made from carved bones 骨雕天鹅 was found in the silk cloth used to wrapped this mirror. It indicates that the swan was most likely attached to the mirror, but has fallen off over time.

带托铜镜 Compound Bronze Mirror with Support

带托铜镜 Compound Bronze Mirror with Support

This mirror with support is composed of two parts: mirror surface and back support. The surface and support are cast separately, so it is also known as a compound mirror 复合镜. The back of the mirror bracket is inlaid with a complex pattern of gold, silver, red copper and turquoise. This mirror is most likely made during the Warring States period (476-221 BC).

墓主带钩 The Belt Hooks of the Occupant

Of the 36 belt hooks that were unearthed from the tomb, 12 belonged to the King. Some these were described in detail in “Part 2: Other Chambers”. The different materials reflect their different status, which the King’s belt hook used jade, gold, silver and bronze to produce.

错金嵌绿松石龙形铜带钩、雁首金带钩 Bronze Garment Hook Embedded with Turquoise, Gold Garment Hook in the Shape of a Goose Head

The hook, as the name implies, is the hook used to tie the waist or hang objects in ancient China. It used to be a daily commodity, especially male nobles, literati and soldiers; and the history is also very early. At present, the earliest known jade belt hook was unearthed at the Liangzhu site more than 4,000 years ago.


A room full of people can be differentiated by their garment hooks

《淮南子》Book of Huainanzi
错金嵌绿松石龙形铜带钩 Bronze Garment Hook Embedded with Turquoise

After the Warring States Period, the style of decoration with garment hooks had formed, and decoration techniques such as relief, gold foils, inlaid gold, hollowing, gold wrapping, gold gilds, etc gradually appeared. The small, humble garment hook has become a work of art for craftsmen to show off their skills.

七星纹龙形银带钩 Silver Garment Hook with Seven Stars

The seven-star silver hook is in the shape of a dragon head, and the hook body is decorated with the Big Dipper consternation. This is the only astronomical-related cultural relic unearthed from the tomb, so it is even more precious.

The image of Big Dipper constellation 北斗七星 in the tombs of the Han Dynasty is a very prominent symbol. The significance of the Big Dipper in folk beliefs in China is very important in understanding the architecture and decorations of ancient China. In addition to being depicted on burial objects, it was also directly used to decorate the tomb.

雁首兽身鎏金铜带钩 Gilt Bronze Garment Hook in the Shape of a Goose Head

雁首兽身鎏金铜带钩 Gilt Bronze Garment Hook in the Shape of a Goose Head

龙纹银带钩 Silver Garment Hook with Dragon Ornament

龙纹银带钩 Silver Garment Hook with Dragon Ornament

The Bronze Mirrors of Sacrificed

The bronze mirrors were for the daily use and to keep evil away. There are 33 bronze mirrors for the sacrifices 殉人铜镜 of which 14 belong to the concubines.

“十”字形龙凤纹铜镜 The Bronze Mirror with Dragon and Phoenix

A phoenix stands on the tip of each of the four flat leaves in the inner area, spreading its wings to look up from a distance. In the back of the four leaves in the outer area, there are four “S”-shaped dragons, glancing back with angry eyes, with open jaws and claws. The ground pattern is a cloud thunder pattern composed of neat cloud pattern and square thunder pattern. The decoration and size of the bronze mirror is most likely from Qin dynasty.

六山纹铜镜 The Bronze Mirror with Six “山” Characters

The “mountain” pattern mirror unearthed from the tomb has two kinds of four mountain pattern mirrors and six mountain pattern mirrors. The “mountain” pattern mirror is a typical Chu-style mirror, which has been unearthed all over the country, and has also been unearthed in Russia.

四山纹铜镜 The Bronze Mirror with Four “山” Characters

四山纹铜镜 The Bronze Mirror with Four “山” Characters

The decoration is generally similar tot he six “mountain” pattern mirror. The main lines are four “mountain” characters, feather-like lines, and the four corners of the button seat extend out with coherent peach-shaped petals as embellishment.

菱花纹镜 Diamond Pattern Bronze Mirror

The decoration on the back of the mirrors is varied in the styles of Chu, Qin, Han and Nanyue. 菱花纹镜 Diamond Pattern Bronze Mirror (slide 1) has main pattern of a folded diamond, and there are four open daffodils decorated in it, which looks vibrant and varied.

Garment Accessories of the Sacrificed

Among the burial goods were garment accessories of the Sacrificed. They were evidence of the culture and living standards of the servants and officials of that time.

铜牌饰 Gilt Bronze Plaque

Five pairs of the gilt bronze plaques were found in the tomb, made in the style of the northern minority. Each has three attachment loops on the reverse which bears a woven pattern indicating that the plaque was cast using the lost-wax/lost-textile process.

Lost-wax casting is the process by which a duplicate metal sculpture is cast from an original. Intricate works can be achieved by this method. The oldest known example of this technique is a 6,000-year-old amulet from the Indus Valley Civilization, but it did not appear in northern China until the 6thcentury BC. Materials other than wax can be used, including textile.

鎏银铜带钩 Gilt Silver Bronze Garment Hooks

The garment hook is often worn as an auspicious thing, which naturally takes dragons (snakes for non-royals and nobles), phoenixes, tigers, turtles, cicadas and various auspicious beasts as the theme.

百工兴盛 The Handicraft Industry

Nearly a hundred iron implements were unearthed from the mausoleum and over half of which were in a lacquer toolbox in the western chamber, including axes, adzes, chisels, files, shovels etc. These carpentry tools reflect the development of the cottage and handicraft industries in 2nd century Nanyue.

Silk Making

The burial articles of the mausoleum, from a small iron knife to a big bronze tripod are all wrapped in silks. The recovered silk products can be classified into 8 types and over 20 patterns.

铜印花凸版 Bronze Silk Printing Plates (a set of two)

These two plates are the earliest tools for silk printing ever discovered in the world. The big plate is used for printing the main pattern and the small one is for positioning.

Fragments of different dyeing material

铁削刀 Iron Knife Sharpener

铁削刀 Iron Knife Sharpener


It was not known if these tools were left behind by the sacrificed carpenters and craftsmen. But they gave us an insight to how carpentry trade was already flourishing then.

铁凿、铁锤 Iron Chisel and Hammer

铁凿、铁锤 Iron Chisel and Hammer

铁劈刀 Iron Knife

铁劈刀 Iron Knife

环首铁刀 Ring Knob Knife

环首铁刀 Ring Knob Knife

铜锯片 Bronze Saw

Sailing the Seas

Historical and archaeological records show that from around 2 BCE, coastal areas in China opened up maritime trade routes towards Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and even the Indian Ocean. Rising in the era of the Qin and Han dynasties, the Nanyue Kingdom made its capital at Panyu (now Guangzhou), a city that advanced as a metropolis and hub for imported products.

船纹铜提筒 Bronze Bucket with Boating Paintings

The Treatise on Geography in the Book of Han 《前漢書》 by Ban Gu 班固 (32–92 AD) recorded that the Han Dynasty conquered Nanyue in 1 BCE and sent ambassadors to explore business opportunities in the South China Sea area, the Huang-chi Kingdom and Sri Lanka near the Indian Ocean. The maritime route connecting the East and the West was forged at this time, becoming a landmark of marine traffic and the signal of the rise of the Maritime Silk Road.

Persian-styled Silver Box

The Persian silver box, frankincense and a burner with four small boxes unearthed in the tomb are the earliest imported goods discovered so far in Guangzhou, which is a reflection of the Nanyue Kingdom’s overseas trades as an important port in China over 2000 years ago.

水产遗骸 Marine products

There are a large number of animal remains in the four side rooms and chambers, and among the 30+ containers in the back storage room., and some are scattered on the ground. Freshwater aquatic animals included carp and turtles; brackish water organisms that inhabited in the estuary area of the Pearl River Delta included water snails, shellfish, etc.

船纹铜提筒 Bronze Bucket with Boating Paintings

The Bucket was used for storing liquor by the Yue people in ancient times. This is the most delicate one of the 9 bronze buckets of different sizes unearthed. There are four paintings reflecting a fleet returning in triumph.

A deck is prominently drawn and the ship is divided into cabins. One of the cabins is filled with bronze drums. On the ship, there are drawings of turtles, fishes and seabirds. Warriors wearing feathered adornments are holding the heads of the captives and guard tightly the rest of them. These paintings are the most complete draft of a ship among archaeological findings. They also point out the fact that fishing and hunting are important to the economy of the ancient Yue people.

蜻蜓眼玻璃珠 Dragonfly-eye glass beads

蜻蜓眼玻璃珠 Dragonfly-eye glass bead

Among the dragonfly-eye glass beads unearthed, they were mainly domestically produced Chu-style style glass beads. However, the original source of Chu-style dragonfly eye glass beads came from West Asia, so it was the imitation and innovation of similar Western products by Chu craftsmen using local raw materials, and evidence of cultural exchanges and technology sharing between China and the West.

蜻蜓眼玻璃珠 Dragonfly-eye glass bead

The evil eye was a powerful symbol in Ancient Egypt. It was used to ward off evil, as Ancient Egyptians believed the eye reflected the evil back onto the evil-doer. Sailors would paint the eye on their ships in the hope that it would protect them during their voyages. But more often they were made as glass beads and worn on the body. When the belief spread to ancient China through maritime trade, the evil eye beads became the dragonfly eye beads.

蒲纹琉璃璧 、串珠 Glazed Bi (disc), Glass Cluster

蒲纹琉璃璧 、串珠 Glazed Bi (disc), Glass Cluster

The glassware unearthed from the tomb of the King of Nanyue has been identified as lead-bium glass. Archeologists believe that the glass manufacturing industry in Nanyue should have been established under the influence of the original Chu (mainly Changsha) and returned to the supervision of the king’s workers. The flat glass unearthed from the tomb of the King of Nanyue is the earliest known transparent flat glass of the era.

蓝色平板玻璃铜牌饰 Bronze Plaques with Inlaid Blue Glass

蓝色平板玻璃铜牌饰 Bronze Plaques with Inlaid Blue Glass

The glass on the ornaments is the earliest known plate glass made in China. These wares are made from various materials and in diverse shapes. The different sources of them reveal the communication between different cultures. Judging from the components, which are quite different from glass made in Egypt, we know they were natively produced in China

The unearthed flat glass is embedded in a horizontal rectangular copper frame as a plaque on the leather belt. The bronze ornaments inlaid with flat glass are the same as the Xiongnu-style animal-patterned bronze ornaments. It is speculated that it was inspired by the animal-patterned ornaments.


The establishment of the Nanyue Kingdom propelled the leap of development in social history in Lingnan region. The Tomb of the Nanyue King proves to be a treasure both for the study of development in politics, economy, culture and customs during the Qin and Han period in Lingnan and for the communication and integrating of cultures from a diversity of nationalities and regions.

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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