Ancient Burial Suits

by M-Gillies
A jade burial suit

A jade burial suit found in the tomb of Liu Sheng consists of 2,498 jade plates of different sizes that are joined with gold threads of over 1,000 grams. It was completed by more than 100 craftsmen in over two years.

Popular for 400 years before Cao Pi of the Three-Kingdoms Period imposed a ban on such suits, Chinese aristocrats and emperors of the Han Dynasty were often buried in what were known as jade caskets, or jade burial suits.

Considered top class burial suits in ancient times, jade was believed to be the essence of mountains, carrying in them the power to keep a body from decaying. While the origins of these suits dated as far back as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, it was long believed that these suits were things of myths and legends.

It was only in 1968, that these rare treasures were unearthed and since then, there have been a total of 18 tombs with jade burial suits of the Western Han Dynasty discovered in China, with only eight tombs holding gold thread sewn suits.

Because of the strict requirements on technique, making a jade burial suit was no easy job. It was important that the shape of the suit was the same as the human body being covered, and in order to do this, thousands of small jade pieces of certain shapes and sizes had to be transported from far-away places. When the jade pieces were received, they were polished and drilled, with the shapes and sizes of the holes undergoing special scrutiny before specially made gold, silver, or copper threads were used to join the pieces together.

Once the suits were finished, depending on the type of thread used in them, the suit would be called, “gold thread sewn jade burial suit,”, “silver thread sewn jade burial suit” or “copper thread sewn jade burial suit”.

In the official Chinese historical text known as the History of the Later Han, it was described that the thread used was dependent on the status of the person buried. Meaning that the jade suits of emperors used gold thread; princes, princesses, dukes and marquises used silver; and sons or daughters of those who got silver threaded suits received copper thread.

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