Chinese tomb decoration, ancient and modern

While I generally go for living embodiments of traditional culture, Shanxi province is a rich field for iconography, temples, murals, opera stages, and steles—for all periods of imperial history. Besides the major early sites, neglected little village temples also contain a wealth of murals since the Ming dynasty.

North Shanxi has long been one of my main bases for fieldwork (see under Local ritual). Traces of the Northern Wei dynasty (386­­–534), with its capital at Pingcheng (modern Datong), attract many visitors to the region—most famously, the Buddhist grottoes of Yungang just west of Datong city. The elite Daoist Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365–448) is often wheeled out by scholars as an instance of the illustrious ancestry of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi.

The Shaling site, with mural.

Near Datong, excavations at a major Northern Wei tomb complex outside Shaling village in 2005 yielded impressive results, even though it had been subject to severe looting. Another remarkable tomb has recently been excavated at Qilicun village, revealing a lacquered tomb, murals, silk artefacts, and ceremonial lacquerware.

Qilicun: coffin, and mural.

Such elaborate tombs were made for the elite; while archaeologists still commonly excavate tombs from the period, it can be hard to relate them directly to ritual life today. And even before the modern disappearance of the old elite, the furnishing of tombs changed over more than two millennia.

Still around Datong, many tombs from the Khitan Liao dynasty (907–1125) have also been excavated. The Wohuwan site in the northern suburbs of Datong (c1119) was discovered in 1961–62—reminding us of the energy of archaeologists even under the difficult times of Maoism (cf. musicologists). More recent finds in the vicinity are introduced herehere, and here

Liao tomb: left, entrance; right, constellations—again, a living feature of Daoist ritual in
the litanies of stellar lords (xingjun 星君).

The new incarnation of the Datong museum (founded in the dark days of 1959) looks most impressive, with plentiful exhibits of early tomb art and artefacts. The compendium Yicai qiannian: Datong diqu muzang bihua  熠彩千年: 大同地区墓葬壁画 (2019) includes images from the Northern Wei, Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties.

* * *

Now, I’m underwhelmed by the fetish for blithely claiming connections between modern and ancient culture, flitting from millennium to millenium, as is popular in Chinese musicology—though I did make an exception for Li Qing and ancient sheng masters. In Daoist (and Buddhist) studies too, ritual archaeology is more popular than living ethnography (see Debunking “living fossils”).

For the wealthy families who had such early tombs built, elaborate mortuary rituals would have been held too—Daoist, Buddhist, perhaps both. The recent Northern Wei excavations naturally remind me of my times following Li Manshan round nearby villages as he determines the date, supervises the encoffinment, chooses the grave site, decorates the coffin, writes the tomb tile, and presides over the burial (all shown in my film, from 13.38). In between all the initial solo activities and the burial come the group rituals of the Daoist band that he leads—with repeated visits to the soul hall, as well as rituals in a more public arena, to a numinous source of water, and to the edge of the village at dusk, in prescribed ritual sequence.

Of course, today the main clientele of household Daoists like the Li family is the ordinary peasantry, by contrast with the imperial elite whose tombs are revealed by archaeologists.

Left, Li Manshan decorating a coffin;
right, an assistant placing the tomb tile over the bow-and-arrows on the coffin.

In modern times graves are only just big enough for the coffin itself, no longer containing any artefacts, apart from the tomb tile covering the little bow-and-arrows placed on top of the coffin—in Li Manshan’s own words (my film, from 1.18.12),

to protect against grave looting, the common people imitating the real bow and arrows used for the tombs of imperial princes of old.

But he and his son Li Bin do decorate the coffin (huacai 畫材), painting it with elaborate motifs such as “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫)—again emulating the culture of the imperial elite.

The Li family’s base of Yanggao county is just east of Datong; even closer to the Northern Wei site at Qilicun is Datong county, where we also found active household Daoist groups.

So artefacts are all very well; but one wants to relate them to people’s lives, and deaths. With finds like Qilicun, what I lack is knowledge of Northern Wei burial practices. Indeed, for folk ritual life in north Shanxi, it’s none too easy to glean firm clues right through from early medieval to late imperial times; for the period since the late Ming it is mainly through fieldwork that we at last begin to find clues to the forebears of the household Daoists practising today.

One fine study is

  • Jeehee Hong, Theater of the dead: a social turn in Chinese funerary art, 1000–1400 (2016),

focusing on a lively period for the evolution of drama—again, still a major aspect of modern expressive culture in Shanxi. With material on Shanxi (though not the Datong region), Hong uses tomb artefacts as evidence of the funerary practices of the day, and paying attention to the artisans who created them.

xuanhua liaomu HT lowest

Mural from Xuanhua tombs, 1116.  Reproduced in Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷 (ed.),
Zhongguo yinyue shi tujian 中国音乐史图鉴 (1988), p.109.
This image ingeniously created by Hannibal Taubes from his own photo.

As to the soundscape of mortuary rituals, tomb murals and statuettes have long provided rich evidence for music historians—such as the above Liao-dynasty mural, a forebear of the shengguan ensemble still used by household Daoist bands in the region today. The pipa lute and paixiao panpipes were perhaps only common in the elite groups of regional courts, and were no longer used as ritual groups distilled the instrumentation to sheng mouth-organ, guanzi (bili) oboe, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with drum and cymbals. For some later murals of musicians from the region, see here. Of course, such images can only furnish scant clues to the vocal liturgy, the main component of ritual. Amidst all the artefacts within an ancient tomb, what is fatally lacking is video footage of the activities surrounding the event.

Anyway, the practices surrounding tombs of the medieval elite are quite remote ancestors of the mortuary rituals of common folk today—it just strikes me with my explorations in the region (“you dig?”), traipsing round gravelands and peering into freshly-dug graves. Fieldwork among living ritual specialists and their clientele can give us concrete images of the kinds of details we would like to learn about early practices—one way of coaxing ancient artefacts from their frozen silence.

See also e.g. Grave chartsChanging ritual artefacts, and the funerary headgear of the kin; for Qing-dynasty temple murals in Yanggao, see The cult of Elder Hu.

 

With thanks to Hannibal Taubes.

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