A review of The Making of the Tuoba Northern Wei: Constructing material cultural expressions in the Northern Wei Pingcheng Period (398?494 CE), by Chin-Yin Tseng.
In this dissertation, the author reinforces the importance of the Northern Wei dynasty in Chinese history, based on an analysis of material culture remains, more specifically the use of the material of stone in the Pingcheng period. Chapter 1 starts by presenting a historical introduction to the Tuoba Wei and four different maps for orientation. The author presents the current “general view” on the topic, being preoccupied with the discourse of “Sinicization” and the foreigner’s acculturation to the Han. The author introduces the concept of a “dual presence” (p.1, ft. 3), a mechanism (re)used by the Tuoba, combining features of the nomadic steppe and the agrarian Chinese structures (see Barfield, Thomas. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 104). Following Barfield who focuses on politic features, the author wants to use this approach to analyse material culture in Pingcheng, the Northern Wei capital (present-day Datong). The analysis centers on how the Tuoba, being “outsiders” themselves, negotiated material culture in the Pingcheng period and how they carried out this negotiation through “changing pattern of the consumption of material goods with attached cultural values”(p. 4). The dissertation deals therefore mainly with the adoptions and adaptations of stone sarcophagi, mural paintings and Buddha stone sculptures.
In the following, theories on social and cultural interaction are being introduced, namely the habitus of Bourdieu (Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Richard Nice (trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), the discourse theory of Foucault (Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Alan Sheridan (trans.). London: Penguin Books, 1977), and network theory. The author “puts forth an alternative approach to understand the relations and interaction between the steppeland and the Chinese sphere in the early Northern Wei period” (p. 5).
In the first subsection entitled “Historical and Material Sources”, the author introduces the textual and material sources being consulted, mostly consisting of the dynastic histories and archaeological materials from Datong. The author points out the problems related to the existent archaeological work and the use of concepts as “Sinicization”, “remains”, “cultures” or the designation of “foreign objects” in archaeological reports.
In the second subsection entitled “Origins of the Tuoba”, the author discusses the text based approach of Ma Changshou (Ma Changshou 馬長壽. Wuhuan yu Xianbei 烏桓與鮮卑. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1962), contrasting them with work by Lin Wo (Lin Wo 林斡. Dong Hu shi 東胡史. Hohhot: Neimenggu renmin chubanshe, 2007) and Sun Wei (Sun Wei 孫危. Xianbei kaoguxue wenhua yanjiu 鮮卑考古學文化研究. Beijing: Science Press, 2007), concluding by choosing not to make any conclusive remarks on the ongoing debate about the linguistic nature of the Tuoba tongue.
In the third subsection called “Methodology”, the author proposes to analyse the construction of the “Chineseness” of the Tuoba Northern Wei via a study focused on the material culture at Pingcheng. This is followed by a short presentation of the “Sinicization” debate, drawing on Evelyn Rawski (Rawski, Evelyn S. “Reenvisioning the Qing: The Significance of the Qing Period in Chinese History.” The Journal of Asian Studies 55(4)(1996): pp. 829-850), Ping-Ti Ho (Ho, Ping-Ti. “The Significance of the Ch’ing Period in Chinese History.” The Journal of Asian Studies 26(2)(1967): pp. 189-195) and Matthew Canepa (Canepa, Matthew P. “Preface: Theorizing Cross-Cultural Interaction Among Ancient and Early Medieval Visual Cultures,” Orientalis 38 (2010): pp. 7-30). “By combining old traditions/objects with new practices/applications, visual representations and material forms were (re)created and (re)interpreted in the Northern Wei Period” (p. 13). According to the approach of the author, Pingcheng, as a “middle ground” (referring to Gosden, Chris. Archaeology and Colonialism: Cultural Contact from 5000 BC to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 30-32, 82-113), creating an own consumption of material culture, can be treated as a Pingcheng habits.
Finally, the author presents a chapter outline, starting with a discussion of the creation of new rituals of the Tuoba in the second chapter, proceeding with the exploration of the Yungang grottoes as embodiment of a “new imperial commemorative tradition” (p.15) merging the monastic and state power into the entity of the emperor. Chapter four presents two case studies, the tomb of Lady Poduoluo at Shaling M7 and the tomb of Song Shaozu at Yanbei Shiyuan M5. Lastly, chapter five analyses the story of Mulan, snippets of the Northern Wei legacies, and the ancestral dedication at the Gaxian Cave from the perspective of the construction of a new identity.
The author starts Chapter 2 by introducing the watershed moment of 398 CE, when the Wei dynasty was established and the capital was relocated to Pingcheng. To analyse the subsequent changes in the Tuoba’s lifestyle, the author presents the actual state of scholarship, focusing on the adoption of Chinese court practices. The author proposes to challenge the classical Chinese view by piecing together an account of the court activities based on the Wei shu. The importance of the mobility of the emperor is pointed out, leading to the construction of a “dual presence”, while keeping up the facade of Pingcheng as an orthodox Chinese capital. This “dual presence” was reinforced by two types of rituals of the empire: a system of state ceremonies and a symbolic possession of the realm, the emperor moving through the empire.
To establish the physical layout of Pingcheng, the records of Li Daoyuan are being consulted. Furthermore, it is explained why the Tuoba would choose not to keep the conferred title of “Dai”, opting to call the dynasty “Wei”. They wanted to construct a dynastic heritage going as far back as the Zhou dynasty. Therefore the emperor ascended the throne making a sacrifice to Shangdi in the southern suburbs of Pingcheng – the sacrifice in the south being a core state ritual of native Chinese dynasties – intending to “establish the Tuoba’s ancestral landscape in the newly conquered realm” (p. 23). The author sees this as a successful combination of a dynastic ritual and ancestral worship. The author then points out that the emperor conducted the following rituals (in 400 and 405 CE) first in the north and then in the west. Drawing on Kang Le’s theory (Kang Le 康樂. Cong xijiao dao nanjiao: Guojia jidian yu Bei Wei zhengzhi 從西郊到南郊：國家祭典與北魏政治. Taipei: Daohe chubanshe, 1995, 166-169), the author suggests that the offering to the West was typical for the “north Asian steppe system” (idem, pp. 167-169). It is suggested by Kang Le that they thereby continued to value their own ritual practices. The author goes even further, arguing that the Tuoba mashed together two different ritual traditions, leaving uncommented the fact that the ritual was also conducted in the north. The “sacrifice at Baideng”, a ritual also held in the north east suburbs of Pingcheng is then presented to underpin the argument, pointing out that the ancestral temples were erected to the west of the Baideng Mountains.
As another physical aspect of the Tuoba’s ritualistic system, the “Mingtang” in the southern suburbs of Pingcheng is presented. The author sees this building as a fictional marker of institutional continuity, underpinning the theory of the “dual presence”. In the discussion, the author is drawing on the discourse between Steinhardt (Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. Chinese Imperial City Planning. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990, pp. 15-16) and Xiong (Xiong, Victor. “Ritual Architecture under the Northern Wei” in Wu Hung (ed.), Between the Han and Tang: Visual and Material Culture in a Transformative Period. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2003, p. 72). The author argues against them, stating that the rare features of the Mingtang shouldn’t be treated as anomalies, but rather analyzed from their functions: the ceiling was an astrological device. The form of the “Laternendecke” ceiling (Soper, Alexander. “The ‘Dome of Heaven’ in Asia.” The Art Bulletin 29(4)(1947): pp. 225-248) was imported as a result of the Hellenistic conquests and adoptions in the Buddhist cave temples. The emperor would move through the structure, placing himself in the centre of the empire and the spatial and temporal dimensions of the known astrological and geographical world. Archaeologically, the only remains are the rammed earth foundations. The rest is drawn from Li Daoyuan, stating that it “deviated from ancient practices” (no footnote). “This (…) ambiguity between form and design of the Pingcheng mingtang could be treated as another manifestation of the Tuoba’s ‘dual presence”(p. 29).
The author then turns to the question of the conception of Pingcheng as a capital. The term “progress” (p. 29) is chosen to describe the movement of the Tuoba rulers with their mobile court. Likewise, “the Tuoba’s practice of mass population relocation upon their conquests of new territories can be said to reflect the ‘raid and take’ practices of the nomadic lifestyle” (p. 29) and later pp. 35-39). In this section, the author presents how the nomadic background of the progresses of the Tuoba, sometimes incorporated in hunting and military expeditions, was utilized to create a new method of rulership. The movements of the emperor Daowu in the years 399 to 409 are presented in a table. According to the author, the role Elizabeth I took in her reign is somehow similar to the Tuoba emperor, being much involved in military affairs. Besides that, a good example to illustrate the importance of hunting at the Tuoba court is seen in the accounts of the courts of Francis I and Henry VIII. The last important factor to the movements of the emperor were the seasons, i.e. the climatic conditions and last but not least the “personalities and idiosyncrasies of the emperor himself” (p.33), taking delight in small pleasures, as did Francis I. Nevertheless, the emperor was returning to Pingcheng to perform his ritual and imperial duties as well as overseeing architectural projects (table 3, p. 34).
Putting this together, the author suggests that the Tuoba emperors “held ambivalent feelings toward the notion of establishing a permanent seat of power in Pingcheng” (p.33). According to the author, when considering emperor Daowu’s travels and the architectural projects, it is obvious that the Tuoba had no intentions to be tied down in Pingcheng. In an effort to underpin this thesis, the travel destinations and purposes of the travels of emperor Xiaowen in the year 481 are listed in a table (table 4, pp. 34-35).
In Chapter 3, the Yungang grottoes are first being introduced to the reader, pointing out that foreign features were borrowed from Central Asia, i.e. Gandhara, Mathura, Amaravati, and India. Following Erik Zurcher (Zurcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China: the spread and adaptation of Buddhism in early medieval China. 3rd ed. Leiden: Brill, 2007, pp. 114-116), Tsukamoto Zenryū (Tsukamoto, Zenryū 塚本善隆. Shina bukkyōshi kenkyū: Hokugi hen 支那佛教史研究：北魏篇. Tokyo: Kōbundō, 1942, p. 14) and Tang Yongtong (Tang Yongtong 湯用彤. Han Wei liang Jin Nanbeichao fojiao shi 漢魏兩晉南北朝佛教史. Wuhan: Wuhan daxue chubanshe, 2008, pp. 280, 332), the author wants to show that the assimilation of Buddhist features was different in Northern and Southern China. Yungang was typical of the Northern Wei, adopting Buddhism as a state religion and presenting and carving Buddhas like Emperors, thereby creating an imperial iconography. The focus of the author lies on the material and the technological particularities of Yungang. The goal is to show that the Buddhas are more imperial monuments than religious icons and materialize the “dual presence” of the sovereigns of the Northern Wei through their self-expression.
As the Chinese tradition of erecting stone stelae was merely a commemoration, the Tuoba, being exposed to Central Asian monumental traditions (e.g., the rock reliefs of Naqsh-e Rostam and Taq-e Bostan), adapted the “techno-complex” (the author referring to Stuart Piggott; Piggott, Stuart. Wagon, Chariot and Carriage: symbol and status in the history of transport. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992, pp. 32-38, 45-48) necessary to create monumental figures for the self-representation of the sovereigns. The use of stone, borrowed from Western Asia, derives from the traditions of Gandhara, Mathura and Amaravati. The Buddha statues combine the sovereign’s own image with symbols of power and victory, the “dual-presence” lying in not showing their true features to the masses and simultaneously merging the two identities by representing the Northern Wei emperor as a Buddha.
Through their materiality, the sculptures inspire imperial might and awe and incorporate the Tuoba’s own tradition of excavating caves into mountainsides for ancestral temples, thereby combining in Yungang the worship of Buddha with the worship of the lineage. The Tuoba shifted therefore from the might of the word on stelae to the power of the sculpture, while deifying their kingship: although there is no textual evidence to substantiate their assertion, it seems that Western and Chinese specialists agree on the fact that the sculptures were carved to the likeliness of the emperors. Two other dedications of Emperor Weicheng in 452 and 454 CE are presented as examples of similar actions. This shift resulted in engaging a new audience, by using the Buddhist concept of “teaching by images” (xiangjiao 象教, p. 51): the society was able to grasp the sculptures through sight, touch and somatic awareness.
In the following, different novelties of the Yungang grottoes are presented. In one cave, one finds two Buddhas instead of only one: this is traced back to the Lotus-Sutra, introducing a new type of iconography, maybe explained by the importance of the duo of Emperor Xiaowen and the Dowager Empress. Other new elements include a central stupa pillar, borrowed from the “chaitya halls” in India, flower and leaf scrolls as well as small stone sutra pillars. These might well have found their way through a chain of tradition leading through Liangzhou, finally being hybridized in Yungang.
In Chapter 4, several representative Northern Wei tombs of the Pingcheng period located in or on the outskirts of Datong are analyzed for their habitus (Bourdieu, pp. 78-85) and the identities of the occupants in this chapter, including the novelties of the mural paintings, the clay figurines and the stone sarcophagi, reconsidering the Northern Wei elite’s adaptability of cultural affiliations. As the author sees the tomb as a duplication of the life above ground (with the tomb of the first Emperor as example), a new collective identity is created in a hybrid “dual presence,” juggling between Eurasian steppe and Chinese traditions.
Building on the notion advanced by Albert Dien (Dien, Albert. Six Dynasties Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 13-14), the author tries to show how the Northern Wei were influential in formulating conventions, that are now considered to be Chinese. In the analysis, single artefacts will not be judged as indicators of a Sinicization process and therefore attributed to categories, pursuing the goal of reading the entire tomb space as a functional set. Following the hypothesis of Zheng Yan (Zheng Yan 鄭岩. Wei Jin Nanbeichao bihua mu yanjiu 魏晉南北朝壁畫墓研究. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2002, pp. 145-180; himself basing on Chen Yinque 陳寅恪. Sui Tang zhidu yuanyuan luelun gao 隋唐制度淵源略論稿. Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1954, p. 2), new archaeological findings of recent years will be used to prove the negotiation of hybrid burial practices in the Northern Wei tombs of Pingcheng, linking the Hexi to the Guanzhong region, with special focus on Liangzhou as a gateway to Central Asia and further west.
Now follow the case studies. First Shaling M7 of Lady Poduoluo, dated to 435 CE (according to an inscription on a lacquer fragment) and excavated in 2005. With this example, the author explains the changes in material and representation in tombs of the Hexi area. Mural paintings, now covering the entire wall surface of the tomb chamber, show a pictorial program including farm production, preparation of banquets as well as feasting and entertainment. These depictions of daily activities now also introduced the role of the lady and her female guests as having their own separate banquet. They were organized either in registers (three tiers) or turning individual scenes into one big scenario, spanning across the entire wall. A shift of perspective of the tomb space is performed by positioning the image of the tomb occupants prominently against the back wall, enhancing his or her social and functional role, furthermore emphasized by their enlarged size and presenting a frontal portrayal of the face, forcing the viewer to an eye-contact (Wu Hung. The Wu Liang Shrine: The ideology of early Chinese pictorial art. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989, pp. 132-134). The side-view portrayal of the tomb occupant on the other walls let the viewer take different point of views and roles. Braking the limitations of bricks or stone slabs, a new shift in the representation can be seen in the depiction of the banquet scene taking place on an open air camp site rather than in the typical Han indoor location.
The author points out differentiating markers in details of the murals. The half-drawn curtains and the style of the pavilions appear to be a variant of a Central Asian tent, only covered with a Chinese styled wooden roof. Furthermore the hosts of the banquet are sitting on an elevated seat on a dais, the author seeing this as an adaption to a rough outdoor environment, opposed to the inside banquets of the Han, being depicted sitting on cushions. Mountains, trees, grass and most importantly screens are used as differentiating markers. The author supposes that the main transportation mode for the tents were ox-drawn carts, a manifestation of the Eurasian steppe cultural continuum.
According to the author, the procession on the murals depicting soldiers and well-disciplined musicians and entertainers offer a completely new perspective on the representation of power and might, showing a biography of the deceased, opposed to Han murals, which would show stock motifs and modular patterns of soldiers in an actual combat scene and the entertainers accompanying the banquet. A small hunting scene is also depicted, paradoxically showing the horses, men and deer at rest, serene and peacefully. The author sees this as the representation of a peaceful retreat into nature. Fuxi and Nüwa, cosmic sages of the Han tradition are depicted above the tomb corridor, separating the world of the living and the realm of the afterlife.
The second case study deals with Xanbei Shiyuan M5 of Song Shaozu, a brick single-chambered tomb dated to 477 (according to the epitaph brick), excavated in 2000. It contains a stone sarcophagus in form of a house with mural paintings on the inside and clusters of figurines around it. As it was looted, the two sets of human bones and jewellery have been scattered. The author tries to show how a member of the Han Chinese elite, Song Shaozu, living in the fifth century in northern China, should be viewed as a “new outsider” (p. 91). His name is not to be found in any textual sources although he must have belonged to an elite family of Dunhuang. He adopted the form of the stone shaped sarcophagus combining it with a symbolic meaning derived from the local habitus and placed clay figurines in his tomb, representing a full military assemblage, typical for Pingcheng burials, to demonstrate a high social status, only common for tombs of the kings and grand generals during the Han dynasty. The detailed figures are confined to the categories of tomb guardians, warrior, domestic attendants and the Hu foreigners. The focus lies on the military, excluding the otherwise typical musicians and dancers. Noticeable are the “distinctive Xianbei headgears” (p. 93, see Dien, Albert. “A New Look at the Xianbei and their Impact on Chinese Culture” in George Kuwayama (ed.), Ancient Mortuary Traditions of China: Papers on Chinese Ceramic Funerary. Los Angeles: Far Eastern Art Council.1992, p. 46), combined with matching robes and armour. These military figurines are seen by the author as mechanisms through which the occupant’s desired glamorous identity was constructed and by which he wanted to be remembered.
The stone sarcophagus inside the tomb is an imitation of a timber hall, flamboyantly ornamented and made of over one hundred pieces of carved stones. The author does not follow the argumentation of Zheng Yan (Zheng Yan 鄭岩. “Qingzhou Bei Qi huaxiangshi yu ruhua Suteren meishu” 青州北齊畫像石與入華粟特人美術, in Wu Hung (ed.), Han Tang zhijian wenhua yishu de hudong yu jiaorong 漢唐之間文化藝術的互動與交融, Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe2001, pp. 81-83) and Wu Hung (Wu Hung. “A Case of Cultural Interaction: House-shaped sarcophagi of the Northern Dynasties,” Orientations 34(5)(2002): pp. 34-41), suggesting that these house-shaped stone sarcophagi of the Northern Dynasties inherited a Chinese tradition, but proposes that these sarcophagi are produced out of a negotiation of new material concepts, following the thesis advanced by Chen Xin (Chen Xin. Miniature Buildings in the Liao (907-1125) and the Northern Song (960-1127) Periods. DPhil thesis. Oxford: University of Oxford, 2011, pp. 59-60). During the Han Dynasty, the sarcophagus was carved out of one block of stone and a roof was placed as a lid on it; by contrast, here the sarcophagus was constructed from meticulously carved stone pieces, using decorations with architectural elements imported from early Christian sarcophagi and combining them with the Buddhist techno-complex in the early Northern Wei period, creating a new trend of house-shaped stone sarcophagi. The author suggests that in Song Shaozu’s case, the inside of the sarcophagus with its paintings constructs the occupant’s preferred habitus of his private life opposed to his public sphere, which is represented around the sarcophagus. In the Pingcheng period, the function of the sarcophagus surpasses the mere status of a funerary furnishing, being transformed into an aspect of the life of the deceased. This tomb exemplifies how the Pingcheng habitus was merging the cultural markers of the steppe and the Chinese sphere. More importantly, the author suggests that the mentioned organization of the tomb was organized from the point of view and for the enjoyment of the tomb occupants.
Chapter 5 deals with “the many faces of the Tuoba“ (p. 105), starting with the Ballad of Mulan. The author explains that although the dating of this song, telling the story of a horsewoman dressing up as a man and going to war instead of her father, is a debated issue. However it is mostly accepted as dating from the Northern Wei, partly because the included terms “Khagan” and “Son of Heaven” are mutually replaceable. The image of the horsewoman – also used in other yuefu poems and unprecedented in classical Chinese poetry – included important features that were specific of the steppe cultural sphere. The salient point of this story resides though in the conflict with the classical Confucian ideal of a woman: as Feng Lan (Lan, Feng. “The Female Individual and the Empire: A Historicist Approach to Mulan and Kingston’s Woman Warrior,” Comparative Literature 55(3)(2003): p. 232) pointed out, it wasn’t a clash of two different concepts but rather a lack of mutual influence, leading the author to interpret it as epitomization of the notion of a “dual presence” in the society and culture of the Northern Wei period. The multiplicity of Mulan’s identities, changing from woman to man and back, is seen by the author as similar to the identities of Lady Poduoluo, being depicted in the tomb as mother of a Northern Wei general and at the same time as wife of her husband. The author then tries to show how, in the evolution of landscape painting from the earlier Qin dynasty up to the Tang, the art in the Tuoba’s tombs and Yungang grottoes played an important role in negotiating the future’s perspective on Chinese culture.
Finally, the Gaxian cave is presented, discovered in 1980 in Neimenggu province, containing an inscription of Emperor Taiwu of 443, confirming the historical accuracy of the Wei dynastic history. Interestingly the term “Huangdi” or “Di” for Emperor is avoided: the imperial father is addressed as “Kehan” and the mother as “Kedun”, again confirming that the Emperor Taiwu was proudly stating his lineage, stemming from the steppe sphere. Even more interestingly, the stone inscription shows one important difference to the transmitted text in the Wei shu: the Emperor Taiwu presents himself humbly as “son of heaven, your servant“ (tianzi chen 天子臣), possibly directly addressing the Tuoba ancestors, the last character being omitted in the Wei shu. This is interpreted by the author as Emperor Taiwu possessing multiple faces and having learned the powerful manipulation of rhetoric as means of statecraft. The author also sees in this rhetoric a parallel to Song Shaozu choosing nomadic dress for the clay figurines and a Han-Chinese apparel for the murals: it seems as the same choice of separating private and public, or in the case of the Emperor Taiwu, dynastic and filial associations. The ability of changing different identities, like Mulan, and the delicate maintenance of a “dual presence“ by the Northern Wei are believed to be the key to the success of the Tuoba as first multi-ethnic dynasty of China by the author.
Overall, the author thus reaches the aim of showing the importance of the Northern Wei Dynasty in Chinese history. As in similar research of the last years, the aim is to revise the classical sino-centric view of the Chinese historiography and even of some of today’s Chinese academic research on literary and archaeological sources. The Northern Wei pushed important historical developments forward, not by “enriching” the Chinese culture with elements of the steppe, but by introducing a new style of government into Northern China, in a balance between their steppe traditions and the secularized Chinese cultural continuum, what the author chooses to phrase as “dual-presence”, being able to change their “faces” in this multi-ethnic empire. The non-classical analysis of the Yungang grottoes and several tombs, seen as sets while discovering their occupant’s habitus, might very well inspire other researchers to look at contemporary material from a different and promising renewed angle. The thesis thereby points out the importance of the generally underestimated Northern Dynasties, too often neglected as an unsteady time span between the Han and Tang dynasties.
Graduate School Distant Worlds
Wei shu 魏書 (Book of Wei), by Wei Shou 魏收, ca. 554 CE. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974.
Excavations of Northern Wei tombs, led by the Datong shi kaogu yanjiusuo and Datong shi bowuguan, published in “Cultural Relics” (wenwu 文物) in the years 1989-2011.
University of Oxford. 2013. 130pp. Primary Advisor: Jessica Rawson.
Image: Northern Wei period apsara mural painting, computer rendered by Ting-fang Liu.