Excavating the Afterlife

The Archaeology of Early Chinese Religion

Guolong Lai

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  • Published: March 2015
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / China; Archaeology
  • Bibliographic information: 320 pp., 95 illus., 14 in color, 1 map, 7 x 10 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

In Excavating the Afterlife, Guolong Lai explores the dialectical relationship between sociopolitical change and mortuary religion from an archaeological perspective. By examining burial structure, grave goods, and religious documents unearthed from groups of well-preserved tombs in southern China, Lai shows that new attitudes toward the dead, resulting from the trauma of violent political struggle and warfare, permanently altered the early Chinese conceptions of this world and the afterlife. The book grounds the important changes in religious beliefs and ritual practices firmly in the sociopolitical transition from the Warring States (ca. 453-221 BCE) to the early empires (3rd century-1st century BCE).

A methodologically sophisticated synthesis of archaeological, art historical, and textual sources, Excavating the Afterlife will be of interest to art historians, archaeologists, and textual scholars of China, as well as to students of comparative religions.

For more information:
Guolong Lai is associate professor of Chinese art and archaeology at the University of Florida and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

"Lai rightly prioritizes the archaeological remains over the textual tradition to uncover how people in the territory of Chu actually treated the dead and how they viewed the spirits, uncovering new insights into early Chinese religion. This is an invaluable contribution to the field."
-Anthony Barbieri-Low, author of Artisans in Early Imperial China

"Lai's explanation of the shift in attitude toward the dead-from a neutral notion of the ancestral spirits to fear of the spirits as unmoored and malevolent entities who need to be guided-is very provocative."
-Amy McNair, author of Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing's Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics

Chronology of Early Chinese Dynasties

1. The Dead Who Would Not Be Ancestors
2. The Transformation of Burial Space
3. The Presence of the Invisible
4. Letters to the Underworld
5. Journey to the Northwest

Glossary of Chinese Characters

"Lai highlights the richness and complexity of the region's archaeological record while demonstrating the nuance that well-considered material culture can add to knowledge of early religion."

"[I]mmensely interesting. . . Excavating the Afterlife should be of interest to Sinologists and researchers of Chinese studies, archaeologists and art historians, scholars and students of comparative religions."
-Zbigniew Wesolowski, Monumenta Serica

"This book provides a very nuanced, detailed, and vivid account of the 'mortuary religion' of southern China from the Warring States to the Han period. . . . A very valuable resource for future studies in this field. . . . The bold but always well-founded stance that Lai takes on these topics combined with the richness of source material and exemplary nature of this approach make this volume a true milestone in the study of early religion in southern China.-"
-Anke Hein, Journal of Chinese Religions

"Lai offers his reader an extraordinary wealth of both facts and interpretations"
-John Lagerwey, Arts Asiatiques