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Funeral Banner of Lady Dai

Western Han dynasty, 168 B.C.
Hunan Provincial Museum, Changsha
see also: line drawing of the silk banner

Lady Dai's painted silk banner is a precious window into Han-dynasty legends and funeral practice; it was carried in front of the funeral procession, then draped upon her coffin. Banners like this were employed to attract the spirit of the deceased to its tomb, where it could be properly started on its afterlife journey instead of remaining on earth to bother the living.

The banner's design1 is divided vertically into Yin (left), Mixture (center), and Yang (right); and horizontally into the three realms of Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld. The banner describes Lady Dai's journey to heaven; it is decorated with grave goods, spirits, legends, and symbols of immortality associated with Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West.

Heaven

  • Left side (yin): the crescent moon with Toad and Jade Rabbit; Chang'e just below the crescent; and a dragon2 rampant above the clouds.
  • Center top, Xiwangmu with human body and dragon tail3, flanked by five cranes; below, two more cranes partake from a Cup of Immortality that is supported on a tasseled bell and pulled aloft by two horseriders. Just below, a pair of felines4 and a pair of seated officials are guarding the heavenly gates.
  • Right side (yang): the Sun Crow, a dragon, and the Ten Suns.

    Earth: Farewell scene

  • Slouching on a marble or limestone platform, Lady Dai (or more properly, her hun soul) begins her journey to heaven. She carries her long cane (its original was found in her tomb), and is accompanied by mourner-attendants who bid her farewell and start her off upon her journey.
  • A canopy far above her head, upon which rests a pair of phoenixes, is supported by an owl. The entrance to the platform is flanked by another pair of guardian felines4. The sides of the design are filled by the heads of two large dragons whose bodies extend all the way down to the bottom of the banner.

    Earth: Boundary between life and afterlife

  • Separating the farewell (above) and feasting (below) scenes, the dragons' bodies are knotted through a bi. In their passage through the bi, the body of each dragon crosses to the opposite side from which it started, i.e., exchanging yin and yang.

    Earth: Lady Dai's funeral feast

  • An elaborate tassel, that spreads across the whole width of the banner, is suspended from the bi. A pair of birds, with human heads, perches above its spreading sides.
  • The space below the tassel is the locus of Lady Dai's funeral feast with her coffin, bronze vessels for food and drink, celebrants, grave goods5, etc. Above the feast there is an angled chime stone that is suspended, like the large tassel, from the central bi.

    Underworld6

  • A kneeling telamon holds up the floor of the earth. He is flanked by dragon-turtles on which small birds are perched7.
  • Below the telemon are a pair of intertwined fish with long bodies that are flanked by rampant tomb guardians.
  • The underworld scene is framed on either side by the tails of those dragons whose heads appeared first in the upper scene of the Farewell, thus uniting the foundation of reality with its earthly extensions.

    To summarize, Lady Dai's banner situates her journey to heaven in a rich context of funeral objects, customs, and legends. Its dynamic sense of left-right symmetry, and especially the paired dragon bodies that cross through the center of the bi, expresses the richness of yin/yang duality in early Chinese thought.


  • 1A 3x3 ("Tic-Tac-Toe") organization of visual space that is found, as well, in other ancient cultures. The actual contents of the space are, of course, culture-dependent.
    2Often, although not here, the dragon is a prototypical yin animal and symbol of the emperor. On this banner, though, it operates as a powerful creature and conduit of Daoist energy.
    3Snake or dragon tails symbolize an Immortal.
    4These are guardian animals; probably leopards, possibly tianlu, although the latter are usually described as winged lions. The felines who guard the tomb are horizontal, while the felines who guard the Heavenly Gates are vertical - a deft artistic touch.
    5 Such precious objects as bi, bells, jade, chimes, etc. are found in quantity in early Chinese burials.
    6In China, the underworld has three connotations. The first is cosmological, as the foundation of all that exists. The second is the world of the deceased in their tombs, where they can enjoy feasting and entertainment in the afterlife. The third, which of course does not apply to Lady Dai, is the Hell Realm with its fierce gods and punishments.
    7The perching bird is a motif from the natural world that is also found on many bronzes.