Dou Wan, an enigma wrapped in a shroud

By Zhao Xu ( China Daily ) Updated: 2017-10-21 07:52:59

Dou Wan, an enigma wrapped in a shroud

Jade shroud sewn with gold wires, jade burial pillow with gilt bronze frame, all for Dou Wan. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The burial garb of a regal woman who left barely a trace has crowds gasping

For one who was given such an ostentatious sendoff when she died, the most surprising thing about Dou Wan is just how much about her is shrouded in mystery. In fact we know neither when exactly she was born nor when she died, and next to nothing about what she did between those two unknown dates, including the children she probably had. Yet this woman, who married a vassal king during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), was given a burial grand enough to ensure she could never be forgotten.

The best-known item that this funereal pomp produced is what is known today as the jin lv yu yi, or jade outfit sewn up with golden thread. Made up of more than 2,000 rectangle jade pieces and gold threads weighing 700 grams, this unbelievable garment of death encased Dou's largely rotted body when her tomb was excavated, soon after the accidental discovery of that of her husband, in 1968. As the archaeologists carefully dug, the jade garment was revealed and beckoned people with a faint but distinct shimmer.

It is now on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing in a blockbuster exhibition focusing on a period of history widely regarded today as having laid the foundations for Chinese civilization. At least half of the 300 exhibits on display deserve to be called national treasures, but standing head and shoulders above them all is the shroud, as it is called in the exhibition catalog, which has visitors elbowing one another out of the way for a better view that leaves many gasping.

The fact that the owner of the shroud was a female is not directly evident. True to its name, it was so bulky that more than 2,000 years ago when the fragile body of Dou was laid to rest in it, it must have amply wrapped her up.

However, all this splendor fits perfectly with the enigma that is Dou, concealing as much as it reveals. The woman had wealth and status, but what else? "For answers, we have to look closely at other items, items that came to light with the shroud," says Wu Zhen, of the Hebei Provincial Museum where the garment is normally held.

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