Tombs & Politics in Early Han China


A review of Patronage, Politics, and the Emergence of Rock-Cut Tombs in Early Han China, by Allison Ruth Miller.

Although few have been excavated in extenso, burials of members of the imperial Liu 劉 family are mainstays of Western Han (206 BCE-9 CE) archaeological scholarship. Among a variety of different structures, multi-roomed tombs cut into the bedrock of small mountains assume a particularly significant role. In contrast to earlier sites that employed wooden chambers at the bottom of rather deep vertical shaft-pits, these monuments clearly emphasize the horizontal dimension. In the past, this change in orientation has been taken to represent a fundamental shift in religious beliefs, as most recently described by Wu Hung (Wu Hung. 2011. The Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 17-34). Firstly, ancestral worship moved from temple to the horizontal tombs. Secondly, the traditional dualistic concept of the soul became obsolete. Thirdly, people started to see death as an alternative way to attain immortality. And finally, the afterlife was believed to be governed by an underworld bureaucracy.

In the introduction of Patronage, Politics, and the Emergence of Rock-Cut Tombs in Early Han China (hereafter Patronage), Allison Miller makes it perfectly clear that she pursues the subject of rock-cut tombs from a completely different angle. Through an in-depth analysis of social and political developments as visible in early Chinese historiography, i.e. the Shiji 史記 (Records of the Historian) and Hanshu 漢書 (Book of Han), and the writings of Jia Yi 賈誼 (200-168 BCE), she aspires to usher in new directions in the discussion of early Chinese mortuary archaeology. Apart from focusing on received literature, the author laudably aims at bringing “together all of the evidence […] visual, textual, or material” (p. 21). The latter, that is to say, the rock-cut tombs known so far, are presented in the first subsection of the opening remarks. After shortly stating her research method, Miller spends the remainder of the introduction on a brief and useful outline of the contents of the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 1 explores the relationships between burial, statecraft, and social networks before the Western Han. Eastern Zhou vertical shaft-pit tombs are usually considered underground abodes that were supposed to house the soul of the deceased. The author rejects such notions because they are either based on a literal understanding of isolated passages of prescriptive texts, or “a direct, functionalist reading of tomb artifacts” (p. 32). Instead, she deems it more appropriate to disclose the social climate that spawned debates about elite burials in the following three subsections. For instance, funerals in the Analects (Lunyu 論語) are commonly viewed in terms of ritual propriety and hierarchy. Miller, in contrast, claims that they were occasions in which the identity of Confucians as a group manifested itself. In life, their relationships were based on shared principles and mutual gifts. The interment of a friend thus was the last opportunity to reciprocate previous favors, a final chance to be “benevolent” (de 德; p 37). Mengzi 孟子 and Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 BCE), the compiler of Intrigues of the Warring States (Zhanguo ce 戰國策), stressed a different aspect. As Miller points out, in both texts burials are a matter of legitimacy as the heir dictated their proceedings. Xunzi 荀子 highlighted the importance of rank in the context of grave goods and archaeological features. The individual was only relevant as a part of society.

The author then concludes the chapter with a re-evaluation of Qin Shihuang’s burial. He was the first ruler to plan his funeral in advance in order to shape his own legacy. Miller does not subscribe to the widely held notion of his extensive tomb complex as a subterranean microcosm, but prefers to interpret it as a reflection of his vast territory and military strength.

The densely layered Chapter 2 (it comprises twelve subsections) “reassess the roots of the empire” (p. 81) by scrutinizing the reigns of Gaozu 高祖 (Liu Bang 劉邦; r. 202-195 BCE) and Empress Lü 呂 (r. 188-180 BCE). The first eight subsections are devoted to Liu Bang’s rise to power, his reign, and how his political career is generally perceived. Miller begins by exposing two popular research opinions on the formation of the early Han administration. She cites Michael Loewe to whom the rivals Liu Bang and Xiang Yu 項羽 (d. 202 BCE) personified competing ideologies. Accordingly, the former advocated a central state, whereas the latter preferred a confederacy of kingdoms. In contrast, the author refers to Lao Gan 勞榦, Jiang Bozan 翦伯贊 and Hans Bielenstein, who criticized Liu Bang for setting up a flawed, autocratic system (pp. 83-86).

Patronage argues that Loewe attributed too much power to both opposing parties at the time Qin fell. Xiang Yu did not actually intend to share the empire in a confederate sense. He established eighteen kings purely for strategic reasons. By increasingly diminishing their realms, Xiang Yu hoped to ascend the imperial throne himself (pp. 96-98). Liu Bang’s methods were likewise not geared towards a division of authority, neither were they thought of as rewards for services rendered to him. He appointed kings as a last resort to secure the loyalty of the respective incumbents. While still fighting for supremacy, Liu Bang made it a habit to promise his supporters more compensation in the form of ranks than he really delivered. Only those he truly trusted would eventually walk away with a fief. Subsequently, kings were driven to rebellion so that Liu Bang and his followers had an excuse to attack and reduce the number of kingdoms. Even though each abolished fiefdom consolidated Liu Bang’s reign, he paid dearly for his efforts as he succumbed to an injury suffered in combat against one of his kings. Before moving on to determine Empress Lü’s role in the administration of the early Han state, Allison Miller sums up Gaozu’s fragile reign. Preoccupied with constant battles to maintain the empire, he did not really have time to establish institutions or “signs of power” (p. 117). Unlike Wendi (r. 180-157 BCE), as will be described below, Liu Bang was rather indifferent towards his family. Similar to Qin Shihuang, he was a self-made man content with his own achievements.

In the following three subchapters the author replaces the prevailing interpretation of Empress Lü as a usurping villain with her own assessment of the written records. Miller, for instance, contends that Hans van Ess’ (Hans van Ess. 2006. “Praise and Slander: The Evocation of Empress Lü in the Shiji and the Hanshu.” Nan Nü 8.2: 221) view of Lü does not correlate with the historiographical sources. The Empress was, in fact, not pursuing to secure her “position at court to the disadvantage of the empire,” but clearly concerned with the stability of the state (p. 122). Rather than being anxious for her own welfare, Lü emerges from the pages of Shiji and Hanshu as the co-manager of the empire whenever Gaozu was away on military campaigns: “Empress Lü had always been the leader who stepped in to secure the empire, seemingly preferring to kill one or two than to lead the country into wars that would destroy even more lives” (p. 128). Preserving the state remained her primary objective after she formally took power. Increasing the number of kings (and therefore reducing the territories of their respective realms, i.e. revenue streams) and strategic enfeoffments were her main steps to strengthen the empire. The fact that only three out of the thirteen kings invested by the Empress belonged to the Lü clan negates any assertions that she was favoring her own family.

Allison Miller ends Chapter 2 by summarizing that Liu Bang was too busy to build any kind of effective administration and Empress Lü was only able to prevent the empire from collapsing. The “formidable task of re-inventing the administration” was left to Emperor Wen  (p. 139).

Chapter 3 demonstrates how Wendi could rely on Jia Yi’s “new vision for the empire,” which strongly underscored the flow of material goods in government (p. 140). To his mind, formal bureaucracy as well as imperial patronage ensured the support of the people. In a subchapter on Jia Yi’s biographies (Shiji 84, Hanshu 48), the author seeks to correct the accepted stance on his career. While scholarship generally agrees that Jia Yi was a brilliant yet under-appreciated statesman, she illustrates that Emperor Wen, in fact, closely listened to his advice. Many passages recorded in the two standard histories reveal that both protagonists stood either in direct or indirect contact for seven out of Jia Yi’s eleven years at court. In the next section, Jia Yi’s “Treatise on Oin’s Being Surpassed” (Guo Qin lun 過秦論; p. 145) recorded in his Xinshu 新書 (New Documents) is subjected to Miller’s scrutiny. Contrary to Mark Csikszentmihalyi (“Chia I’s ‘Techniques of the Tao’ and the Han Confucian Appropriation of Technical Discourse.” Asia Major, Third Series, 10.1-2 (1997): 58), who detected a syncretic intellectual milieu at Wendi’s court, the dissertation shows that the emperor expected more pragmatic counsel and that he was open to legalist ideas. In his essay, Jia Yi advocated not to dismiss, but to completely overhaul the Qin-based administration.

Patronage then explores specific methods Jia Yi drafted for Wendi. The author reiterates that the statesman considered a combination of bureaucracy and patronage vital to the existence of the ideal state. Laws are at its basis as they restrict corrupting influences such as the power and wealth of kings. In this regard, it is important to realize that Jia Yi did not intend to abolish all kingdoms, but to restrict the power of the kings to a manageable degree. He believed that loyal kings would inspire the allegiance of the people. According to Miller, patronal elements are visible in “techniques” (shu 術) the emperor was supposed to apply in order to create a distinctive image. The most crucial aspect was benevolence (compare Confucius and the Analects above): an exemplary ruler does not necessarily act on his entitlements, nor does he necessarily demand what is due to him (e.g. taxes in times of severe droughts etc.). He starts massive projects such as temples and tombs only if the people consent. Approval from the populace is moreover ensured by appointing worthy ministers and officials.

The chapter draws to a close in a lengthy conclusion, in which the author points out that Wendi indeed adopted many of the concepts proposed by Jia Yi. She prefers to read the “Techniques of the Dao” (Dao shu 道術; p. 163) section of the Xinshu as “a means of managing the flow of power and resources in the state to create a sense of cohesion and good will in the empire” (p. 177) instead of it being a manual for personal ethics as generally assumed. In the quest for solidarity among subordinates, imperial tombs became important loci of identity making and exchange (much in the sense of how reciprocal do ut des bonds were presented in the Analects). The latter was especially important in relation to the kings, as will be illustrated below. Jia Yi essentially was opposing a centralized state but wished to institutionalize the kings as “defenders of the imperial house’s right to the throne” (p. 180).

In Chapter 4, the dissertation turns to Emperor Wen’s tomb Baling 霸陵 and the role it played in re-inventing the state. The first of eleven subchapters exposes the major differences of Wendi’s burial and the tombs of his two predecessors. First, it was not part of the same area. Second, it did not feature an artificial mound but was cut into the rock of a mountain. Miller underlines that the tomb itself has not yet been unearthed. She then collects some references to the monument recorded in considerably younger written sources. Her subsequent arguments are based on the assumption that historiographical accounts as well as comparisons to excavated burials of Liu family members suffice to sustain her point.

The ensuing three sections of Patronage contrast earlier perceptions of Baling to the author’s own perspective. During the Western and Eastern Han, the unique character of the tomb was explained in ethical terms. Wendi simply did not want to overtax the people. In recent years, Jessica Rawson (1999) and others held a shift in the afterlife concept accountable for the change in tomb architecture. Yet, Rawson was the only scholar to see incentives for building rock-cut tombs in Western Asia. Miller rejects a religious interpretation for two reasons: a) It infers that the imperial rock-cut tombs were representative of Han society as a whole; b) The majority of the population was not buried in house-like graves. Baling rather was Emperor Wen’s attempt to legitimize his rule and control the image of his clan.

By tracing the discourse on Emperor Wen’s tomb in the historiographical sources, Miller unveils several parallels to Qin Shihuang’s methods of legitimization. Wendi, however, was unable to rigorously implement the First Emperor’s system, but “seems to have looked to employ ministers like Jia Yi, who would adapt the Qin model to help him move the bureaucracy in new directions” (p. 214). Consequently, Wendi’s image was forged by sumptuary laws that defined the relationship between emperor and the people, and by “gifts” that the latter awarded to his subordinates by not insisting on what was due to him. In theory, any visual sign of authority stood in stark contrast to the need to appear frugal and benevolent. The emperor’s final edict thus was advertising the formation of Baling as an exercise in restraint. Public opinion notwithstanding, the document provides a further rationale. Excess in burial would have offended the ancestors, who had chosen Wendi as the rightful ruler. Sacrifices were not made to sway the spirits; they were merely expressions of gratitude.

In the last three subchapters, the author addresses the obvious contradiction between propaganda and reality. The historical records may very well describe Baling as a modest project. Cutting tombs into mountain bedrock and furnishing them with exquisite grave goods were anything but humble endeavors. Miller reminds her readers that the creator(s) of Wendi’s final edict were fully aware of this predicament. There, frugality is not measured “in terms of the elaborateness of his tomb or the time it would take to construct, but only in terms of the numbers of common people requisitioned to build it” (p. 224).

The chapter concludes, that Emperor Wen by and large heeded the advice of Jia Yi. By refraining from straining the common people and by communicating through edicts, Wendi succeeded in conveying the image of a frugal ruler who was concerned about the well-being of his population. In this respect, Baling was “one of the most successful monuments in the Western Han that was both regal and supported by the people” (p. 228).

The final Chapter 5 discusses the political implications of rock-cut tombs in the aftermath of Wendi’s reign. At the heart of the argument lays the so-called “Rebellion of the Seven Kingdoms” (qi guo zhi luan 七國之亂) that occurred in 154 BCE, i.e. roughly three years after Emperor Wen’s death. At the time, several invested kings had employed rock-cut tombs for their own burials. A fact that has generally been taken to represent usurping tendencies. By imitating imperial customs, the kings were placing themselves on a par with the emperor. Threatened by their conduct, Wendi’s successor Jingdi (r. 157-141 BCE) aimed at abolishing the kingdoms altogether. The kings, in turn, revolted against him. Miller sets out to set the (archaeological and historiographical) record straight. On the one hand, excavated rock-cut tombs were occupied by loyal followers of the emperor as well as rebels. Moreover, the new type of tomb was unknown prior to Wendi and exclusively employed after his reign. On the other hand, the histories do not present similar, but opposite political agendas of Emperors Wen and Jing.

Given the clash of Liu and Lü fractions after Empress Lü’s demise, Wendi was keen on establishing a “rock-solid” (p. 234) Liu clan. He did, for instance, invite all remaining family members to his coronation, reward ministers who opposed the Lü forces, establish a rule of succession for the imperial throne that favored meritorious kings (and not specifically Emperor Wen’s sons), and expand the recorded genealogy of the Liu clan. Jia Yi’s new methods were basically targeting the very same goal. The statesman had suggested reducing the size royal realms in order to decrease the power of the kings. His sumptuary laws made sure that hierarchies were clearly visible. Although not explicitly mentioned in any of Jia Yi’s writings, so Miller maintains, the construction of rock-cut tombs was governed by such legislation. Exactly because they could not be manipulated like the numbers of bronze ritual vessels, they were very powerful status symbols. Carved out of mountains, the burials were also metaphors of the “rock-solid” Liu clan.

In the third section of Chapter 5, the author observes that emergence of rock-cut tombs after the rebellion of 154 BCE is hard to align with the fact that Emperors Wen and Jing enforced similar policies. Wendi and his advisor Jia Yi aimed at reducing the power of the invested kings; Jingdi and his aide Chao Cuo 鼂錯 (d. 154 BCE) sought to destroy them. Thus, the former’s action did not drive the kings to revolt, whereas the latter’s strategies did.

The methods of both emperors and how members of the Liu clan assessed them is the topic of the next subchapter. Since participants on either side of the Seven Kingdom conflict utilized rock-cut tombs, there is no doubt in Allison Miller’s mind that they were siding with Wendi. All of the deceased very publicly demonstrated that they were part of the Liu family and, by extension, agreed with Emperor Wen’s policies. At the same time, a rock-cut tomb such as the earliest excavated example at Shizishan 獅子山 near Xuzhou 徐州 in Jiangsu province even reflected some of Wendi’s “techniques” mentioned above. The author convincingly argues that its occupant was not Liu Yingke 劉郢客 (d. 175 BCE), the second king of the Chu 楚 kingdom, as is often contended, but Liu Wu 劉戊, the third king of Chu and one of the seven rebels of 154 BCE.

The following section addresses one “technique” in particular. Analogous to the unopened burial of Emperor Wen, the Shizishan tomb was planned long in advance. Considerably more important to Patronage’s main point, however, were three ancillary chambers at the front of the monument. Depending on what kind of artifacts they contained, the rooms are usually identified as a kitchen and two armories (in the sense of the tomb being an underground house). Miller pays close attention to the respective objects – most notably, over 200 seals and seal impressions referring to various names as well as many weapons of very high quality – and concludes that these cells were actually holding gifts occasioned by the funeral. The gift-givers were county and commandery officials, who expressed their continued support in the aftermath of the rebellion, and members of the court, who honored a king that died for his principles. Comparable to Emperor Wen, Liu Wu formed strong bonds with his people during his lifetime and they, in turn, were loyal to him beyond death.

The third from last subchapter turns to the issue of jades. It has long been accepted that so-called jade suits (yu yi 玉衣) were supposed to prevent the corpses of Liu family members (and Zhao Mo 趙昩, who reigned as king of Nanyue 南越 from 137 through 122 BCE, as the single non-Liu equipped with such a suit) from decaying. Miller justifiably discerns a different rationale. Such elaborate body covers were very much part of the public funerary ritual and destined to communicate the social position of the deceased. Other finely crafted artifacts deposited in rock-cut tombs, for instance, many brought jade vessels, jade ornaments, weapons, and musical instruments to light, were status symbols as well. That being said, the dissertation reiterates in more detail that the large number of seals yielded by the Shizishan monument certainly were not “spirit objects” (mingqi 明器) as is often assumed, but presents of individuals who wished to honor the king.

The penultimate section concentrates on post-Seven Kingdom Rebellion changes to the burial tradition. In 148 BCE, Emperor Jing passed new laws in order to curtail the politicization of funerals. They governed the burial itself, “who could attend, present gifts, and participate” (p. 288) in the ceremonies. Regulations effected in 145 BCE robbed the invested kings almost entirely of their administrative powers. Thereafter, rock-cut tombs no longer contained seals or gift rooms.

Chapter 5 closes with a review of Jingdi’s tomb Yangling 陽陵, which “reflects all of the impulses of his administration” (p. 293). Most significantly, Emperor Wen’s son and successor expressly did not follow his father’s footsteps. He returned to the burial ground of Gaozu and Huidi and decided against a rock-cut tomb. His final resting place was yet again a vertical shaft-pit crowned by an artificial mound. The chamber itself still awaits excavation, but all in all eighty-six radial storage pits provide insights into Jingdi’s motivation. Thousands of ceramic figurines were symbolizing every imaginable aspect of life. In addition, archaeologists discovered more than two hundred tombs of officials close by the imperial burial. Miller therefore reasons that Emperor Jing “clearly aims at complete representation of his vast imperial holdings in terracotta” (p. 296). In this regard, he was emulating Qin Shihuang. Jingdi, however, focused on completely different aspects. All finds and nearby features, especially the many officials laid to rest in the immediate vicinity, highlight his efforts to consolidate a centralized government. Military achievements played only a minor role as troops were but part of the administrative apparatus.

Patronage’s ultimate chapter presents a brief conclusion in which the author repeats her main arguments. She explains the emergence of rock-cut tombs as a mode of political expression. She also accentuates her interest in differences instead of similarities. The fact that Emperors Wen and Jing disagreed on essential matters, for instance, caused the Seven Kingdom Rebellion in the first place. Afterwards Wendi’s way of burial became a political statement. Finally, Miller concedes that her “study introduces more questions than it can resolve” and hopes for future research on royal rock-cut tombs after the kings had been deprived of their administrative rights (p. 300).

The main text of the dissertation is followed by three appendices and eighteen pages of bibliography. Appendix 1 is a list of “king-level rock-cut mountain tombs” (p. 302). Appendix 2 explores “precedents for rock-cut tombs” at greater length (p. 302). It shows that precursors of this novel burial type may indeed be found in mainland China and goes against the arguments put forth by Wu Hung (Wu Hung. 1995. Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture. Stanford: Stanford University Press,126 and 133) and Jessica Rawson (“The Eternal Palaces of the Western Han: A New View of the Universe.” Artibus Asiae 59.5: 5-58). Both scholars saw its origins in the Indian stupa or Western Asia respectively. Appendix 3 comprises two tables. The first one introduces the “kings who reigned under Emperor Wen” (p. 319); the second one catalogues the “kings who reigned under Emperor Jing” (p. 321).

Patronage, Politics, and the Emergence of Rock-Cut Tombs in Early Han China successfully combines historiographical with archaeological sources. Through thorough and detailed analyses, Allison Miller often delivers compelling new interpretations of various phenomena. Considering the depth of her study, a book based on her dissertation might very well achieve her goal of expanding “scholarship on tombs in new directions” (p. 4). By exposing the advantages of a method that contextualizes all available evidence, Patronage has certainly raised the bar for future research.

Armin Selbitschka
Humboldt Foundation Feodor Lynen Postdoctoral Fellow / Visiting Scholar
Center for East Asian Studies
Stanford University

Primary Sources

Shiji 史記
Hanshu 漢書
Xinshu 新書
Wenwu 文物
Wang Kai 王恺 and Ge Mingyu 葛明宇. Xuzhou Shizishan Chuwangling 徐州獅子山楚
王陵. Beijing: Shenghuo Dushu Sanlian Shudian, 2005.

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. 341 pp. Primary Advisor: Michael Puett.

Image: Photograph of the Entrance to a Rock-cut Tomb at Jiulongshan, located in Shandong Province, China. Photograph by Allison Miller.

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