Luke Waring

Assistant Professor, Department of Asian Studies, University of Texas at Austin
Faculty Adviser: Martin Kern

Writing and Materiality in the Three Han Dynasty Tombs at Mawangdui


This dissertation is a study of the different kinds of writing excavated in the 1970s from the three Western Han dynasty (202 BCE-9 CE) tombs at Mawangdui 馬王堆, including manuscripts on silk, wood, and bamboo, and inscriptions in different media. I examine the ways these texts were produced, performed, used, viewed, and buried in order to determine the different roles writing played in the lives and afterlives of three members of one noble family, and those connected to them, in the second century BCE. In the process, I show that in addition to recording or communicating important knowledge or information, written texts were also incorporated into a diverse array of artifacts and integrated into a wide variety of cultural practices, and that writing in early Western Han thus ought to be understood as part of early Chinese material and visual culture. The Introduction provides an overview of the Mawangdui tombs and their contents, including the manuscripts and texts that were found there, as well as recent scholarship on writing, literacy, and material culture. Chapter 1 is concerned with the different ways the Mawangdui manuscripts and inscriptions were produced. Chapter 2 explores how some of the manuscripts were used in ritual performance and display. Chapter 3 describes the use of written texts as amulets and talismans. Chapter 4 details the visual effects of certain kinds of manuscripts. And Chapter 5 speculates about the ways the manuscripts were used and stored above ground, and why they were deposited in the tomb. Finally, my Conclusion summarizes my findings, and the Appendix provides a table containing information about the material and codicological features of the Mawangdui manuscripts and related artifacts.