Opulent Clothing Unearthed in Ming Dynasty Tomb

A dress found within the tomb, elaborately decorated.
Both of the coffins within a husband-and-wife's tomb found in China contained fine clothing. This gown, which was found in the husband’s coffin, is elaborately decorated. (Image credit: Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics)

Archaeologists in China have unearthed a husband-and-wife tomb dating to the Ming Dynasty that contains extraordinarily well-preserved clothing decorated with elaborate designs.

The 500-year-old tomb contained a wooden coffin for the husband and another for his wife. The two coffins lay side by side within an outer coffin, which in turn was covered by a layer of slurry (a mix of lime and sticky rice soup). Although archaeologists found only a few bones in the coffins, the clothing was finely preserved.

The woman's coffin had a banner saying that she was "Lady Xu, deceased mother of the Wang family of the Ming Dynasty." Her coffin contains an undershirt with patches that show a detailed image of a Kylin, a mythical creature with the head of a dragon, a scaly body and bushy tale. The Kylin is shown amidst clouds, rocks and sea water. [Photos: Ornate Clothing from the Ming Dynasty Unearthed in China]

Several skirts were found in the woman's coffin, including one with a gold-thread pattern that was about 35 inches (89 centimeters) long. "The fabric is woven with flowers, insects and miscellaneous treasure patterns," the researchers from Taizhou Municipal Museum wrote in their article recently published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics. "The train of the skirt is woven in a full circle pattern of gold thread."  

Even the woman's footwear was finely decorated. "The shoe uppers are made of plain silk, and the toes are embroidered with patterns of flowers, ancient coins, square knots and chime stones," the researchers wrote, adding that the heels "are woven with floral and miscellaneous treasure patterns."

Well-sealed containers explain the good condition of the finds, researchers said. "The high level of preservation of the Ming Dynasty costumes has been attributed to the slurry layer that encloses the coffins and forms a seal," the researchers wrote.

The tomb was discovered in the Sensen Village section of Taizhou City, on the coast of the East China Sea, and was excavated in July 2008.

The date of the tomb is uncertain. Based on the design and artifacts, archaeologists believe that the tomb was built around the time of the Jiajing emperor, who reigned from 1521 to 1567.

The Husband's Style

The woman's husband was also interred with fine clothing. He had several gowns, including one with highly intricate patterns: "The fabric is woven with a lotus, peony, plum and chrysanthemum flowery pattern, interspersed with miscellaneous treasure patterns, such as coin, fire beads, horns, squares, banana leaves, ruyi scepter, silver bullion and chime stones," the researchers wrote.

The man had a pillow sheet in two pieces, with writing that says "early fly to Heaven" and "to be born in the next life in the Western World."

The researchers didn't speculate on the couple's religion, but the phrase "western world" could be a reference to Buddhist beliefs. In the Pure Land school of Mahayana Buddhism there is said to be a paradise, also called Sukhavati, in the far west. It can be entered by invoking the name of the Amitābha Buddha. 

Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were all practiced in China during the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there were also a small number of Christian missionaries from Europe in China. 

A land both prosperous and troubled

China was a prosperous place during the Ming Dynasty. Under Ming rulers, the Forbidden City was constructed, the Great Wall was rebuilt and an admiral named Zheng He led a fleet that ventured into the Indian Ocean, reaching the east coast of Africa.

"It was a world in which commodities were produced, circulated and consumed in a variety and on a scale that no culture had yet experienced," wrote Timothy Brook, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, in his book "The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties" (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

"A poor farmer might be able to afford one major purchase a year, while a prince of the Zhu family might have warehouses of goods exceeding any notion of need," Brook wrote.

But the empire was facing a number of challenges including intruders at its northern border, pirates threatening the coast, and a growing number of European traders and missionaries trying to enter the country.

In the 1630s, poor weather conditions compounded these problems, leading to crop failures and famine, Brook wrote.  People from the north invaded; the imperial treasury became depleted, and ultimately there was rebellion.

The last Ming ruler committed suicide in 1644, and a new group of rulers from Manchuria, known as the Qing, took control of the country. The Qing Dynasty ruled China until 1912, when the last emperor of China abdicated his rule.

The researchers originally published their findings in Chinese, in the journal Wenwu. Their article was translated into English and published in Chinese Cultural Relics, a new journal that translates Chinese articles from Wenwu and publishes them in English. The Ming Dynasty clothing discovery was included in the new journal's inaugural issue. 

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Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.