OBJECT FOCUS

Burial mask of the Princess of Chen, Liao dynasty (907–1125), Excavated from the tomb of the Princess of Chen at Qinglongshang Town in Naiman Banner, Gold, Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute.

Burial mask of the Princess of Chen, Liao dynasty (907–1125), Excavated from the tomb of the Princess of Chen at Qinglongshang Town in Naiman Banner, Gold, Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute.

Behind the Mask of a Teenage Princess

The tomb of the Princess of Chen and her husband, Xiao Shaoju, was discovered by archaeologists from the Inner Mongolia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology at Qinglongshan Town, Inner Mongolia, in 1986. The excavation was an important moment in the study of the Liao dynasty (907–1125). The tomb of the Princess will be reconstructed at the heart of our exhibition Tombs of the Liao Dynasty: Treasures from the Afterlife and will contain a collection of original artefacts excavated from her imperial tomb. The climax of this central display will be the gold burial mask of the Princess of Chen, which will be presented alongside the burial mask of her husband. The burial masks of the Princess of Chen and her husband are First Grade Cultural Relics of China, held by the Inner Mongolia Archaeological Research Institute.

In 1986, deep underground in Qinglongshang Town, Inner Mongolia, archaeologists discovered something that would change our understanding of the history of China and Inner Asia: an untouched imperial Liao-dynasty tomb. This was one of the first Liao tombs ever unearthed which had been left sealed since the Liao period, perfectly preserving the original context and layout. The epitaph within revealed that the tomb dated to 1018 and belonged to the Princess of Chen and her husband, Xiao Shaoju. This discovery was a turning point in the study of the Liao dynasty, bringing to light many hidden secrets about the empire and her people. Sun Jianhua, a member of the excavation team, described it as “one of the most important archaeological discoveries in China in the twentieth century”.

The Princess of Chen was the granddaughter of the fifth Liao emperor Jingzong, who ruled over the Liao dynasty 969–982. She was just seventeen years old when she died. Concealed within her imperial burial tomb was an extraordinary funerary complex containing multiple chambers with detailed murals depicting men, women, horses and cranes adorning the walls - and a large number of Liao-dynasty artefacts. These precious objects have provided a vivid and valuable insight into the ancient nomadic traditions, daily life, blossoming cultural interrelationships, changing rituals and religions and funerary customs of this little-known empire which, at its height, stretched between present day Mongolia, North Korea, Russia and China.

The Princess was found lying on a funerary brick bed alongside her husband. Her body was wrapped in a delicate mesh burial suit woven from silver wire and a pair of extravagantly decorated gilded silver boots shrouded her feet. An intricate silver headdress, embellished with ascending phoenixes and a miniature Daoist figurine was placed upon her head. She was adorned with jewellery made from exotic and rare materials, from gold and Baltic amber to pearls, agate and jade. This was a glittering display of opulence which clearly reflected her imperial status as a Liao Princess. 

One of the most striking archaeological treasures uncovered during the 1986 excavation was the gold burial mask of the Princess of Chen, which was found covering her face. The mask is made from a sheet of gold and is thin and delicate, around half the thickness of a one penny coin. Following Liao tradition, the flesh-and-blood features of the seventeen-year-old are engraved on the mask, including her ears - an unusual addition. This personalised burial mask offers a unique and privileged opportunity to encounter the face of an eleventh-century Liao princess. It is not a stylised painting or modern reproduction, but a three-dimensional, life-sized image crafted by a person who looked upon her true face one thousand years ago, as we are looking upon her mask today. Her expression is one of strength and serenity however looking into her unblinking eyes, a child-like fragility is somehow communicated. One can’t help but wonder how her face would have looked when she was alive? What might her life in the Liao dynasty have been like? Why did she die at such a young age?

There is a graceful simplicity to the mask and yet the great complexity of rendering a living, breathing person’s likeness from a paper-thin sheet of gold using only manual tools is a remarkable feat of workmanship. The mask had to be of the very finest quality for it was to contribute to the preparation of an imperial clan member for the afterlife.

It is thought that the custom of covering the face of the deceased with a mask was a longstanding Liao tradition practiced in the pre-dynastic times of the semi-nomadic founders of the empire: the Khitan. Furthermore, evidence suggests that this custom had existed in Central Asia for thousands of years. The Liao burial masks discovered to date come in many shapes, sizes and materials. The metal used to create a mask reflected the wealth and status of the wearer, with gold being reserved for only the highest ranking of individuals.

Why was the Princess’s face covered for all eternity? What does this tell us about Liao beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife? There are a number of theories: some scholars propose that the spectacular grandeur of imperial Liao tombs and the adornment of the bodies which they encased were closely related to beliefs about the afterlife. Others postulate that burial attire was largely pragmatic, designed to assist protection and preservation of the body. Research is ongoing and Liao tombs continue to be uncovered. With each archaeological discovery made, new secrets about life and death in the Liao dynasty are revealed, old questions are reconsidered and new questions about this extraordinary civilisation emerge. Drawing upon the latest academic research and excavations, our exhibition Tombs of the Liao Dynasty: Treasures from the Afterlife explores these fascinating questions through a collection of more than 110 original artefacts excavated from tombs across Inner Mongolia.

We do not know exactly how much power or influence the Princess of Chen wielded during her seventeen years on Earth. Undoubtedly, and perhaps ironically, the greatest achievement of her short life was her death. The mask created in her image and the multi-chambered tomb in which she was laid to rest has acted as a gateway through the centuries, communicating the story of her people to future generations and securing their legacy in the history of mankind.

COME FACE TO FACE WITH THE PRINCESS OF CHEN IN OUR EXHIBITION TOMBS OF THE LIAO DYNASTY: TREASURES FROM THE AFTERLIFE. TO VIEW THE FULL EXHIBITION BOOK PLEASE CONTACT US AT INFO@NOMADEXHIBITIONS.COM.

 

Bibliography and Further Reading

Jettmar, Karl, Art of the Steppes: The Eurasian Animal Style (Great Britain, 1967).

Jianhua, Sun, ‘The Discovery of and Research on the Tomb of the Princess of Chen and Her Husband, Xiao Shaoju’, in Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907–1125), ed. H. Shen (New York, 2006).

Kuhn, Dieter, ‘An Introduction to Chinese Archaeology of the Liao’, in Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907–1125), ed. H. Shen (New York, 2006).

Mote, F.W., Imperial China: 900–1800 (USA,1999).

Shatzman Steinhardt, Nancy, ‘Liao Archaeology: Tombs and Ideology along the Northern Frontier of China’, Asian Perspectives, 37 (1998), pp.224–244.

Shen, Hsueh-man, Kinoshita, Hiromi and Bunker, Emma C., ‘The Nomadic Heritage’ in Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907–1125), ed. H. Shen (New York, 2006).

Shimada, Masao, ‘A Death Mask of the Liao Period’, Artibus Asiae, 13 (1950), pp.250–253.

Wittfogel, Karl A. and Chia-Sheng, Feng, ‘History of Chinese Society Liao (907–1125)’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 36 (1946), pp.i–xv+1–752.

David Roberts