I first learned of the Mawangdui tombs in November 1999, at a special exhibit at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. Seeing objects of the Li family’s daily life and then staring at a model of Lady Dai “sleeping” created for me an irresistible connection to her. I was gripped by the vivid awareness that Lady Dai had been an actual person who had combed her hair, suffered illnesses, and enjoyed good food and music.
My Desire to learn more about the Li family and their world led me to track down materials of all kinds on Mawangdui and on life in the early Han dynasty. I prowled university libraries for articles, haunted bookstores in American and Asian cities, scoured websites, and was spellbound by videos. Every source’s bibliography launched a search to track down its sources.
In 2002 I traveled to the city of Changsha to see the tomb site, as well as Lady Dai and the artifacts in the Hunan Provincial Museum. Seeing the full range of artifacts impressed upon me so many new details—the astounding preservation of the two-thousand-year-old food, the glamour of the silk clothes, the massiveness of the burial chamber timbers. Seeing Lady Dai’s actual body was mesmerizing.
The next year I published an article, “Silk Treasures of Mawangdui,” in Dig magazine. But writing one article wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity; I wanted to keep exploring by writing a book about the tombs.
Pieces of information about Mawangdui lay scattered about my mind like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. How could I fit them together into a book? Finally I recognized that the Mawangdui tombs are like a time capsule: every artifact reveals something about life in the early Han dynasty. Each artifact tells a story—what it meant to the mourners who buried it, how it expresses the artisans’ knowledge and skills, and what it was like to live in that time and place. Within this framework I could not only describe the Mawangdui artifacts but also explore the history and culture of the early Han dynasty.
This expedition has lasted fourteen years so far, yet my fascination with Mawangdui and Lady Dai is as intense as ever. Next? I would love to go back to Changsha to see the artifacts and tomb site again, and to silently thank Lady Dai and her family for inspiring my marvelous journey through time.
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