Bronze Dildos And Jade Butt Plugs Show Life And Death In Ancient China

Bronze phallus, unearthed from Lianying site, Jiangsu. Western Han period, 2nd century BCE. © Yizheng Museum.

Life during ancient China's Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) appears to have constantly swayed between the strangely familiar and the oddly eccentric, as these newly revealed artifacts show.

The discoveries were unearthed in a series of excavations between 1995 and 2011, around the Jiangsu province, near present-day Shanghai, that explored the tombs of 2000-year-old aristocrats, wealthy elites, and royalty. Among their loot was a wealth of art and objects detailing their everyday existence, from vessels and ceramics, urinals and loofahs, to bronze dildos and jade butt plugs.

Jade was a revered material at the time. Virtually priceless in its value, its purity and beauty were believed to ward off spiritual and bodily decay. The material was used to create "death-suits" for the bodies of the super-rich, made up of hundreds of tiles sewn together with golden threads. Embalmers also used butt plugs made of the rare stone to prevent “the loss of vital essences” from the body.

“The jade plugs are used to seal the body and keep in vital essences that can leak out during life and death," exhibition curator Fan Zhang explained in an emailed statement to IFLScience. "Basically, it is to maintain the chi. The most important orifice was the mouth, and we have a beautiful example of a mouth seal in the shape of a cicada in the exhibition."

Bronze Phallus, unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, 2nd century. Photograph © Yizheng Museum

Outside of the realm of death, the elite of the Han dynasty were far from stuffy old aristocrats, either. The excavations also revealed two hollow bronze phallus-shaped objects that are believed to have been worn and used during sex to enhance the experience. They also found a trove of wine vessels, giving a further indication that indulgence in the body’s desires and pleasure often played a central role in this highly spiritual culture.

"Useable bronze dildos are still relatively rare finds, though far from unheard of, and they are occasionally found in elite tombs," Zhang added. "They were all definitely made for use, and we can speculate based on their various bases how they were worn. They’re all bespoke, and the ones we have here might have been laced into place with leather or silk thongs, though it’s not clear if they were designed for men or women — they’re not heavy at all — though the phallus without the ring form was likely for a man since it was found in a king’s tomb."

These artifacts had been lying untouched for some 2,000 years, but now the discoveries will go on display for the first time outside of China in the upcoming "Tomb Treasures" exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which will run from February 17 until May 28, 2017. 

The jade body suit. Yizheng Museum. Photograph © Yizheng Museum.

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