Recarving China's Past: The Wu Family Shrines and the Story of the Stones
Princeton curator Cary Liu, the Eighteenth Sammy Yukuan Lee lecturer, questions assumptions about 'Wu Family Shrines,' prevailing approaches to Chinese art and history.
Dr. Cary Liu, Curator of Asian Art at the Princeton University Art Museum and this year¡¯s Sammy Yukuan Lee lecturer, Nov. 5 delivered a lecture that questioned some of the fundamental assumptions underlying historical approaches to and methods of studying Chinese art and history. He did so by taking the audience through a critical examination of the "carved images of legendary rulers and paragons of filial piety and loyalty, historical and mythological stories, scenes of feasting, homage, processions, omens, and other figural and decorative designs [that] are the subjects of an assemblage of pictorial stones, steles, and gate-pillars known as the Wu family shrines."
Liu took issue with the evidentiary grounds for dating the so-called Wu family shrines to the mid-second century, late in the Han dynasty, and, even more basically, for viewing the stone carvings that made up the shrines as a coherent assemblage. In short, Liu opened the question of whether, outside of their celebration by eleventh-century and later antiquarians, the Wu family shrines ever existed as such. Liu also suggested provocatively that pictorial carvings dating from the Han dynasty, including stone carvings taken to be part the Wu family shrines, may have a strong relationship with burial items known as "brillant artifacts" (mingqi).
Confucianism, Death, and Remembrance
The carved stone reliefs that make up the so-called Wu family shrines were part of a cemetery complex in Jiaxiang county, in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. Traditionally they have been dated to the mid-second century, during the Han dynasty (206 BC¨CAD 220). At that time, Confucianism was endorsed as the official imperial philosophy and exercised great influence over both elite and popular society. Although Confucianism was not oriented to the afterlife, and had little if anything to say about world of spirits, it very heavily emphasized the debt owed by the living to their ancestors. Thus, in recognition of one¡¯s obligations, providing a proper final resting place for the deceased of the family was of very great social importance.
The Wu family shrines--supposedly the resting place of members of an elite family--were imposing. The interiors of the structures that comprised the shrines were completely covered with magnificent carved reliefs: all the walls, as well as the ceilings, from corner to corner. The reliefs depict scenes of everyday life, including those that exemplify Confucius's teachings. There were ancillary structures, such as stone gateposts, that bore inscriptions. Despite the imposing character of this assemblage, Liu pointed out, "the history of the Wu family shrines begins with silence from the third to eleventh centuries": there seems to be no discussion of them at all in the historical record for over eight hundred years.
This changed with the arrival of the Song dynasty (960-1279), a period of economic expansion and great prosperity, and a time of cultural efflorescence, including a growing interest in antiquity. Beginning in the Song dynasty, the Wu family shrine carvings, and the rubbings made from them, have been recognized as some of the most valuable and authentic materials for the study of Chinese antiquity. "For this reason," Liu explained, "the Wu shrines are fundamental to understanding historical approaches to and methods of studying Chinese art and history, and have also been central to the dating of archaeologically excavated Han tombs and artifacts."
"The nearly one thousand years of scholarship behind the monument known as the Wu family shrines," Liu continued, "is itself a kind of monument." The problem is, Liu declared, that we actually do not know the date of the Wu family shrines and cannot be sure that the stone carvings that are called "the Wu family shrines" were ever assembled in one place. In short, did the Wu family shrines per se ever actually exit?
Wu Family Shrines?
What came to be called "the Wu family shrines" consists of an assemblage formulated through rubbings compiled during the Song dynasty. "This assemblage comprises four inscribed steles, an inscribed gate-pillar, and a one-bay structure that has come to be known as Stone Chamber 3." However, Liu explained, "without physical substance or geographic location, the assemblage continued to be known after the thirteenth century through received textual descriptions and through recarved copies and rubbings. Confused transmission and evidence that later interpolations and conflations colored the received story of the stones now cast doubt on the integrity of all the individual inscriptions and on the assemblage as such. For example, it is by no means certain that the four steles--said to be dedicated to four males of the Wu family originally belonged to this site, to a Wu family, or were all carved in the Han dynasty."
The Wu shrines assemblage, Liu continued, was only linked to actual carved stones in 1786 when the amateur archaeologist Huang Yi (1744-1802) claimed to have discovered them at the cemetery ruins in what is today Jiaxiang County. "Only after this date does the historical record begin for the majority of the pictorial stones, including stones that have now been reconstructed as Stone Chamber 1 (Front Chamber) and Stone Chamber 2 (Left Chamber). Preserved at the site, additional slabs have continued to be inserted until the present day and several architectural stones with little or no decoration remain at the site and have yet to be recorded. Some stones have gone missing, while some formerly missing stones have recently been located in museums in Tianjin and Berlin. Because of the Wu family shrines' importance to China's artistic and cultural heritage, the site was included in the initial roster of important historical monuments and cultural relics placed under national heritage protection in 1961."
This "protection," however, leaves much to be desired. A museum has been constructed to preserve some of the stones near the cemetery, and where once they were merely propped up against a wall, recently they have been put behind glass. Unfortunately, this may not be an improvement, Liu pointed out, since humidity has accumulated behind the glass and mold has appeared on the stones. As for the cemetery itself, it is in woeful condition. When Liu visited it only a few weeks ago, he found, for instance, one of the shrines flooded.
Recarving the Past
Liu explained that, according to historical documents, the inscriptions on some of the stones were so weathered or worn from repeated rubbings that the inscriptions were no longer legible. However, today some of these inscriptions are in perfectly good, legible condition. This is not the result of magic but of the fact that these stones were recarved--when and by whom we do not know.
"The act of recarving," Liu stated, "is based on a desire to preserve the past for present and future encounters. In any recarving, whether of history, literature, or the arts, a past model is re-envisioned (zai xian). More than just preserving the past, however, recarving renders the past (jiu) new (xin) through repair and reconstruction. While the term 'new' has the meaning of a 'fresh start,' it also has the connotation of 'renovating' or 'repairing the past' (xiu jiu), through the recovery of exemplary conduct and correct behavior." It is in this sense that the recarving of China's past has often involved identifying "what is proper or vital in the past as prerequisite to preserving exemplars for the present and future. It is this "addiction to antiquity" the urge to recover and revitalize what is proper in the past that underlies much of antiquarian scholarship and artistic revival in China."
Mortuary Architecture and "Brilliant Artifacts"
In his comments, Liu connected the pictorial carved stones long thought to be part of funerary structures belonging to the Wu family cemetery to Chinese mortuary architecture in general and to burial items known as "brilliant artifacts" (mingqi). Han-dynasty funerary architecture and both the pictorial reliefs and burial objects in cemeteries "may sometimes have been conceived as an ensemble, that is, as sharing an artistic, ritual, and cosmological program." The term "brilliant artifacts" (mingqi) is commonly used today to refer generally to any objects placed in tombs. However, in the Han dynasty, Liu explained, "the term was controversial and sometimes not applied to lifelike figures. Funerary architecture, in the form of tombs, tumuli and cemetery structures, and offering halls, has often been viewed simply as imitations of above-ground buildings for the living, but should also be considered in relation to the concept of mingqi. There may be a close relationship between the pictorial images depicted in Han funerary monuments and the decoration on burial ceramics, bronzes, lacquers, and other items." Likewise, Liu asked, "are the ordinary articles and daily activities pictured on the walls of mortuary structures--notably including pictorial carvings of the "Wu family shrines"--merely representations, or do they also fulfill a role as 'brilliant artifacts'?"
Appropriate mortuary objects were a matter of dispute during the Han dynasty, Liu explained. The people of Han times made a crucial distinction "between functional objects made for the living, and their nonfunctional mingqi counterparts, intended only for the afterlife. If mingqi were conceived as imitating the form of objects made for the living, but without their functions, was this consciously analogous to the concept of underground mortuary architecture as imitations of aboveground architecture for the living?" Liu answered his own question by stating that "funerary structures were not architecture for the dead. Instead, they were architecture for the afterlife realm between the living and the dead. Tombs imitate the functional divisions of a palace, with front and rear chambers, storage areas, lavatories, and horse and chariot stables; yet the living functions of the chambers were negated: the front doors of a tomb once closed do not open, the lavatories cannot be used, and the stored items are often 'brilliant artifacts' that do not function." Beyond this relationship, "tomb architecture and mingqi artifacts share other similarities. Some tombs have wall tiles decorated with painted, stamped, or relief designs of pictorial figures and geometric patterns; the same decorative techniques are used on bronze and ceramic mingqi vessels."
Similarly, in stone tombs and funerary structures, including the "Wu family shrines," the walls are often decorated with "pictorial carvings in fine incised lines, intaglio, relief, or openwork, sometimes enhanced with paint or other decorative techniques. All of these techniques are comparably utilized in ceramic, bronze, jade, stone, and lacquer mingqi artifacts buried in tombs."
Aside from similarities in artistic techniques, "many of the subjects and themes depicted in Han funerary pictorial stone carvings are also found in the decoration of mingqi placed in tombs. Shared images include historical and legendary figures, horse and chariot processions, buildings, food preparation and banqueting, animals, supernatural beasts, and fabulous landscapes and cloudscapes." In many instances the identification of tomb chambers by function--reception halls, kitchens, stables, inner chambers, and other rooms--"depended on the types of mingqi artifacts placed inside, or, conversely, the placement of mingqi may sometimes have been determined by the location of pictorial images decorating the tomb walls. This allowed tomb chambers to simulate palace chambers, while negating the living functions of the latter in order properly to provide for the afterlife."
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Cary Y. Liu is Curator of Asian Art at the Princeton University Art Museum. A specialist in Chinese architectural history and art history, he has MArch and PhD degrees from Princeton University. Recent exhibitions for which he has been curator include: Recarving China's Past: Art, Archaeology, and Architecture of the Wu Family Shrines (2005), Providing for the Afterlife: "Brilliant Artifacts" for Shandong (2005), Seeing Double: Copies and Copying in the Arts of China (2001), and The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection (1999). Among his publications are contributions to Art of the Sung and Yuan: Ritual, Ethnicity, and Style in Painting (1999), and the journals Hong Kong University Museum Journal, Oriental Art, Orientations, and T'oung Pao. His most recent essay, "Chinese Architectural Aesthetics: Patterns of Living and Being between Past and Present," can be found in House, Home, Family: Living and Being Chinese (2005, Knapp and Lo, eds.).
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The Sammy Yukuan Lee Lectures on Chinese Art and Archaeology are sponsored by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies and co-sponsored the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History , and funded by the Lee Family Foundation. The series began in 1982 to commemorate the eightieth birthday of Sammy Yukuan Lee, a noted collector and authority on Chinese art, particularly lacquers, textiles, and ceramics. Mr. Lee is now in his 103rd year and has retired, in excellent health, to the city of Qingdao, not far from the small town where he was born. A biography of Sammy Lee is available online.
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Explore the Wu Family Shrines (external link)
An interactive virtual reality tour of the Wu family shrines cemetery site developed by Professor Anthony Barbieri-Low (University of Pittsburgh) provides a sense of how this archaeological site may have looked around AD 150-170. The user can investigate each of the key monuments, read translations of the major inscriptions, and examine the pictorial carvings in the three reconstructed stone chambers at the site. Links to rubbings of the carvings and summaries of the stories and legends they allude to will help the user comprehend the visual world of a funerary complex from the second century in northeast China. To take the virtual reality tour, click here .
Published: Monday, November 14, 2005