Excavating One Man’s Lifeworlds in Early China

Jue Guo

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

Tombs are often considered as places of death and portals to the afterlife, and admittedly, they can function as such. However, viewing tombs solely from this perspective effectively overlooks that tombs are, as often, not only products of the living, but also designed to display the “lived” aspects of the dead. This talk focuses on such a tomb, closed in 316 B.C.E., from southern China, then the heartland of a mighty kingdom of Chu. The intact tomb, archaeologically designated as Baoshan Tomb 2, was discovered during a railway construction and subsequently scientifically excavated in 1987. The magnificent scale of the tomb construction, the over 1,500 pieces of exquisite buried objects, and most importantly, three distinctive groups of manuscripts, written on bamboo slips, provide us an unprecedented opportunity to look into the lifeworlds of the tomb occupant, a man named Shao Tuo and identified as the Minister on the Left in charge of legal affairs of the fourth-century B.C.E. Chu Kingdom. Arguably the second highest-ranking minister to the king during his lifetime, Shao Tuo and his life are nowhere to be found in the transmitted history. It is indeed his tomb and what was included in his burial, ironically, that bring his forgotten lifeworlds back to life.

Jue Guo teaches at Barnard College and co-chairs the Columbia Early China Seminar.  She is a specialist of Early and Medieval China (i.e., 5th century B.C.E.-5th century C.E.), with a focus on material culture, everyday life, and ritual practices. In her research, she emphasizes an integrated approach to the past societies and lives and makes extensive use of archaeologically excavated objects and manuscripts, along with the transmitted history. She has written on divination and spirits, talismanic objects, death rituals, and concepts of the dead in Early and Medieval China. Her broader interests include microhistory, object biographies, and theories and methods in religious studies, archaeology of religion, and cultural anthropology. During her time as a Visiting Research Scholar at ISAW, she is working on completing her book manuscript, tentatively titled A Life on Display: Reconstructing the Worlds of a Chu Official in Early China.

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