Life and Afterlife in Ancient China

Life and Afterlife in Ancient China


An epic new history of Ancient China told through the prism of a dozen extraordinary tombs

The three millennia up to the establishment of the first imperial Qin dynasty in 221 BC cemented many of the distinctive elements of Chinese civilisation still in place today: an extraordinarily challenging geography and environment, formidable infrastructure, a society based on the strict hierarchy of the family, a shared written script of characters, a cuisine founded on rice and millet, a material culture of ceramics, bronze, silk and jade, and a unique concept of the universe, in which ancestors continue to exist alongside the living. Records of these early achievements, and their diverse and unexpected expressions, often lie not in written history, but in how people marked the end of their lives: their dwellings for the afterlife. Tombs, and the treasures within them, are almost the only artefacts to survive from Ancient China; their scale and sophistication rivals their equivalents in Ancient Egypt.

Jessica Rawson, one of the most eminent Western scholars of China, explores twelve grand tombs - each from a specific historical moment and place - showing how they reveal wider political, dynastic and cultural developments, culminating in the lavish ambition of the First Emperor's monument, guarded by his army of terracotta warriors. Beautifully illustrated and drawing on the latest archaeological discoveries, Life and Afterlife in Ancient China illuminates a constellation of beliefs about life and death very different from our own and provides a remarkable new perspective on one of the oldest civilisations in the world.


  • The story of China is written in the objects buried in its tombs over many millennia, but for most of us they are as hard to read as Chinese characters. Jessica Rawson is the master-interpreter. In a dozen tombs she tells the story of China across thousands of years, pointing out again and again the profound ways in which the Chinese are not like us. If you want to understand China today, start by visiting these twelve tombs in the enlightening company of Jessica Rawson. A dozen tombs - an underground journey to the heart of China.
    Neil MacGregor

About the author

Jessica Rawson

Jessica Rawson, Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology and former Warden of Merton College, Oxford (1994-2010), was made Honorary Professor in the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University in 2019. For over twenty years before moving to Oxford, she worked in the Department of Oriental Antiquities (now the Asia Department) at the British Museum, as Keeper from 1987 to 1994. In 2005-06, she led the group of curators of the China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 exhibition at the Royal Academy, bringing to London magnificent works of art from the Palace Museum in Beijing. For more than forty years, she has visited, researched and lectured in most of China's provinces, including at archaeological sites on both sides of its borders with Mongolia and South Siberia. She was awarded the title of Dame in 2002 and received the Tang Prize in Sinology for 'Giving Voice to Mute Objects' in 2022.
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