In 1971, workers in China’s Hunan Province unearthed one of the world’s most amazing archeological sites. The area contained three elaborate tombs. One belonged to a well-to-do civil servant named Li Kang, who held the illustrious title of Marquis of Dai. The other two tombs contained his wife, Lady Dai, and their son.

The family lived during China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Lady Dai passed away around 163 BCE, more than 2,000 years ago, but her near-perfectly preserved corpse, and the family’s funerary items, have helped historians piece together important information about life in ancient China.

The Dai family was discovered thanks to “ghost fire”

The remarkable archeological find was discovered during what was expected to be an uneventful project. Laborers in the city of Changsha were digging a hole for an air-raid shelter in the side of Mawangdui Hill, a spot that meant nothing to locals.

Workers were in for a shock when they decided to take a smoke break and their matches suddenly lit up from a blast of cool air emanating from deep inside the hill. Scientists were called in to investigate what locals were calling gui huo (“ghost fire”). That’s when they happened upon the Dai family’s remains.

The following year, archeologists began excavating the site. With only a tiny amount of funding from the government (about $854 by today’s exchange rate), archeologists enlisted the help of 1,500 high school student volunteers who helped excavate one of the world’s most remarkable archeological finds.

Lady Dai Mummy / Photo Courtesy: [Flazaza/Wikimedia Commons]

The ‘Diva Mummy’ is unearthed

Archaeologists soon learned that the innermost coffins contained the remains of the marquis, his wife, and son, while the outer coffins were created to hold over 1,000 valuable items for the afterlife. The objects inside Xin Zhui’s tomb were so opulent that she’s been nicknamed the “Diva Mummy.”

Some of the objects researchers discovered included 100 lavish silk garments, 182 pieces of expensive lacquerware, along with various makeup and beauty accessories. Since a woman of her stature in society would also need servants, 162 carved wooden statutes symbolizing her attendants were also placed in her tomb. Other family objects sent off with the Dai family to assure their contentment included a variety of lacquered, wooden and bamboo kitchenware, cooked food, containers filled with wine, and staples such as lotus roots, beans, fruits, and vegetables.

There’s even a lovely lacquered cup with a cloud design and an inscription that reads, “Please drink.” Other afterlife necessities packed into the tomb included beautiful clothing, musical instruments, maps and 28 books about medicine, astronomy, and spiritual life were thrown in as well.

Unfortunately, the tombs belonging to Lady Dai’s husband and son (or possibly her husband’s brother) weren’t nearly as exciting. It’s thought that the two noblemen died much earlier than Xin Zhui, whose burial seems to have been better planned.

Medical researchers study a mummy to Dai for

More than 2,000 years after her death, Lady Dai’s autopsy provided as many clues to her life and death as a modern corpse. Scientists were able to do a complete internal examination of her body. Xin Zhui’s stomach contained 138 melon seeds, telling researchers that she probably died in the summer when fruits were plentiful and that she passed just a few hours after eating. Pathologists discovered she’d suffered from a variety of parasitic infections, blood clots, back problems, and liver disease.

But what probably killed Lady Dai was her lavish, over-the-top lifestyle. Scientists believe Xin Zhui died at the approximate age of 50 due to heart disease. She also suffered from a gallstone that was blocking a bile duct and that excruciating pain may have caused her to go into cardiac arrest.

Lady Dai’s Mummification Mystery

Unlike the dried-out mummies found in ancient Egypt and other parts of the world, Lady Dai’s remains were remarkably preserved. After 2,000 years, her skin was still supple, she’d retained her hair and eyelashes, and her limbs and joints were still flexible.  Researchers even found Type A blood in her veins. Her autopsy revealed that all of her organs were intact and still moist.


To this day, scientists are mystified as to how Lady Dai’s body was so well preserved. The warmth and humidity around the Yangtze River Valley would normally not have been an optimal location for preserving bodies. But the Dai family’s tombs had been placed 12 meters inside the hill, which kept the corpses relatively cool.

Her body was also found tightly wrapped in 20 layers of silk, preventing bacteria from causing her remains to decompose, placed in four nesting coffins, sealed with a heavy lacquer. According to Ask a Mortician, the burial vault was then covered with five tons of charcoal and a moisture-blocking clay and then filled with soil. It wasn’t until her corpse was removed from the tomb that it began to decompose.

A mysterious red fluid is discovered, too

Another oddity was that Xin Zhui’s body was found immersed in a mildly acidic reddish fluid. Scientists have debated if the fluid was placed in the coffin to help preserve her body or if, instead, water molecules accumulated in her coffin over the last 2,000 years. The depth of the tomb, along with the constant temperature and humidity most likely played a role in keeping Lady Dai’s corpse fresh, researchers are still debating how her remains were so perfectly preserved, especially since blood and not embalming fluid was found inside her corpse.

Other tombs of wealthy Chinese citizens have also contained a similar mystery fluid, but none of the corpses have fared as well as Lady Dai. Perhaps China’s ancient morticians perfected their technique when she passed. And while experts can’t seem to answer how Xin Zhui’s body was preserved, it’s been reported that a secret fluid was injected into her corpse with the hope of keeping maintained it for future generations.

A look at China’s “Sleeping Beauty”

Hoping to bring history to life, China Criminal Police College Professor Zhao Chengwen was able to use computer technology to create a wax model depicting how Xin Zhui may have looked like at the age of 30. The beautiful figure is currently on display at the Hunan Provincial Museum and while lovely, some scientists are skeptical that the image is a true representation of how Lady Dai looked while alive. Thanks to her indulgent lifestyle, her body showed signs of obesity and chronic illness.

The discovery of the Dai family tomb may not have been impressive to the Chinese government back in the early 1970s, but today the discovery is seen in a new light. “Mawangdui is considered one of the most important findings in Chinese archaeological history,” Willow Weilan Hai Chang of the China Institute Gallery in New York City told the publication Archeology.

One of the most important – and beautiful findings – was a T-shaped six-foot-long banner placed on the innermost coffin. While the exact purpose for the banners is unclear, it’s almost certain that it is associated with the afterlife. Lady Dai’s banner is also remarkable since it’s the earliest known portrait seen in Chinese art and depicts naturalistic scenes combined with symbols.

A banner depicts Lady Dai’s life after death

The banner is comprised of three sections. The upper part of the banner shows the heavens. The middle section depicts hopeful scenes of the afterlife, with Lady Dai wearing a decorated silk robe and walking staff gazing at two servants who have bowed down to present the noblewoman with a platter. Three other servants watch her from behind. To Lady Dai’s left and right, fearsome dragons can be seen swirling up to the heavens. Mourners can be seen directly below as they prepare Lady Dai’s body and tomb. The bottom shows images of the underworld.

Symbolic fish, snakes, goats, toads, and birds are depicted on the colorful silk cloth. Xin Zhui’s death banner is certainly stunning, but more importantly, it gives historians insight into the lives and beliefs of upper-class families living during the Han Dynasty. Lady Dai may have died in pain caused by her excessive lifestyle, but the tomb prepared so lovingly by those who waited upon her was designed to bring her eternal happiness and joy.

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