Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 16, 2012
Wu Hung The Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs Honolulu: University Of Hawai'i Press, 2010. 272 pp.; 35 color ills.; 165 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780824834265)
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In texts and poetry of ancient China, the Yellow Springs refers to the subterranean realm of the dead and was thus “the imagined location of innumerable graves” (7). Wu Hung’s Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs presents a long-awaited synthesis of developments in tomb art in China from the Neolithic period through the Song Dynasty, or the third millennium BCE though the fourteenth century (and in some instances, even into the succeeding Ming and Qing dynasties). Such broad, sweeping studies are rarely attempted, but the core of this book is in fact a compilation of some three decades of Wu’s own published research articles on mortuary art in China from the Han through the Northern Dynasties, which he has prudently combined with ancient and modern scholarship—including a number of recent PhD dissertations—and colored with stories from China’s literary tradition. Wu is able to manage such a scope by eschewing any claims to a comprehensive chronological study or one that delineates regional diversity in the visual culture of tombs; instead, he forefronts an interpretive framework of examining the development of the tomb and its contents as a conceptual whole. This approach is, in fact, part of relatively recent scholarly currents that attempt to understand objects as part of the larger context of the tomb and ideologies of death and the afterlife in China, which Wu discusses in his introduction. These studies have been facilitated by an increasing number of published reports on individual tombs over the past several decades, and are reflected in a proliferation of exhibitions, and even entire museums, in China that focus on the tomb as a contextual framework for the display of objects. Most importantly, this perspective is also a welcome departure from the history of art as it has been traditionally written for China, which presents a narrative based largely on studies of individual forms or media, such as bronze vessels, jade carvings, figure painting, and pottery.

To introduce his study, Wu highlights the notion of concealment as a fundamental principle and characteristic of Chinese tombs, and argues that objects and imagery within tombs comprise art forms that were not intended for visual scrutiny—at least not by the living world. Rather, the visual culture of tombs was created expressly for the dead according to design principles that did not abide by the laws of nature and therefore could only be appropriate for a realm where life was to extend indefinitely. His perspective throughout the book, that structure, objects, and imagery should be investigated as bound up in visual and spatial systems that developed together with changes in religious ideologies of death and ritual practice, makes for an extremely useful study that should be read by scholars and students alike.

Chapter 1, “Spatiality,” describes the development of tomb structures in early China, the underlying design principles that motivated different layouts, and the emergence of meaningful spaces within. This chapter is divided into two sections, the first of which details the gradual formation of architecturally modeled spaces within tombs and how such layouts came to integrate imagery and objects that drew together different realms of postmortem existence for the soul. Specifically, Wu stresses as pivotal the shift from the casket grave (guo mu), which was a sealed space buried in a vertical pit, to the chambered grave (shi mu), a horizontally oriented structure of multiple spatial components that was situated underground or excavated into hillsides or mountains. According to Wu, while the casket grave, which was generally a more box-like structure, relied on objects to define spaces and ideas, the chambered grave, which was by design a series of linked rooms, forefronts architectural space as the primary frame through which tomb furnishings, including imagery on walls, could be integrated into increasingly unified narratives, a topic he returns to in chapter 3. Importantly, the idea of the tomb as an architectural space formed in concert with developing ideologies of an afterlife in which the soul was to continue to thrive in the tomb, and changes in ritual practice, which most notably shifted attention from the temple to the tomb as a center of ancestor worship, and thus the locus of care for the dead. The notions of an afterlife generated desires to provide the soul with three potential realms of existence: an ordered and properly oriented cosmic environment, an immortal paradise, and a happy home. Wu explains that these three “aspects of an idealized life” constituted three visual systems that can be found in tombs from the Han through the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and uses Lothar Ledderose’s notion of the modular approach to explain that they acted as basic themes from which different combinations of motifs could be chosen to create the varied visual layouts we uncover today (Lothar Ledderose, Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

While the first section of chapter 1 focuses on posthumous environments for the soul, the second section is devoted to the ways in which the deceased and her or his soul were situated within those constructed universes. Here, Wu enhances his hypothesis of the tomb as a new center for temple worship in Han and post-Han contexts by discussing the visual strategies used to create spaces for posthumous worship and/or memorialization of the dead. Two ways of representing the departed in tombs—empty spaces, or spirit seats, constructed for the soul through object assemblages and pictorial imagery or, alternatively, posthumous portraits of the deceased—were located centrally or configured in association with sacrificial altars, and support Wu’s claim that the grave evolved as a center of ancestral worship. It should be noted that these spaces are not often discussed, or even detected, in archaeological reports since, by convention, objects are listed by medium rather than position in the tomb. At the end of the chapter, Wu’s discussion advances through various iterations of spirit seats and posthumous portraits from the Northern Dynasties through the Song. At this point, the analysis tends to lose the conceptual grounding that Wu provides for earlier periods as formal variations are cataloged across regions and periods. Even for a study that proposes to look at broader questions of tomb symbolism and meaning, it is here that the necessity for more focused and contextualized analyses reveals itself most strongly, especially for periods of disunion or when tombs exhibit hybrid cultural traditions.

Chapter 2, “Materiality,” turns to the “things” placed inside the tomb, focusing on the physical properties of burial items and the organizing principles governing their placement in relation to the posthumous soul. Wu details his purpose clearly in the opening sentence of the chapter: “This chapter examines why certain materials, mediums, sizes, shapes and colors were selected for the tomb, and how these physical and visual elements were manipulated, transformed and combined to serve various religious and artistic purposes in funerary art” (85). The material in this chapter is presented fluidly, beginning with objects commonly found in tombs and ending with the material associations and accoutrements of deceased bodies. He discusses the significance of mingqi, or spirit articles, which he calls “visual symbols of death,” vessels modeled on objects used in life but created as or rendered unusable in order to confirm the separation of the dead from the living, and tomb figurines, or human substitutes arranged within the tomb as assemblages to serve the deceased and her or his soul and reinforce her or his centrality and social identity. In an interesting section entitled “Magic,” Wu also examines various forms of so-called acquittal figurines (jiechu yong or jiezhe yong), which were created as body doubles made from lead, tin, or other significant materials whose purpose was to absorb, on behalf of the deceased individual, potential culpability and punishment inflicted by authorities in the afterlife. Furthermore, these types, which have been found in Han Dynasty tombs, may have influenced the emergence of ”stone true body” sculptures found in Tang Dynasty tombs. Carved from durable and long-lasting stone, these sculptures were created as doubles for the mortal body and were intended to extend life indefinitely. All of these examples support the discussion at the end of the chapter, which focuses on the preservation and transformation of deceased individuals into immortal souls through material symbolism of objects closely associated with the corpse. Thus, in addition to the design of the tomb, the creation of objects for the dead and treatment of bodies were directed at processes of transformation—in other words, the tomb was a space in which a postmortem existence was generated and activated through environment and material symbolism.

Chapter 3, “Temporality,” opens by introducing further layers of symbolism within the tomb—in this case, representations of different strands of time—and concludes with the notion of journey as a common means by which all spatial and temporal systems were drawn together to form coherent narratives of afterlife existence. Through both imagery and objects, Wu identifies three different temporal orders: cosmic/mythic time comprised pictures or diagrams of heavenly phenomena or essential patterns surmised about the workings of the universe; lived time was embodied by objects used by the deceased in life and buried with him in death; and historical time was denoted through biography, as well as images of legendary or historical figures and anecdotes of the past. The second category, lived time, is an important notion that, up until this point, has not been discussed in depth in studies of mortuary art for China, where the humanizing element is often lacking and studies on the construction of memory for the ancient period are still in their early stages. Lived objects, which include “utensils and ritual vessels, musical instruments, weapons and armor, art collections and intimate objects” (164), are often difficult to identify archaeologically because many of these same object types were created expressly for burial, and signs of use or wear have been obscured by time and conditions of preservation. Through careful observation of object assemblages, however, Wu proposes a convincing method for determining which objects were indeed taken from life and created anew for death: objects found in association with the corpse evoke the former life of the deceased, while those found near or framing the spirit seat signal her or his present existence, reborn in the transformational space of the tomb. This is a good example of what Wu labels “juxtaposition,” one way that different temporalities were conveyed collectively within the tomb. Each assemblage “implies a self-contained visual and spatial system” and can be understood together as a “static, dualistic ‘pairing’” (192). A second method, “narrative,” was employed to link multiple dimensions of time and is the subject of the final part of the chapter. It is here that Wu returns to architecturally modeled spaces as the framework through which imagery and objects are united in coherent sequences of events, which include depictions of funerary processions to the tomb and posthumous journeys outside. The journeys are facilitated through chariot processions (and in some cases, through chariots buried in the tomb) and qualified by their orientation, which changes direction based on destination. They are also activated through visual signifiers of movement, such as soaring beasts and backdrops of undulating clouds. Finally, tomb structure plays a role in understanding these narratives, especially in the case of long ramps leading to the tomb, where imagery was often centered, and which were recognized as symbolic spaces of passage.

The coda puts into practice the holistic approach that this book advocates by revisiting three well-known and published tombs through mini “portraits.” Description of these tombs—Mawangdui Tomb 1 (early 2nd century BCE), Mancheng Tomb 1 (late 2nd century BCE), and a Zhang family tomb at Xuanhua (late 11th century CE)—enable Wu to articulate one of the more important messages of his book, which is that there are certain consistent patterns of design that can be identified across the long tradition of what he calls “Chinese tombs,” and that over time they grew into a basic framework open to variation—one that accommodated factors such as regional styles, the incorporation of new indigenous or foreign visual traditions (such as the imagery of Daoism and Buddhism), and individual preference. Though this book can be read by an audience of both specialists and non-specialists, the former will certainly lament the omission of Chinese characters from the text and bibliography, while the latter would benefit from maps indicating the locations of the tombs under discussion. Moreover, as noted at the outset of this review, many of the arguments presented throughout this book have been previously published by Wu, but are re-presented here within a broader temporal framework. As one who studies the mortuary art of early China, it is refreshing to learn about the lasting significance that early tombs and burial items had on later contexts. It is somewhat less satisfying, however, to read only brief references to lesser-known or more recently discovered tombs, while those already well known are forefronted. Notwithstanding these minor points, The Art of the Yellow Springs is an enjoyable read and, more importantly, an excellent contribution to an understanding of the underlying design principles of tombs in China.

Sheri A. Lullo
Assistant Professor, Visual Arts Department, Union College


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