Lady Dai's preserved body.

Ancient China: Medicine, Philosophy, and Archeology

Early Chinese History

Humans were able to thrive in parts of China starting around 7500 BCE. Temperatures began to rise after the Ice Age, thus rainfall increased. These conditions helped the early people of China to cultivate crops. They mainly grew maize, millet, rice, and wheat. The diet was also supplemented with hunting and gathering. The people living in China at this time came from many cultures. To distinguish different cultures, archeologists look at differences in tool design, art, and pottery. Some of the cultures were the Xinle, the Majiabang, and the Daxi.

The Longshan culture developed between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. What sets this culture apart from the previous is the presence of social stratification. Burials containing prestigious goods provide evidence of this. The nobles of the Longshan culture had their own territories of influence.

Developing a Writing System

The Chinese writing system developed slowly over time. Early evidence of writing can be seen in pottery shards from 4773 BCE. These shards belong to burial urns, and they are marked with symbolic lines. Archeologists have recognized symbols on Yangshao culture pottery that were used in later periods as well. The pottery dates to 4682 BCE. The later Shang culture were the first to make symbols with firmly defined meanings in the area. They used the writing system for ritual and divination. However, the Shang writing system gave one symbol only one meaning. This made writing difficult to learn. Later periods created compound characters to give existing symbols more meanings.

Pottery shard with ancient Chinese text.


Confucius began to read ancient texts when he was fifteen. By the age of 50, Confucius was a respected philosopher. The Analects is a collection of Confucius’ sayings and wisdom. He believed that everyone should behave according to their social rank. He thought that doing this would provide stability and harmony. Confucius did not believe in any gods, or that the human soul lives on after death. He died in 479 CE, never accomplishing his goal of obtaining an important government position.

The Analects

Confucius’ students compiled the Analects shortly after the death of the philosopher. The book explains the natural hierarchy that Confucius believed in. The Analects covers three types of hierarchical relationships: those between ruler and servant, those between brothers, and those between spouses. Furthermore, the hierarchy between ruler and servant is applicable to the political structure of China.

At the top of the social ladder was the emperor, and his closest advisors, family, and nobles were underneath him. The hierarchy of brothers details that the father is the head of the house, and the eldest brother assumes this role after the father’s death. This means the eldest brother inherited all the wealth, but also all the responsibility. The Analects state that women are not as valuable as men, thus they must submit to their fathers and husbands. Additionally, after the death of her husband, a women must respect her eldest son the same way. 

Over all, the Analects stress benevolence. People should be kind and morally sound. This idea was emphasized because China was often at war during Confucius’ life. He desired a more peaceful governing system and believed this could be accomplished through strict social roles.

Chinese Porcelain

When one thinks of ancient China, beautiful porcelain often comes to mind.  Porcelain was first developed in China during the Late Northern dynasty (386 – 581 CE). Porcelain production was prosperous in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), but the industry struggled in the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368 CE). The pottery styles popular during these periods are Ding and Cizhou. Ding porcelain is very thin and a pure white color. It was very prestigious. Elite individuals favored Ding porcelain. Cizhou porcelain was less exquisite, thus it was reserved for the common people. The kilns the Chinese people used to make white porcelain are named the Xing kiln, Ding kiln and Jingxing kiln. These kilns are located in northern China and were used during the Song dynasty.

A lot of ancient Chinese porcelain survives today. Archeologists mostly find shards, but one can see intact pieces in museums. To date the porcelain, archeologists look at the design and shape of the piece. Different styles of porcelain represent the different dynasties they were made in. This dating method is not super accurate, however. A more sound method of dating is to examine the trace elements in the glaze, but this is expensive. Elements in the glaze can also reveal where the piece was fired. Testing what raw materials are in the porcelain can also show the dynasty it was made in, as different methods developed over time.

Porcelain set from the Ming dynasty.
Credit: The British Museum

Ancient Chinese Medical Beliefs

The Traditional Chinese view of disease sees balance as the root of health. To be healthy, one must practice moderation. The Yin and Yang must be in tune. The people of ancient China believed that one’s actions caused disease, especially gluttony and overindulgence. They also thought aging was a type of illness. Traditional Chinese medicine categorizes imbalance as hot, cold, damp, or dry. These states describe a variety of different conditions, environments, and symptoms. Hot or cold conditions can cause sweating and fever. Cold environments can also cause chills.

The Huangdi Neijing, an ancient Chinese medical text, describes dry symptoms in the passage,“Skin becomes withered, the finger and toe nails wither and decay. Blood then coagulates within the flesh…”. I believe necrosis is the cause of the dry symptoms. Necrosis is a condition where the flesh of the body dies, turns black, and falls off. Wind is another cause of illness in ancient Chinese medicine. Many believed bad air was the cause of illness, especially lung diseases. This is similar to the miasma theory that was popular in medieval Europe.

Capping Ceremony

The capping ceremony is an ancient Chinese ritual. The ceremony represents the transition from childhood to manhood. The capping ceremony was a private affair, thus it was performed at home. The father or eldest brother of the boy would organize the event. The day of the ritual, and who would perform the ceremony was chosen through divination. A boy would go through the ceremony some time between the ages of twelve and fifteen. The ritual must be completed before one becomes a father also. Capping solidified social roles, as it signified one’s duties as a man. Women went through a similar ritual as men. This ceremony was called hair-pinning. This took place when the girl became engaged, or at the age of twenty.

Lady Dai

In 1971, workers doing construction at a hospital dug into an ancient Chinese tomb. Archeologists began to excavate the site in 1972. They were amazed to find the remarkably well-preserved remains of Lady Dai. She lived during second century BCE, and was the wife of Li Cang. Li Cang was a marquis of Dai during his lifetime. The tomb of Lady Dai was stocked with lavish goods. In fact, her tomb contained the most complete set of ancient Chinese lacquerware ever found. Her tomb was also full of silk, musical instruments, and food. Specific items include storage containers for cosmetics, an embroidered silk gown, vessels for wine, and figurines of servants. Lady Dai clearly intended to have a luxurious afterlife.

Lady Dai’s skin is still full and colorful, and her limbs are flexible. Her hair has survived, and her autopsy showed that her organs are also preserved. Her brain is also intact, but has noticeably shrunk. The preservation of Lady Dai deteriorated shortly after she was removed from her tomb, however. This is because she was exposed to air. Before her removal, her skin was less shriveled and had more color. Lady Dai is so well-preserved because of the cool climate of her tomb, and the fact she was tightly wrapped in silk and linen.

Lady Dai’s plump face reveals she ate in excess, which she was able to do because of her social standing. Her overindulgence led to diabetes, high blood pressure, and liver disease. Scientists recovered 138 melon seeds from her stomach. From the seeds, they were able to deduce she died in summer, as this is when the fruit is in season. Lady Dai died in her fifties. Researchers believe that pain from gallstones spurred on a heart attack, leading to her death. 

Lady Dai's preserved body.

Maintaining Power in Ancient China

Chinese emperors often killed those who threatened their power. These people were usually members of their family or close advisors. This practice is not exclusive to ancient China, however, as leaders have killed powerful political rivals throughout all of history. One notable example of a leader killing rivals comes from the life of Emperor Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty. He had a high-ranking general named Peng Yue ground into mincemeat and fed to the man’s fellow soldiers. To control the officials he did not kill, Liu Bang made sure to place them in regions closest to his influence. It is important to note that eliminating one’s power does not always require violence, and the case of Liu Bang shows that both approaches were used in ancient China. Demotion and stripping of titles were other nonviolent ways to limit power.

Ancient China’s Obsession with Immortality

The people of ancient China believed in the existence of an elixir with the power to provide immortality. Emperor Qin devoted himself to acquiring this mixture. He sent an alchemist named Xu Fu to search for three holy mountains, as Qin believed the gods atop the mountains would part with the elixir. Unfortunately, Xu Fu never returned to China. Emperor Qin was not the only person who wished to be immortal, however. Later emperors, nobles, and common people all vied for the elixir of life.

Nobles often consumed a brew containing mercury sulphide, arsenic sulphide, and other harmful chemicals. While they thought this mixture would increase their lifespan, it actually significantly lowered it. The poisoning caused dry, itchy, and hot skin. The symptoms were seen as signs the elixir was working, thus consumption was increased. The pain from their dry skin made it extremely uncomfortable for many nobles to bathe and wear tight clothing. Common people developed numerous medicinal wines and diets, infusing them with herbs. Many of these drinks and foods are still popular cures today.

Image of Emperor Qin
Emperor Qin Shi Huang

Traditional Chinese Food

The diet of ancient Chinese people contained a lot of soy, rice, and salted vegetables. For protein, they also ate poultry, seafood, and eggs. Salted vegetables often accompanied meat. They were such a staple of the diet because they could be eaten year-round. This is because the salt preserved the vegetables. The ancient Chinese made numerous food products from soy. Most notably, soy sauce and tofu are soy products. Tofu is very nutritious and is useful in many dishes. Tofu is often used as a meat or cheese substitute.

Rice was the most important food in ancient China, and still is to this day. In fact, the diet of Chinese people today is eighty to ninety percent rice. Cooked rice was often served with meat or vegetables. Fish was also a staple of the Chinese diet. Seafood was eaten raw, salted, fermented, or dried. Poultry was a delicacy in ancient China, and it was also believed to provide positive health benefits. Chicken soup with herbs is still given to sick people today. Women also still eat chicken cooked in sesame oil, rice wine, and ginger root after giving birth.

Traditional Chinese Music

Archeological evidence of musical instruments in China dates to 3000 BCE. Written records also provide insight into the music played during ceremonies and at the emperor’s court. The ancient Chinese had eight classifications of instruments. This system was called ba yin, and related to the material of the instrument. The eight groups were stone, earth, bamboo, metal, skin, silk, wood, and gourd. Popular instruments include chimes, bronze bells, and stringed instruments like the guqin.

Picture of a guqin.


China has a rich history of food, medicine, philosophy, and culture. This culture is preserved through ancient texts, as the ancient Chinese developed a writing system. Many influential people came from ancient China, such as Emperor Qin and Confucius. Confucius spread ideals on social behavior that still impact Chinese culture today. China also has a rich history of traditional food and medicine, and they are deeply intertwined. Many traditional cures involve special drinks and diets. These methods can be dangerous, however. This can be seen through the poisonous elixir that nobles drank in the hopes of prolonging their lives. One of the most famous archeological finds in China is Lady Dai. Her remarkable preservation provides great insight into the lives of ancient Chinese nobles. This goes to show that archeology is immensely important, even when written records are present.

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