Mortuary Art in the Northern Zhou Dynasty


A Review of Mortuary Art in the Northern Zhou China (557–581 CE): Visualization of Class, Role, and Cultural Identity, by Jui-man Mandy Wu.

In 534 CE, the mighty Northern Wei dynasty — which had briefly unified north China for the first time since the Han collapse in 220 CE — was cleaved in two. When the dust settled, the western half was controlled by the Northern Zhou dynasty (descended from the nomadic Xianbei tribe), while the Chinese heartland to the east lay in the hands of the Han-Chinese Northern Qi. At the same time, the Northern Zhou maintained westward access to the extensive trade networks of the Silk Road. Mortuary Art in the Northern Zhou China by Jui-man Wu explores Northern Zhou elite burials at this site of intense multiculturalism.

After a succinct overview of the founding of the dynasty by the Yuwen branch of the nomadic Xianbei tribe and the military and religious landscape of the period, Wu provides a brief literature review and establishes the methodological basis of the dissertation, which is based on archaeological evidence and draws heavily on “anthropological theories of agency and cultural identity” (p. 14). In the following three chapters, she sets about her main task: revealing larger patterns of self-expression and self-identification through a systematic analysis of the form and content of Northern Zhou. In order to avoid the hot potato of ethnic identity — which remains very much an open question in the study of the Xianbei — Wu focuses her attention instead on the performance of cultural/ethnic affiliation in the funerary context rather than genetics.

In the body of her dissertation, Wu identifies three major categories of elites among the upper echelons of Northern Zhou society: the imperial family, generals, and wealthy merchants. The military officials may be of either Han or Xianbei descent, but the merchant class was dominated by an Eastern Iranian group called Sogdians, and the royal family was strictly Xianbei. Through the study of their tomb styles, grave goods, and epitaphs, Wu unravels the idea of Xianbei’s involuntary assimilation into Chinese society. In this regard, Wu follows in the steps of Albert Dien, who argues that the Northern Zhou is a period of “Xianbei-ization” rather than Sinicization (p. 65-66).

The first category that Wu draws attention to is the royal tombs of the imperial family, which the Zhoushu claims were styled after the tombs of the Han royalty (p. 19). These are compared to those of the Northern Qi, but the comparison is somewhat limited in scope because the only tombs suitable for study are the joint Northern Zhou tomb of Emperor Wu (d. 578 CE) and Empress Ashina (d. 582 CE) at Xiaoling in Shaanxi, and the Northern Qi imperial tomb at Wanzhang in Hebei. Nonetheless, Wu shows that while both dynasties perpetuated certain Chinese mortuary traditions, such as the use of long sloping passageways and interment of ceramic models, the Northern Zhou made several conscious departures from Han tradition. Specifically, they omitted the elaborate wall paintings, reduced the number of tomb figurines, and included more steppic markers of elite status like grayware jars (guan), bronze belts with knives, gold thread, and fragments of a gold headdress.

This disparity between the self-image of the Han and the Xianbei becomes more apparent in the next chapter, which examines the burials of seven Northern Qi and Northern Zhou generals. In the case of the military elites, the tombs of the former generally exhibit fewer nomadic traits than the latter, but ultimately it is the ethnic origins of the deceased that are most determinant of the style of burial goods. For example, even though a miniature cauldron in the tomb of Han-Chinese general Wang Shilang (d. 584 CE) attests to his service to the Xianbei, his tomb also contained a miniature set of bronze ritual vessels marking unambiguously his “Chineseness” (p. 107).

According to Wu’s analysis, the eclecticism seen in the tomb art of generals serving the Northern Zhou can be understood on separate social and personal levels (p. 121). Both Han-Chinese and Xianbei elites oscillated between their roles as subjects of Xianbei overlords, custodians of traditional Chinese culture (which was tied to political legitimacy), and members of local ethnic communities. However, the Sogdian tombs of the Northern Zhou period discussed in Wu’s final case study exhibit decidedly less flexibility.

The next chapter examines the tombs of three Sogdians who held the positions of sabao (“caravan leader,” the head of the Sogdian merchant community) and datianzhu (“Heavenly Master,” possibly a Zoroastrian priest). In these tombs, the customary Zoroastrian burial — which entails the removal of flesh by exposing the body to birds or dogs and the depositing of bones into an ossuary — was substituted by placing the deceased on a funerary couch. However, Wu responds to Judith Lerner’s and Wang Weikun’s proposal that this modification is a sign of cultural assimilation by pointing out the use of the distinctively Central Asian content of the couches and Sogdian officials’ retention of foreign-sounding names (p. 132).

Wu concludes by reflecting on the terms “Sinicization” and “barbarianization,” which she considers inadequate to describe the subtle shifting identities apparent in the tombs and mortuary art of Northern Zhou elites. Like the dynasty itself, which was organized on a dual nomadic military system and a Han-style bureaucracy, all of the Northern Zhou tombs Wu described confirm the possibility of affiliating oneself — in death — with many disparate sources: national vs. local, social vs. personal, and acquired vs. hereditary.

This dissertation is indispensable to the fields of Chinese art and Inner Asian studies for two reasons. On the one hand, it challenges the longstanding notion that the non-Chinese rulers of China in this period emulated Han cultural norms either because they considered them superior, or because the Chinese thrust their identity upon their uncivilized neighbors. Instead, Wu transfers agency to the Northern Zhou elites themselves, explaining that a variety of political and economic motivations prompted them to wear many hats, both figuratively and literally. On the other hand, it is an invaluable resource that gathers together recently excavated Northern Zhou and Northern Qi archaeological materials and presents them — for the first time in English — as a coherent collection.

While it is clear that the debate about cultural assimilation at the edges of Chinese civilization will continue for many years to come, I am certain that this study will stand the test of time as a valuable contribution to the conversation.

Sarah Laursen
Visiting Assistant Professor
Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University

Primary Sources

Tomb and epitaphs of Emperor Wu (d. 578 CE) and Empress Ashina (d. 582 CE), Xianyang, Shaanxi province, Northern Zhou dynasty
Tomb of Chiluo Xie (Xianbei official, d. 574 CE), Xianyang, Shaanxi province, Northern Zhou dynasty
Tomb of Cui Fen (Chinese official, d. 551 CE), Linqu, Shandong province, Northern Qi dynasty
Tomb of Li Xian (Chinese official, d. 569 CE), Guyuan, Ningxia province, Northern Zhou dynasty
Tomb of An Jia (Sogdian official, d. 579 CE), Xi’an, Shaanxi province, Northern Zhou dynasty
(22 tombs were described in total, and these are chosen somewhat at random. The Zhoushu and other literary sources are references on rare occasion, but most evidence is from excavation reports and secondary literature.)

Dissertation Information

University of Pittsburgh. 2010. 245pp. Primary Advisor: Katheryn M. Linduff.

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