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Tomb, Jin dynasty (1115-1234), unearthed at Chemical Factory, Jishan county, Shanxi province, total of 43 carved bricks, 365 kg. On show at the China Institute Gallery in New York until 17 June
FOR THOUSANDS OF years, the Chinese have been preoccupied with creating a burial culture which was fuelled by a belief in the afterlife. The enormous resources devoted to the construction and furnishing of tombs were supported by the practice of ancestor worship, the extended family and social structure and by the Confucian ideals of filial piety. Until 1949, tombs in China were sacrosanct. Subsequently, a branch of modern archaeology known as muzang kaogu, ‘archaeology of burials’ was introduced wherein the collecting and preservation of excavated material was aimed at longterm investigation of the information they impart.
Since the 1950s, many brick tombs have been unearthed in Shanxi, north central China. They were concentrated around Pingyang in the south, where places including Houma have yielded some 30 tombs. They belonged to the Han Chinese, who were not part of the nobility living in the area and might be dated from the 12th to the 14th centuries, spanning the late Northern Song (960-1127), the Jin (1115-1234) and the Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. The Jin was part of a succession of non-Chinese empires together with the Liao (916-1125) and the Xixia (1038-1227) which co-existed with Song China. Early in the 12th century, forest dwellers known as the Jurchen, who spoke an Inner Altaic language, had conquered the Manchurian heartland. In 1115, their leader, Aguda (r.1113-1123), named his Chinese-style dynasty, Jin, meaning ‘gold’, which was found in their homeland on the Ashi river, a tributary of the Sungari. They began to sweep southwards, and eventually held much of north China.
By Chinese standards, the Jin had a relatively short tenure of 119 years, but most of the brick tombs found were constructed during this time. The most spectacular was unearthed in July 2009 when construction workers renovating a staff residence in Jishan county, Shanxi, hit a brick wall while digging underground. They contacted the local museum and an excavation that ensued revealed an ancient brick tomb dating from the Jin which housed a raised coffin. The tomb was distinguished by largescale brick wall carvings of an extraordinary and rare intensity. It weighed 365 kg and has since been reconstructed above ground with its interior relief carvings intact. Moreover, it has travelled outside China for the very first time to form the basis of this exhibition, Theatre, Life & the Afterlife: Tomb Decor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi, supported by 90 sculpted brick objects from recent discoveries. A special partnership between the China Institute and the Shanxi Provincial Museum, Taiyuan, the show which is curated by its Director Shi Jinming, has no precedent. It features traditional tomb brick carving, a particular genre of Chinese folk art for the first time in the US, where it is largely unknown. What sets the southern Shanxi carvings apart are their distinct character. They were fashioned from sophisticated brick carving techniques with subject matter demonstrating a fascination for the theatre, opera and drama.
That popular amusement meant for the living should feature in tombs might be placed in its context. Chinese funerary architecture like traditional architecture, was not a specialised profession as it is in the west. There were no architects in the western sense of the word. For generations, unknown builders and master craftsmen constructed built forms relying on the timber frame, the foundation platform and the decorative roof as core structures, using mainly wood. Brick, stone, mud-earth, ceramic tile and metal were also used. Brick which is clay, kneaded, moulded and baked by fire, was used for tombs as early as the Warring States period (475-221 BC) and certainly by at least the Han dynasty (206 BC-220). It was not limited to the Jin.
‘In China, brick was used primarily for the construction of pagodas and tombs. Chinese architecture above ground was usually made by timber framing. Architecture intended to endure, such as pagodas and tombs, had logical brick structures,’ says exhibition guest scholar, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, Professor of East Asian Art and Curator of Chinese Art at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘The brick is used as wall surface,’ she adds. ‘The only options for walls are brick, stone or wood. Wood is never used, and brick is rare. Almost all Chinese tombs from the Han onwards have brick walls, either decorated with relief sculpture like these walls or covered with a smooth surface and painted. Lacquer might be used for a sarcophagus, but never for the walls.’
Historically, Chinese tomb architecture has been the art of craftsmen. Tombs were individually made. Those working on them included bricklayers, stone carvers, decorative painters as well as artisans from workshops who collaborated to make mural and relief carvings. ‘Shanxi craftsmen of the Song, Jin and Yuan dynasties were renowned for brick carving in tombs. They practised the art by chiselling figures and motifs from low-fired bricks which could be plain, painted or glazed. This exhibition however, is about a very specific subset of Chinese brick carving,’ Prof Steinhardt goes on to say. ‘The art of brick carving may have been indigenous, and special to Shanxi, but it was not unique. What is unique is the elaboration of the carved decoration of these southern Shanxi specimens. Tomb walls have been decorated with carved brick and paint since the first millennium BC. However the tombs from which the exhibition material is derived have an unusually intense, detailed and extensive level of decoration. No similarly extensive group of tombs is known elsewhere in China.’
Walls on tombs defined the Chinese concept of space. The tomb, mu or fen mu was a constructed architectural space containing mortuary structure, grave furnishings and above ground landmarks. It was also colloquially referred to as cang, ‘place of hiding’ or ‘concealment’. Most southern Shanxi tombs were four-sided brick structures with a single chamber connected by a staircase to ground level. Some had domed ceilings. The small interiors were intended as subterranean homes for their occupants. Surrounding relief sculpture of moulded and carved brick provided the accoutrements and comforts of past lives. One characteristic Shanxi element, the figure of a woman peeping through a half-open door – said to represent an intermediary between life and death – was found on many tombs. ‘Almost every theme in relief on the walls traces to the Han dynasty in China,’ says Prof Steinhardt. ‘There is no obvious reason or documentary explanation why single-chamber tombs with such intense decoration became so popular at this time and in this place’.
Single-chamber tombs were increasingly prominent burial structures in Shanxi after 1127 when it was occupied by the Jurchen. Having decimated the Liao empire, they went to war with the Northern Song, forcing the court at Kaifeng south to Hangzhou. They began to rule as the Jin with a dual Jurchen and Chinese administration, legitimising their authority – unlike the Liao – by endorsing Chinese cultural practices. Chinese court ritual, pomp and ceremony were left as they were. Traditional civil service examinations continued to be held. This transition to Jin rule might be witnessed to some extent, in the tomb carvings on show. The Northern Song specimens contain mundane domestic activities: A horse tethered to a post, wine utensils, rice pounding, a woman’s accoutrements, household furniture and an ox-driven mill. Myth and legend were drawn from Shanxi religious mural painting such as the Daoist baxian, ‘Eight Immortals’ distinguished by their personal attributes. Their leader, the renowned Lu Dongbin, was said to inhabit the Yongle Gong temple in southern Shanxi. Another Immortal, Li Tieguai, symbolised the trauma of reaching immortality. He returned to life to care for the sick, carrying a sackful of medicines on his back. Zhang Guolao, ‘Zhang Guo the Elder’, is shown accompanied by his signature percussion instruments.
The Jin, having consolidated their hold over what was Northern Song territory, signed a peace treaty with the Southern Song (1127-1279) in 1141. They now ruled as a minority over some 50 million Han Chinese in north China. They had no effective written script of their own, and although they relied somewhat on the Khitan script, it was the Chinese language that dominated their bureaucracy. From the 1150’s onwards, to gain Han popular support, they revived the didactic teachings of both Confucius and the Northern Song thinker Su Shi (1036-1101). On his accession to the throne, the Jin emperor Shizong (r.1161-1189) commissioned a Jurchen edition of the Han dynasty Confucian text, The Classic of Filial Piety as official Jin literature. Confucian virtues are therefore prominently extolled on carvings dating from the Jin. Meng Zong, an exemplary figure, is seen crying on a plaque because his infirmed mother craved bamboo shoots in winter. His tears enabled bamboo shoots to sprout out miraculously from the ground. Taking them home, he cooked them for her and she fully recovered. Other episodes include ‘Wang Wuzi’s wife cutting off her own flesh to cure her mother-in-law’s illness’ and ‘Dong Yong selling himself as a slave to bury his dead father’.
We are also treated to animated figures carved in the round and painted over with colourful pigments. They contain clues about Jin painting. Others were carved in high relief on reddish-grey bricks. Both were drawn broadly from two kinds of popular amusement: Za Ju, ‘formal performances of written plays’ and San Qu, ‘performances related to village festivals’. They offer material evidence of the popularity of theatre in ancient Shanxi - said to be the birthplace of Chinese opera and drama. The head of a moustachioed actor from Macun, Jishan county might be attributed to the zhuanggu, ‘pretend male solo lead’ of a Za Ju play. One plaque from Houma of the shehuo, literally ‘fiery community’ spectacle depicts two cavorting child performers in the manpaiwu,‘dance of no restraint’. Captured too is the zhumaxi, ‘bamboo horse drama’ played out by an equestrian troupe.
These artistic phenomena apart, the highlight of the exhibition is the said tomb. It measures 2.8 m long, 2 m wide and 1.6 m deep and contains a total of 43 carved bricks. On its north wall, two ‘door guardians’, a man and a woman in traditional costume had been carved on either side of a centralised door panel. Eight latticed windows, four on each side, symmetrically face each other on its east and west walls. A niche with a tableau of four performers – from the theatre, opera and local drama – enhances its south wall. The tomb walls are lined withgoutou, ‘roof-end tiles’ and dishui, ‘gargoyles’ decorated by floral motifs and grotesque animal masks. They stand on a platform, defined by a narrow eave, housing lishi, ‘strongman’ figures and auspicious animals below.
The tomb is considered a gem of ancient burial art, because it provides important documentary evidence about 12th-century Shanxi architecture which has since perished. The small-scale architectural features replicated on its walls were imitations adapted from above ground wooden buildings of the time. Its door, windows, niche, roof and eave structures, among others, contain specifications and techniques documenting the use of wood, brick masonry and mortar during the Northern Song. The rules for tiling are also made known. This is because national guidelines for construction had been laid down by the emperor Huizong (r.1101-1125) early on in his reign, and were compiled in the Yingzao Fashi, ‘Building Standards’ (1103) by Li Jie. These principles of Song architecture became the most authoritative work of its kind, and was reissued by the Hangzhou court in 1145.
Until recently, the brief Jin dynasty remained relatively obscure. It was neither a defining period in Chinese history nor did it shape the artistic and cultural foundations of Chinese civilisation. Why then was burial architecture revived during the Jin in tombs in Shanxi? Its detractors at the time included the Northern Song statesman, Sima Guang (1019-1086) and a leading Confucian thinker, Zhu Xi (1130-1200) who denounced the practice, described as ‘stemming from the common people’, such as local merchants and landlords, as ‘vulgar’. We do not know who the Chinese patrons of these tombs were. ‘Only a few of the tombs’ occupants were named but there is no pattern for this,’ says Prof Steinhardt. There are several tombs of the Dong Family, including Dong Hai (d.1196) and Dong Ming (d.1210). In those cases, and in other tombs across China when the occupants are known, there is a stone funerary inscription in the tomb.’
We might turn perhaps to burial archaeology for some insights. Burial archaeology studies the role of burials in replicating social status in societies of the past. In ancient China, there were many gradations of social status and these differences were expressed in many symbolic ways. Burial sites tell us both about the individuals buried in them and about the social structure of their particular group. This represents a move away from a focus on individual burials, and towards the comparative study of burials from different social strata. While the discipline is still in the early stages of correlating artefacts, burial location, burial layout and funerary architecture with evolving hierarchies in Chinese society, the Shanxi tomb and brick carvings leave little doubt that they are critical to understanding the Han Chinese during Jin rule. BY YVONNE TAN
Until 17 June, Theatre, Life and the Afterlife: Tomb Decor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi is at the China Institute Gallery, 125 East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065,
www.chinainstitute.org. Catalogue available, US$40
www.chinainstitute.org. Catalogue available, US$40