Document Type



Author's Final Manuscript

Publication Title

Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief



Publication Date



Among the best preserved royal tombs in early China, the tombs of the Zhongshan state (dated to the late fourth to early third centuries bce) in present-day Pingshan county each featured a concealed earthen shaft in the middle of the tomb. Constructed with rammed earth, this gigantic

structure was located above the underground burial chamber, where the deceased’s casket and body were located, and below the freestanding offering hall that housed the deceased’s soul. Although this empty shaft would eventually be buried and become invisible, it was carefully embellished and sometimes even decorated with false architectural elements. What role did this seemingly superfluous “hidden level” play in the tomb and what meaning did it express? Previous scholarship failed to provide a satisfactory answer to these questions due to its blindness to the shaft’s function in the entire architectural space and ritual time. From the hitherto ignored spatial and temporal perspective, this article argues that this prominent ritual structure forms an intermediary space: (1) spatially it links the underground burial chamber (i.e.

body) and the top freestanding offering hall (i.e. soul); (2) temporally it forms a passage that symbolically guides the soul to ascend from the underground realm upward to the high offering hall. In doing so, this article examines not only the shaft itself, but also its relationships to the structures below and above it to reveal its forgotten intermediary function. Four problems are discussed: (1) how the architectural elements in the upper shaft simulated real architecture; (2) how the shaft connected the burial chamber with the offering hall to assume its mediating role between the divorced body and soul; (3) how the shaft was built to facilitate the upward ascension of the deceased’s soul. (4) Finally, this article concludes that the appearance of these shafts indicates a concrete effort to resolve the contradictory notion of posthumous life—life and death at once, which is unexplained in surviving Eastern Zhou texts.