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How death taboo hold back Chinese archaeology

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A line in the Confucian classical text the “Doctrine of the Mean” reads, “Serve the dead as though they were alive.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a phrase that better captures traditional Chinese attitudes toward the deceased. Like the ancient Egyptians, people in China have historically built glittering monuments to their dead, lavishing them with funereal offerings and seeking to preserve the corpse as well as possible.

Members of the imperial family and nobility were treated especially well. Often, they were buried alongside vast troves of valuables, most famously the terracotta armies made for Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty who died in the third century B.C., and whose clay warriors are thought to have been made to defend him in the underworld. Later, during the Han Dynasty, aristocrats were sometimes interred wearing jade suits laced with gold — believed to prevent their bodies from decomposing. Instead of preserving their occupants through the ages, however, such suits proved an attractive target for grave robbers, and they were usually stripped bare within a few decades of being buried.



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