Friday, June 22, 2012

Tomb Carvings Shed Light On A Lesser-Known Chinese Dynasty

Actor Figures, Detail from the South Wall of Brick-Carved Tomb,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), brick with pigments,
Unearthed at a Chemical Factory, Jishan county, Shanxi province in 2009,
From left to right Heights: 18.7, 18.9, 18.9, 19.7 in. (47.6, 48, 48, 50 cm),
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

Something special awaits those who visit the China Institute’s exhibition, Theater, Life, and the Afterlife: Tomb Décor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi. Over 80 tomb brick carvings from the Shanxi Museum focuses attention on the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) and Chinese theatrical arts. Filled with the wonder of discovery, the show reveals the vibrancy of the Jin period and the multifarious thespian activities that took place under their support.

First some background: the Jin were Jurchens, tribesmen from Manchuria in what is today northeast China. In the twelfth century, they defeated the Mongolic Liao and Chinese North Song empires and forced the latter south. They took over northern China, established the Jin dynasty, intermarried, and adapted Chinese traditions. Peace was made with the Southern Song, who were in control of South China and the country became politically stable and prosperous. The arts flourished, especially theatrical entertainments.

In the southern region of Shanxi Provence, some 900 miles from Beijing, more than one hundred Jin tombs have been excavated since the mid-twentieth century. Painted and carved bricks decorated the tombs. The technique was a form of traditional Shanxi folk ornamentation. Shaped in low and high relief or modeled three-dimensionally, theater and musical performances were the predominant imagery.

Theatrical entertainment was obviously important to the Jin both in the cities and the countryside. In Shanxi, close to three thousand ancient theaters and stages remain. No other area in China has as many. These include the twelfth-century Erlang Temple stage which is the oldest surviving Chinese stage that, up to now, has been uncovered. It typifies the Jin architectural style and a small scale model of it is on view in the first gallery.

In the rural areas, performances would take place in the open. At first, city, court and temple productions were enacted on a simple raised platform. Later, an open-sided roofed structure was added. During the Jin period, a back wall was built creating an area open on three sides as in the Erlang stage.

Although temple activities were widespread, no written accounts of their productions have so far been discovered. Our understanding of what took place is based on tomb carvings and burial items along with the extant records of Jin and Southern Song court entertainments.

Figure of Musician Playing a Waist Drum,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), carved brick,
15.7 x 7.7 x 2.6 in. (40 x 19.5 x 6.5 cm)
Unearthed in 1965 at Jingcungou, Xiangfen county, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

The numerous tomb depictions of musicians and dancers that remain attest to their popularity. A fine example is a group of carvings in the first gallery that portray a procession of eleven musicians and two dancers. Each brick has one figure, some with traces of paint. There are flutists, clapper players, drummers, and oboists. Of special note is the waist drum with its hourglass shape and cloth covering. The instrument was tied to the player’s waist allowing the performer to move about freely. It may have originated about 3,000 years when soldiers stationed at borders needed a way to communicate, sound alarms and accompany the advancement of cavalry. It evolved into an instrument of choice for dancers. In Shanxi, a waist drum dance that can be traced back some 2,000 years is still practiced.

A Parcel-Gilt Silver ‘Musical Troupe’ Ewer and Cover,
Liao – Northern Song Dynasty (A.D. 10th -11th Century),
Height 10 in. (25.4 cm)
Photo: Courtesy of J.J. Lally & Co., New York

A short diversion: music makers are a favorite Chinese motif and appear frequently in different contexts and at different times. A case in point is a Liao – Northern Song Dynasty hexagonal vessel on display at the J.J. Lally & Co., Silver and Gold in Ancient China, March 16 – April 14, 2012. Five musicians and a dancer in high relief decorate the object - one figure centered on each side. A waist drummer swaying rhythmically to his beat is easy to recognize as well as a flutist focused on playing.

The liveliness of music makers is rivaled by that of the dances. Performed in celebration of good fortune or abundant harvest, dances are varied and animated. Look for the carvings of a lion dance, a shield dance and, a dance with musicians accompanied by a melon carrier. In one, each performer appears to be on horseback but they are dancing about with a simulation of the animal - a cleverly devised bamboo and paper construction tied to their waists.

Children Riding on Deer,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), carved brick,
7.5 x 15.4 x 1.9 in. (19 x 39 x 4.7 cm)
Unearthed in 1965 from Tomb 65H4M102, Houma city, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

In another scene, a playful boy and girl ride galloping deer. Ribbons draped over their chest flare outward as the speed ahead. Their gender is indicated by hairstyle and dress. The herbs they hold are symbolic of immortality.

Scenes of the ordinary and domestic objects tell much about Jin life. Rice pounding, a woman cooking with a five-tiered steamer, a clothes rack and household furniture are just some of the incidents portrayed. One carving of a horse tethered to a post is particularly skillful. The horse turns his head backward tugging on his reins as if to escape the constraint.

A partial replica of a tomb’s north wall incorporates sixteen original bricks and a figure of a woman peering out of a slightly opened door. The woman at the doorway is thought to represent the transition from this world to the next. Hint: color differentiates the authentic and reproduced parts.

Filial piety tales were moralistic legends compiled by Confucian scholars. They were easily adapted into plays and commonly rendered in tombs. The stories exemplified respect, obedience and care for parents and elderly family members. Two stories are illustrated here. One illustrates the tale of Wang Xiang. Wang’s stepmother had become ill during the winter. She wanted fresh fish. Although she treated Wang poorly, he wanted to satisfy her request. Wang went to a frozen river, took off his clothes and lied down on the ice. Once melted by his bodily warmth, he was able to catch two carps. Wang cooked them for his stepmother and she got well. In this depiction, Wang is fully clothed praying beside the frozen lake.

Zaju — Head of a Figure in the Zhuanggu Role,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), clay with pigments,
4.7 x 3.3 x 2.8 in. (12 x 8.5 x 7 cm)
Unearthed in 1978 from Tomb no. 1 at Macun, Jishan county, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

A much favored type of Jin theater was a sort of commedia dell’arte with of four or five set roles. Carved in high and low relief, their tomb representations were pervasive. The exhibition has several has a variety of these depictions but of particular beauty are two painted heads modeled in the round. One represents the court official role with closed eyes as if he is in deep thought; the other, with an upturned nose and humorous air, portrays a comic character such as a clown or jester.

Chinese tombs historically contained two and three-dimensional objects as stand-ins for items needed in the hereafter. The afterlife was thought to be similar to or a continuation of the life of the living. Thus, the theater representations were simply the entertainment to be enjoyed in the next world. Nevertheless, they may have another meaning. In an exhibition catalogue essay, the Chinese scholar Wilt L. Idema suggests that these depictions may act as a reminder to the dead as well as the living that “ is only a play.” Research is ongoing.

South Wall of Brick-Carved Tomb In Situ,
Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), brick with pigments,
Unearthed at a Chemical Factory, Jishan county, Shanxi province in 2009,
From left to right Heights: 18.7, 18.9, 18.9, 19.7 in. (47.6, 48, 48, 50 cm),
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

The show’s highlight, in the second gallery, is the reconstruction of a vaulted, single-chamber brick tomb using 43 of the surviving carvings. The tomb was accidentally unearthed in 2009 during the excavation for the Jishan Chemical Factory’s dormitory in Jishan, Shanxi. It represent a small version of an inner courtyard of a well-to-do wood constructed residence. Floral and abstract designs mix with lattice-like panels and guardian and animal figures. In the center of its north wall, two standing attendants flank a panel door. The south wall appears to be a gate-tower stage on which stand four actors carved in mid-relief. The tomb was made for a couple who were buried with their heads directly under this stage. They were placed as if to have front row seats at the performances.

Zhang Guolao of the Eight Immortals,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), carved brick,
21.1 x 7.1 at top; 16.3 at bottom x 2.8 in.
(53.5 x 18 at top; 41.5 at bottom x 7 cm),
Unearthed in 1965 from Tomb 65H4M102, Houma city, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

In Chinese legend, the Eight Immortals were a group of Taoist saint-like beings with supernatural powers. Their enchanting legends were easily transformed into plays and, tomb depictions were commonplace. Apparently during Jin period, regulars in the group had not been fixed for tomb sets may have one Immortal replaced by another.

Their attributes make identification easy. Take a look at the Immortal Zhang Guolao from one series unearthed in Houma city. Zang holds a large fan like object, similar to a clapper. He could travel each day for very long distances on his donkey. When not in use, the animal was folded like a sheet of paper. To regain its form, only a sprinkle of water was needed.

Ding Lan Carving Wood Figures and Serving His Parents,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), carved brick with pigments,
7.1 x 9.4 x 1.9 in. (18 x 24 x 4.5 cm),
Unearthed in 1981 from the Jin tomb at Nanfanzhuang,
Xinjiang county, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

Twenty-four carvings from the south wall on another tomb relate the tales of filial piety. Read the explanatory labels for the stories are charming. There is Wang Xiang who we met earlier but he is depicted unclothed on the frozen river. Another brick illustrates the story of Ding Lan. Ding made wooden figures deceased parents which he worshipped. His wife did not respect her in-laws and one day when Ding was out, she pricked the fingers of the parent images. They bleed. Ding came home and found the figures in tears. After learning what his wife did, he divorced her. There is also Wang Wuzu’s wife who cut off her own flesh to cure her mother-in-law, Yang Xiang who killed a tiger with her bare hands to save her father and Dong Yong who sold himself into slavery to bury his dead father.

Not to be missed are three masterly carved reliefs that work together to form one vivid combat composition. Each brick shows a mounted soldier set before an ornamental archway. One fleeing soldier turns around in his saddle as if to judge his distance from the approaching attacker. His foe comes toward him from the adjacent brick. His spear like weapon ready for action.

Visitors may want to pause to see a short film produced by the Shanxi Museum. Although less than ten minutes long, it manages to introduce viewers to the landscape and ancient sites of Shanxi in addition to providing excerpts from live musical and theatrical entertainments.

In 2006, the Asia Society’s exhibition, Gilded Splendors: Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907-1125), provoked an interest in the Liao period. On display were recently excavated objects that clearly demonstrated a sophisticated culture of considerable elegance. It dispelled any notion that the Liao were inferior to the Tang or Song.

The China Institute’s show may have already engendered a similar effect. On a personal note: At this year’s Asia Week New York exhibits, March 16 - 24, this viewer seems to have seen more Jin objects than in previous years.

As for the Jin, they were toppled by the northern Mongolian Yuan and Chinese Southern Song Dynasties. The two victors later fought over the defeated territories. The Yuan were triumphant and ushered in Muslim rule. The Jin, nevertheless, did not entirely disappear. The Qing, the last imperial dynasty, were their descendants.

Go to the exhibit but if you can't, explore the excellent virtual tour on the China Institute's Web site.   

Suggestion: Plan to visit the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China, June 16 - October 21, 2102. This exclusive exhibition presents newly excavated tomb objects from Shanxi and Gansu never before seen outside of China.

Blog post originally published March 27, 2012.  This is revised post.

Theater, Life, and the Afterlife:
Tomb Décor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi
February 9, 2012, through June 17, 2012
125 East 65th Street, Manhattan, New York
Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Tuesday and Thursday 10:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Closed major holidays

1 comment:

Bryn Hammond said...

A lovely post. I'm researching Jin drama, glad to happen on this.