Entombed Epigraphy and Commemorative Culture in Early Medieval China: A History of Early Muzhiming.

Author:Ditter, Alexei K.
Position:Book review

Entombed Epigraphy and Commemorative Culture in Early Medieval China: A History of Early Muzhiming. By TIMOTHY M. DAVIS. Studies in the History of Chinese Texts, vol. 6. Leiden: BRILL, 2015. Pp. xiv + 414. [euro]125, $162.

Entombed epigraphs (muzhiming) are square slabs of stone buried in Chinese tombs inscribed with "a biographical prose preface followed by a rhymed elegy commemorating the life of a deceased member of the elite class" (p. 4). From the fifth century CE on, they became commonly and widely used, valued for their literary qualities and refined aesthetic sensibilities as well as commemorative and religious functions. Over the past two decades, they have become one of the most important new sources for the study of medieval China, valued for their portrayal of individuals and topics that might otherwise be unknown or for offering additional, and at times contradictory, perspectives on famous personages and events.

This monograph is the first English-language work to study the entombed epitaph across the early medieval period (200-600 CE). Drawing upon a substantial corpus of research written in multiple languages, Davis' study explores early medieval Chinese muzhiming along various lines of inquiry: their social (chapter 1) and religious (chapter 2) functions, their early history and development (chapter 3) and later maturation (chapter 4), their commemorative value vis-a-vis other genres (e.g., biography) used to construct memory (chapter 5), and how they developed into a mature aesthetic and literary form by the Tang dynasty (chapter 6). The volume also contains a lengthy introduction, in which Davis defines the three main categories and characteristics of early medieval entombed epitaph (simple "records of internment," tomb interred epitaphs, and "standard" muzhiming), a conclusion, and two appendices listing entombed epitaphs from the Western and Eastern Jin Dynasties (Appendix 1) and the Northern Wei prior to 494 CE (Appendix 2).

In the first chapter, "The Social Functions of Early Medieval Muzhiming," Davis argues that entombed epitaphs developed as early medieval Chinese elites responded to changing social and cultural realities in which power and influence became increasingly dependent upon marriage alliances and office-holding. Through close readings of two entombed epitaphs--those of Liu Huaimin (410-463) and Ming Tanxi (444-474), both translated in full--Davis persuasively demonstrates how, as "durable narratives"...

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