One of the most important archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century, the tomb of the Marquise of Dai, who died around the second century BCE and was buried near Changsha in Hunan Province, was filled with the full range of provisions for the afterlife, including food in great variety, wine, and medicine; China's earliest extant paintings on silk; important medical and astronomical texts written on slips of bamboo; textiles, lacquerwares, and musical instruments; and 162 wooden figurines, representing the staff of the Marquise's household. Because the tomb had been sealed airtight, its contents, some of which are shown here, were excellently preserved, even after two thousand years.

The profusion of lacquer dishes and boxes and the almost complete absence of articles of bronze or precious metals reflect both the enormous popularity of lacquerware, which was produced in southern China in the area around Mawangdui, and the decree of the reigning emperor prohibiting the burial of bronze, gold, and silver in tombs.

The Marquise's tomb also contains almost every known type of Han dynasty silk. Plain weaves, patterned weaves, gauzes, and embroidered silks attest to a textile industry of unparalleled technical and aesthetic sophistication. In addition to lengths of fabric, this tomb also yielded about 100 individual items in fabric, including gowns, skirts, shoes, stockings, and mittens; the famous "painted banner" laid over the coffin; shrouds, coverlets, and chamber hangings; and sachet bags filled with aromatic herbs.

Lacquerwares and silks were premium luxury goods, and the amount and quality of those in the Marquise's tomb suggest that the emperor, though he may have succeeded in preventing the diversion of precious metals from this world to the next, could in no way abolish conspicuous consumption in the afterlife.