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January 20, 2019

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Lay me down in a suit of jade

MADE of 4,248 pieces of jade, a 1.74-meter-long suit is one of the national treasures exhibited at the Xuzhou Museum in Jiangsu Province.

Apart from this one, there are two more jade suits which were both unearthed in Hebei Province. One was found in the tomb of Liu Sheng — Prince Jing of Zhongshan — of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 8), in Mancheng County, with 2,498 plates.

The other consists of 1,203 pieces of jade and belonged to Liu Xiu — Prince Huai of Zhongshan — of the Western Han Dynasty, and was excavated in Ding County.

Of the jade suits that have been found so far, the one found in Xuzhou is the oldest and has the largest number of pieces of jade. Varying from square to rectangular, crescent-shaped and triangular, the jade was mined in Hetian in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, one of the most famous jade-producing areas in China.

Only 1 millimeter thick, the pieces vary in size, from 1 to 9 square centimeters.

From head to toe, the jade suit covers the whole body.

The thousands of plates are joined together with gold threads. The total weight of the wire is 1,576 grams.

The finding of the national treasure is attributed to an elderly man named Wang Kai, curator of the Xuzhou Museum of the Western Han Terracotta Warriors.

Since 1986, Wang often visited a 60- meter-high hill east of Xuzhou. The hill looks like a crouching lion, so the locals call it “Lion Mountain.”

Whenever villagers mentioned finding caves, Wang would rush to the site and used a Luoyang shovel, one of the most important tools in Chinese archeology, to excavate land.

What made him so persistent was a Terracotta Warriors pit found there in 1984. The experts speculated that there might be a royal tomb in the area.

Xuzhou, known as Pengcheng in ancient times, was a place of great military importance. Countless wars took place there.

In 205 BC, the historic Battle of Pengcheng between the kingdoms of the Chu and Han, led by Xiang Yu and Liu Bang respectively, broke out here.

Liu Bang, one of the few dynasty founders born to a peasant family, established the Han Dynasty in 202 BC. He conferred the title “Prince of Chu” on his younger brother Liu Jiao whose seat was Pengcheng.

After years of searching, Wang heard the news of a cellar used to store sweet potato.

Several meters deep, the cellar was unusual because the soil layer there was thin, and normally such cellars are only half a meter deep.

Excited, Wang organized a group of archeologists to excavate the site immediately. As expected, they found the exterior walls of a tomb after digging for a further 3 meters.

At midnight, a young archeologist named Qiu Yongsheng entered the tomb alone. Frustratingly, there were many signs indicating that the grave might have been robbed in ancient times.

Excavating in the dark, Qiu suddenly found a tiny piece of jade. One, two, three and more. A bold idea occurred to his mind: It might be a jade burial suit, which was verified later.

According to the historical documents, around 100 years after the tomb was built, several robbers sneaked into the tomb and stole a large number of treasures like gold and silver wares.

Jade, as a status symbol for the royal family, hadn’t been circulated in the market at that time. Besides, regarding the jade suit as a burial object, the grave robbers dared not violate the taboo and thus abandoned it. But they took away the gold wire.

Due to the lack of physical evidence, the identity of the occupant of the tomb hasn’t been confirmed. Depending on the time it was made, experts mainly have two theories.

One is that the occupant could be Liu Yingke, son of Liu Jiao and nephew of Liu Bang. Succeeding as Prince of Chu in 178 BC, Liu Yingke died of a sudden illness four years later.

Many experts disagree with the theory as they think that four years is too short to complete a single suit.

The production process was labor-intensive.

It is estimated to require hundreds of craftsmen and more than 10 years to polish the jade plates.

Another version is that the occupant could be Liu Wu, son of Liu Yingke, who inherited the title in 174 BC.

Despite the objections of his prime minister and tutor, Liu Wu joined the Rebellion of the Seven States to resist Emperor Jing of Han and his attempt to further centralize the government.

For this reason, some experts don’t believe that the rebel was allowed to own the jade suit which was a symbol of nobility.

But due to its extremely high cost and sophisticated craftsmanship, Cao Pi, the first emperor of the state of Wei in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280), banned the making of jade suits.

It took the experts of Xuzhou Museum almost two years to restore the jade burial suit now on display there.


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