I recently read the excavation report on a set of fourth- and early fifth-century tombs found near Dunhuang. Few of them had any of the wall paintings I was interested in, but a good number contained exorcism flasks and tomb deeds, two kinds of document/artifact that I find fascinating for what they imply about the connections (and disconnections) between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Exorcism flasks or douping are ceramic bottles with long handwritten inscriptions on them, found in pairs in the tomb chambers. The inscriptions usually start with the name of the deceased and the date of his or her death. There then follows a formula which seems to describe a kind of ritual performed by the living, often something like “We have placed these flasks, the five grains, and the lead men in the tomb.” The five grains are soybeans, wheat, foxtail millet, common millet, and (depending on who you ask) either rice or hemp seed. They are the ancient staple crops of China, named as such in some of the oldest books that now survive. The lead men are crude humanoid figures cut from sheets of lead, found in many of these tombs as well. Why these three things should have been put into tombs is a mystery; but it’s clear from the inscriptions that, having once put them into the tombs, the living thought the dead should be satisfied. The formula usually ends with some kind of exhortation to the dead never to return to the world of the living. “The living and the dead walk separate paths!” proclaim the inscriptions. It’s not the stuff of which lamentations are made; there are no hopes of holding on to the person who has died. Rather, there seems to be a distinct sense that however beloved the deceased might have been, it was crucial to ensure that the spirit of the recently dead should not hang around the living.
Tomb deeds are another odd genre of artifact: I’ve seen lead ones (with inscriptions carved into sheets of lead) in museums, though the ones at this site were inscribed in ink on big flat tiles. They are essentially deeds of ownership for the land occupied by the tomb, made in the name of the deceased, and valid and defensible in the courts of the underworld. They exhort the deities of land ownership in the afterlife to confirm the deceased in his or her land rights, and to protect such rights from incursion by demons.
These two kinds of artifacts tell us a lot about the way in which the afterlife was imagined in fourth-century Dunhuang. As in later periods, it appears that the afterlife was assumed to be socially and politically parallel to this one - that there would be aristocratic and official ranks, a military hierarchy, and a system of government bureaucracy not unlike that of dynastic China. In some later ghost stories, it’s not uncommon for a deceased soul to arrive in the underworld only to find he has died by clerical error, and must be sent back (hijinks usually ensue, especially if his family is quick to cremate). This seems to be combined with an older idea that the passage to the afterlife is a potentially dangerous one, from which the soul must be protected. One of the oldest poems in Chinese, the famous “Summoning of the Soul” from the Chu ci, is an exhortation to the soul of a recently deceased prince of Chu to return to the tomb prepared for him, and not to wander too far off; it enumerates the dangers of the demons of the four directions in excruciating detail. (The Chu ci have been translated as “Songs of the South,” still pretty widely available if I recall correctly.) Given all the dangers of wandering freely in the spirit world, it would seem crucial to have a refuge to which to return at any time; and given the bureaucratic nature of the underworld, it was apparently important to have clear title to your own tomb in case of a property dispute (if another tomb impinged upon yours?). But also, the world of the dead and the world of the living were properly separate, and spirits were not to go travelling between them at will. This seems to be the message of the douping: We’ve prepared everything properly for you, so be satisfied and remain in your own realm, no matter how much you may want to return.