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Selbitschka, Armin (2018): Sacrifice vs. Sustenance: food as a burial good in late pre-imperial and early imperial chinese tombs and its relation funerary rites. In: Early China, Vol. 41: pp. 179-243
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Abstract

One of the medical manuscripts recovered from Tomb No. 3 at Mawangdui (dated 186 B.C.E.) states that, ''When a person is born there are two things that need not to be learned: the first is to breathe and the second is to eat.'' Of course it is true that all healthy new-born human beings possess the reflexes to breathe and eat. Yet, the implications of death should have been just as obvious to the ancient Chinese. Once the human brain ceases to function, there is no longer a biological need for oxygen and nourishment. Nevertheless, a large number of people in late pre-imperial and early imperial China insisted on burying food and drink with the dead. Most modem commentators take the deposition of food and drink as burial goods to be a rather trite phenomenon that warrants little reflection. To their minds both kinds of deposits were either intended to sustain the spirit of the deceased in the hereafter or simply a sacrifice to the spirit of the deceased. Yet, a closer look at the archaeological evidence suggests otherwise. By tracking the exact location of food and drink containers in late pre-imperial and early imperial tombs and by comprehensively analyzing inscriptions on such vessels in addition to finds of actual food, the article demonstrates that reality was more complicated than this simple either/or dichotomy. Some tombs indicate that the idea of continued sustenance coincided with occasional sacrifices. Moreover, this article will introduce evidence of a third kind of sacrifice that, so far, has gone unnoticed by scholarship. Such data confirms that sacrifices to spirits other than the one of the deceased sometimes were also part of funerary rituals. By paying close attention to food and drink as burial goods the article will put forth a more nuanced understanding of early Chinese burial practices and associated notions of the afterlife.