Artefactually Speaking: Changxin Palace Lamp 长信宫灯

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Lately, I’ve been rather inspired by the stories behind artefacts, and I thought of doing a series which personifies artefacts and use that as a basis to tell their stories. Initially, I thought the lamp would have an interesting story on its own, but I realised that the story of its owners and their relations is far more interesting.

This is the first of the lot, and I’ll do more as I find the time and the right people to do them with.

So to get the ball rolling, the first story is that of the Changxin Palace Lamp–one of the earliest form of exhaust/range hood (抽油烟机) lamp that was created about 2,200 years ago during the Han dynasty.

8cb1cb1349540923105084099058d109b3de4988What’s interesting to me isn’t just its engineering ingenuity (I will come to that at the end), but the idea of reimagining its life journey through history–from its original inspiration till its eventual entombment. With just one artefact, it brought out the story of the first recorded empress and empress dowager in the history of China, her viciousness, and the rise and fall of a family within one generation.

The Muse

The Han dynasty was considered the definitive period in Chinese history which laid the foundation of a significant part of the Chinese identity. It was during this time, that there was a great deal of cultural, technological and scientific advancements. As such every advancement in Science and Technology, I believe, a reduction in manpower wastage was probably one of the top priority. And with a greater emphasis on arts and culture, aesthetics also became the main driver for many of the daily items, especially for rulers.

While the burning of incense for scenting the room and spaces has started way before Han dynasty, it was during this period that it has spread to be part of the daily lives of the average men on the street. The rightmost incense burner is a typical style of incense burner that was made to look like spirit mountains and when the smoke rose, it would look like the view atop a mountain surrounded by mists.

Remember the terracotta soldiers? They were made out of necessity as much as they were a mark of progress. Human sacrifices were the norm for rulers in ancient societies more than 3000 years ago, until the Warring State which lasted more than 500 years, causing a huge drop in population. So there’s really not many people to sacrifice if the rulers wished to maintain a healthy population of workers and soldiers! That, coupling with a more progressive and humane approach to life after death, resulted in the ‘invention’ of terracotta soldiers in Qin dynasty which was about 100 years before Han dynasty–the period where this lamp was made. So it is entirely possible (according to my own wild guess) that besides having this in the form of a human for aesthetic purposes, it could very well have replaced the role of an actual person holding a lamp and at the same time satisfying the users’ preference for human presence (as in the case of terracotta soldiers).

During the Han dynasty (2,000 years ago), mirrors were exchanged between men and women as tokens of love. Mirrors were traded like high-value artworks within China and even exported to the West. It was even possible for archaeologists today to gauge the year of the tombs unearthed based on the style of the mirrors in the tombs!

Part of me also wanted to imagine, perhaps the commissioner was in love with a lowly servant girl, and she was the muse for the lamp. Or perhaps, she was a muse for the blacksmith/goldsmith. Either way, it has to be based on a real person. That person would’ve been a real servant, carrying out her daily routines such as dressing up, serving her lord or husband, before being immortalised in the form of a bronze cast gilded in gold.

The Original Owner


There were several engravings of ownership on this artefact, but it is believed that it was originally commissioned by Lord Yangxin (阳信夷侯) although there are other academics who argued that it would’ve belonged to another royal household–the household of Princess Yangxin (two different households). There were many other artefacts uncovered from the same period from the princess’s tomb that has the Yangxin engraving, but this one, in particular, was not from her tomb but another, yet it bore the engraving Yangxin.

Yangxin was actually just the name of a region, located in modern-day Shandong area (near Beijing and Tianjin) and several households in that region were given the royal title Yangxin XXXX (be it princess, lord etc.)

The original owner, Lord Yangxin, got his royal title after he helped defeat the evil forces of the first Empress Dowager recorded in the history of imperial China–Empress Dowager Lǚ. She was originally a “Good person”, but power and jealous corrupted her and she was most famously (and gruesomely) known for the way she treated Lady Qi–a legendary dancer and choreographer, also a love rival.


Dowager Lǚ basically chopped off Lady Qi’s arms and legs, dug out her eyes, disfigured her face, deafened her using fumes, cut away her tongue and destroyed her vocal chord using poison and dumped Lady Qi into a faeces pool until she died a natural death (still feeding her food to keep her alive meanwhile).

She was the one who invented this cruel punishment called Ren Zhi (人彘) which literally translates to Human Pig (Ren being Human, Zhi being Pig). Why pig? Because their limbs were chopped off (like pigs have really tiny limbs), and in some instances, special chemicals/concoctions would be rubbed over their body to damage their hair follicles such that they would never grow any hair. Then, pluck out each strand of hair… If the executioner didn’t do it properly and caused the sufferer to die during the process, or took the easy way out by plucking a few strands of hair at one go, then the executioner would lose his job.

The act was so grotesque that when the proud Empress Dowager Lǚ brought her own son who was the new emperor to witness the stage of Lady Qi, he cried in great anguish, refusing to believe that his own mother could be capable of such cruelty. He was so traumatised by that and a few other horrors under Empress Dowager’s rule that he stopped caring about the matters of the court, indulging in wine and sex and became quite ill. It was not long before he passed away.

So the Empress Dowager grew more powerful as she got in more of her family into the royal court, removing everyone else who was against her in the process. After she died, the supporter of the original royal family rose against her family, and so the Lord of Yangxin was amongst those who successfully overthrew her family. And it was through this that he was awarded his lordship.

The Confiscation


As with everything in politics, one can easily become a royalty/statesman or a prisoner in an instance. While Lord Yangxin gained his lordship by helping to rebel against the evil forces of Empress Dowager Lǚ’s family, his own son continued his rebellious streak later on. However, it was not a successful rebellion which he participated in and the family’s fortune and properties were all seized and confiscated, including this lamp. His son was also stripped off his title.

This is why there were other engravings on the lamp. It was transferred from the family of Yangxin, to Changxin palace–the place of dwelling of the new empress dowager–Empress Dowager Dou.

Empress Dowager Dou’s road to becoming an empress dowager was really quite unexpected. Almost comical in my opinion, cos it was kind of an accident.

The Witness


So the lamp was gifted with new engravings that indicated its placement in the bath of Empress Dowager Dou’s palace–Changxin Palace.

Empress Dowager Dou was born in a peasant family and served as a palace attendance under Empress Dowager Lǚ in her youth. It is even possible that in her youth, she carried out similar activities and served in similar functions as the original muse of the lamp.

But life has its twists and turns, and nobody would have thought that an attendant girl would one day become the most powerful woman in the country.

At one point, the old Empress Dowager, Lǚ, wanted to marry off some of her attendants to the various lords and kinds under her rule (get rid of old blood, get new blood, and gain favours in the process amongst the various lords and kings–good plan!). Dou was amongst the group to be released from palace, and she requested the officer in charge of this matter to marry her off to the Zhao king, as the kingdom of Zhao was closer to her hometown.  She probably didn’t bribe the officer, so surprise surprise, he forgot all about it and sent her to the Dai king instead!

She. Was. Distraught.

She cried and begged for him to change the plan, but it was already confirmed in the royal edict and she was forced to marry the Dai king.

Turned out she struck a goldmine and that the Dai king was a blue-chip! He was made the new emperor after the court got rid of the old Empress Dowager, and eventually, he made Dou his new Empress. After his death, her son became the new emperor and naturally she became the empress dowager.

The Gift


Empress Dowager Dou must have really loved and treasured this lamp, and that’s why she kept it so close to her and it could witness her most intimate moments in the bath.

It was also one of the items that she gifted to her granddaughter-in-law, Dou Wan, as a wedding gift.


The fact that both Empress Dowager Dou and her granddaughter-in-law (wife of her grandson) shared the same surname was in no way a coincidence. The ancient Chinese, especially the royalties and people of high status placed great emphasis on marriage between people of comparable social status. This practice and belief is still rather prevalent today in many societies. The Dou family was extremely powerful and influential thanks to the Empress Dowager, so there would be no other possible candidate for the Prince other than someone from the Dou family.

According to academic’s analysis, Dou Wan was likely the Empress Dowager’s grand niece. Dou Wan would have treasured this lamp a lot, out of gratitude and respect for her powerful grand aunt.

The Forgotten


Dou Wan continued to treasure this lamp even until her death, and this lamp was buried alongside with her, in the main hall of her tomb. It was forgotten for 2000 years until uncovered by archaeologists in 1968.

When it was first found, it was crushed by the collapsed roof of the tomb, with parts scattered all around.

Its Engineering Feat

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The lamp was originally made into small pieces and pieced together with an interesting function–to absorb the choking and dark exhaust fumes created by burning animal fat-based fuel or candle. Its base was filled with water, and its sleeves formed the top of the lamp which is hollow and would funnel the smoke from the fire into its body and filter the exhaust particles when they reached the water at the bottom. The lantern portion is also mobile and could be adjusted to have a wider or narrower opening so the light intensity was adjustable. The panels could also be rotated to change the direction of the light emission!

All these were created some 2,000 years back, and there were several other artefacts from the same period made using the same filtering/ self-purifying mechanism!

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If you’re interested to listen to the entire story (in Mandarin), you can watch a really short documentary on youtube (only about 20 mins):




Because you persevered till the very end, you shall be rewarded with a piece of knowledge that you can show off to everyone else who get their info from TV and not from reading this :P. Yes, learning from Marvel.

In TV shows you would always see women using bronze mirrors that had a bronze reflective surface which they would look into to see their reflections.

Well, apparently as far back as 2,300 years ago or so, the ancient Chinese have been using mercury coated over the bronze mirror to reflect their image. Mercy is also what is being used in today’s mirror-making. The difference is that the ancient Chinese didn’t combine glass with it, and the resulting reflection and mirror quality is more blackish.

The running joke amongst my friends and I when we do authentic ancient Chinese make-up is that perhaps this was the reason why they had to paint their faces so white, cos it’s hard to see their faces in the mirror reflection!

Screen Shot 2018-08-01 at 10.48.04 PM
Image from the web to illustrate the look of the mirror surface.

2 Replies to “Artefactually Speaking: Changxin Palace Lamp 长信宫灯”

  1. At least some bronze mirrors were simply polished without having a layer of mercury added until they were reflective (so sometimes the movie industry gets things right by mistake). I have a replica mirror which was polished in this way and I could see my reflection fine in the golden tones (but it would never be as clear as in modern mirrors). My friend spent around 20 hours with polishing tools and the ultra fine sanding paper and remove more then 1 mm of uneven surface. I wish I can add picture here.
    Empress Lǚ was not a bad woman. I believe it was the way her husband treated her that changed her into the future cruel Empress Dowager.


    1. Yea, I think she was really a faithful and loyal wife who stuck by her husband. I kinda think that Lady Qi had a role to play as well for the great hatred that Empress Lu had towards her, for she was the one who tried to remove Empress Lu’s son as the crown prince so her own son could be the crown prince. She also tried to taunt Empress Lu with her songs after she’s been reduced to a cleaner. BUT still no excuse for the cruelty. We can understand why but we cannot say that it’s ok.


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