Coordinating between Hands and Eyes: A Toiletry Case Sets from Mawangdui

Jie Shi, University of Chicago


The paradox of utilitarian function and artistic value is one of the most fundamental issues in the studies of material culture and decorative art. The two aspects of the paradox address the major interests of anthropologists and art historians respectively. Departing from the previous approaches, this paper explores the interdependence and conflict between the practices of using and viewing an object. It examines a set of toiletry cases, excavated from Mawangdui Tomb 3 in Changsha, Hunan province, dating from the early 2nd century BCE. This Chinese cosmetic box contains several smaller boxes, decorated with cloud patterns, made further to contain various tools of beautification. By tracing the process of opening the box, the paper argues that the design of the vessel establishes a new bodily experience, which requires the user-viewer to constantly vary his or her engagement with the vessel between the hands and the eyes, in order to fulfill both the function and the meaning of the vessel as one organic work.