By LEE LAWRENCE
In the jigsaw puzzle of China's rulers and ethnic groups, the 12th-century Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115-1234) is one of the least known, particularly outside China. Sweeping down from the steppes of Manchuria, these "people of the forest" carved out a kingdom that has in many history books been upstaged by the Northern Song (960-1127), who preceded them, and the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368), who defeated them. A small but rich show at the China Institute Gallery, "Theater, Life, and the After Life," aims to correct that with a selection of 80 pieces culled from 11 tombs excavated in southern Shanxi—an area some 500 miles southwest of Beijing.
On loan from the Shanxi Museum in Taiyuan, almost all are reliefs on brick slabs in a variety of sizes and styles, chosen to illustrate the range of popular motifs. As a result, the exhibition unfolds across the gallery's two rooms like a 3-D catalog of funerary décor, complete with demonstration tomb.
We see reliefs of musicians blowing into flutes or beating drums, dancers caught midstride, and a wonderful series of scenes plucked from folk performances in which actors used horses and other props made of bamboo and paper. On a more sober note, there are vignettes from Confucian stories of filial piety, depictions of Taoist deities known as the Eight Immortals, and a motif in tomb art that became popular under the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220): a set of double doors with one slightly ajar revealing a woman who stands half-in, half-out. Although there is some argument about just what this signifies, the most commonly accepted interpretation is that the woman symbolizes the threshold between life and death.
Though the labeling does not explain how the works are made, some reliefs appear to be molded, others incised, then painted by applying pigment directly onto the clay or on a base coat of lime or other material. Some are therefore more labor-intensive than others, just as the workmanship in some is of higher quality. The Eight Immortals, for example, are almost crude compared with some of the musicians or with a scene from daily life showing a muscular horse pulling on its tether. It seems safe to assume that the Immortals might have hailed from a less expensive workshop, a reminder that one's choice of tomb décor was as much a function of one's pocketbook as an expression of one's preferences.
By Chinese standards, Jin tombs were modest. Almost all of the 100 or so tombs unearthed to date are single chambers, often small, always made of brick. On the outside, they are plain; inside, the wall decorations emulate architectural features of Shanxi houses and display the deceased's choice of motifs. We see this in a tomb excavated in 2009 and reassembled in the gallery where, ingeniously, director Willow Weilan Hai Chang repositioned the south wall to allow visitors inside the space. It is about 48 square feet, enough for a funerary bed and a few household objects (removed for the show) with little room to spare.
The far wall features carved doors, this time tightly shut and flanked by deeply carved reliefs of a man and woman. These stand-ins for the tomb's occupants look on without expression, hands clasped. Opposite them, four other figures look back. They sport hats and clothes that identify them as the principal characters in a popular form of Jin theater: the leading man; the foil or straight man, here wearing an orange robe with white polka dots; the jester; and the court official. Along the side walls, bricks are carved to resemble lattice windows, beneath which peonies bloom in pots, auspicious lions prance and guardians who look like miniature Sumo wrestlers keep watch.
What comes through loud and clear is that the Jin adopted Chinese beliefs and customs and that they loved their entertainment. But at least one scholar finds it puzzling that, for all this emphasis on theater, the actors never seem to be enacting a particular play. The effigies of actors placed in the tomb appear stiff and generic. Did the deceased avoid one set script because they wanted the actors to vary their repertoire throughout eternity?
"Maybe," says Nancy S. Steinhardt, a professor of East Asian art at the University of Pennsylvania and contributor to the show's catalog. "Or," she speculates, "maybe they don't really believe there is an afterlife," in which case they include actors as a nod to their love of theater, not because they believe they will need entertaining. This would also explain the scaled-down tombs and the lack, so far, of any sign that the Jin tried to preserve corpses. There are no jade suits, no embalming, no wire-metal encasements as are found at other times and places. This is a theory Ms. Steinhardt is still testing. If it pans out, then Jin tombs could point to a significant shift in thinking in 12th-century China and provide one more reason to pay attention to this little-known dynasty.
Ms. Lawrence is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.