Rolling between burial and shrine: a tale of two chariot processions at Chulan Tomb 2 in Eastern Han China (171 C.E.).

Author:Shi, Jie
Position::Case study

Chariot processions, among the most popular and best studied pictorial motifs in Chinese funerary art, still remain a contentious subject matter. Within the cemetery, chariots could be anywhere, sometimes on the walls of the burial and at other times on those of the offering shrine, which was usually built near the burial to commemorate the deceased's soul during the sacrifice. According to previous studies, as the vehicles varied their positions, they changed their meanings, too. On one occasion, the fantastic journey raises the deceased from the underground burial to heaven or the immortal lands. (1) On a second, the procession constitutes the deceased's funerary cortege. (2) And on yet a third, the traveling represents the deceased's imaginary journey to the underworld. (3) Although Michele Pirazzoli t'Serstevens is certainly right in asserting that the voyage might "have multiple connotations and different, non-exclusive ideas," (4) all the above interpretations suffer from a common flaw: the shrine

This work is dedicated to the memory of Chinese archaeologist Mr. Wang Buyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1927-2011), the leading excavator of the Chulan tombs. Had it not been for his generous help, I would never have completed this study. and the burial were examined separately as self-contained architectural units rather than as an architectural and pictorial nexus. In fact, according to ancient historians, tombs including both a shrine and a burial were popularly commissioned during the Han dynasty. (5)

Although it is rare for such tombs to survive, a remarkable example remains largely intact and sheds light on the mysterious link between the chariot processions. Among hundreds of Eastern Han cemeteries excavated, Chulan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Tomb 2, dating from 171 by inscription, is the first scientifically excavated and reported Eastern Han tomb with a shrine and a burial, both of which bear pictorial representations, including chariot processions. (6)

Located in present-day Suxian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in the northeast of Anhui province in south China, the east-west oriented burial is enclosed by a rectangular earthen wall, in which is set a shrine made of carved stone slabs and oriented to the south (Fig. 1). An inscription carved on the rear wall of the shrine, "Tomb of Hu Yuanren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] from Piyang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," clearly identifies the tomb occupant as a man surnamed Hu. Beneath the ground of the walled zone archaeologists unearthed a multi-chamber burial, also constructed of stone slabs.

The interior face of the stone slabs is carved in low relief with pictorial images framed by ornamental patterns. Among them the chariot processions appear on the wall bases in both the shrine and the burial (Figs. 2a, 2b). (7) Unlike most other excavated sites, in which chariots either emerge entirely in the aboveground shrine or hide completely in the underground burial, the two chariot processions at Chulan Tomb 2 echo each other in the two adjacent funerary structures that constitute a single cemetery. This basic fact raises a series of questions never asked before: Are these two processions related? If so, in what ways? And if related, why are they simultaneously kept apart in two different structures? To tackle these questions, the previous methodology that focuses exclusively on either the shrine or the burial must be modified. Neglecting the logic between the two units has prevented us from seeing the larger picture of the tomb.

The Chinese archaeologist Xin Lixiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was the first to note the possible link between the two chariot processions. In a bold move, he considers the shrine and the burial as forming an organic architectural compound and assumes that the tomb occupant was represented as departing from his tomb, ascending to the ground, and heading toward the shrine to receive the worshippers' offerings. (8) Illuminating as it is, Xin's theory lacks sufficient evidence to explain why and how the two processions are united as a one-way journey. The real problem, however, lies in his methodology. Rather than deriving evidence directly from the tomb itself, he extrapolates it typologically from a number of unrelated burials or shrines from various cemeteries and uses data from them to reconstruct a "master narrative" connecting the chariot processions in the shrine and in the burial. (9) True, Eastern Han tombs shared some degree of "family resemblance," but each cemetery and its pictorial program is more or less different. (10) Therefore, I will implement a different methodology by directly engaging the chariots. As I argue, in contrast to what Xin has proposed, the idea the Chulan artist tried to communicate was not a unidirectional journey, but rather the split, variation, and transition between the two chariot processions and between the burial and the shrine.

As a case study, this paper begins with a formal and iconographic investigation of the two chariot processions in the architectural context at Chulan Tomb 2, and further argues that the two chariot processions were bound together by an implicit narrative of separation and reunion of the deceased couple. While the burial accommodated a single male tomb occupant, the shrine was pictorially transformed into a virtual cemetery, in which the filial son was represented as rejoining his deceased parents in a ritual setting. As the study shows, it is the hidden theme of traveling (either for separation or for reunion) that encompasses the two units of the architectural complex and underlies a more dynamic aspect of Chinese tombs in the Eastern Han dynasty.

This paper approaches Chinese tombs not as individual funerary structures, but rather as a nexus between interconnected architectural units. This perspective, however, is not my invention. As early as the late nineteenth century, Edouard Chavannes visited the remains of the Wu family shrines on site in present-day Jiaxiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Shandong province, and tried to map the entire cemetery, including such monuments as the shrine, que [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] pillar towers, bei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] steles, etc. (11) In the 1930s Sekino Tadashi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in his study of the Xiaotangshan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] shrine in Changqing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shandong), was keen enough to consider it as meaningfully related to two unidentifiable underground stone structures, probably burials, located nearby. (12) In the 1940s Wilma Fairbank took a step further and studied the burial and the shrine as an organic funerary complex. In a rare cemetery at Jinxiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shandong), she retrieved the "Zhu Wei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Shrine" together with the unexcavated burial just a few meters away below the ground. (13) Due to the Sino-Japanese war, however, her project was never finished. In the footsteps of these pioneers, my study of the chariot processions aims at establishing the interrelations between shrine and burial rather than investigating the individual funerary structures per se.


At Chulan Tomb 2, the chariot processions carved in both the burial and the shrine are characterized by a distinctive dragon motif that highlights and distinguishes several outstanding vehicles and passengers in the two processions.

At first glance, all the chariots carved in the cemetery look similar and generic (see Figs. 2a, 2b). The roundish style of the bas-reliefs, represented by the dominant use of curving lines, highly consistent between the burial and the shrine, suggests their shared provenance in the same local workshop. (14) One following another at regular intervals, it looks as though the chariots were modified copies of one another. Drawn by a number of horses, each vehicle is portrayed in full profile. A driver sits in the front of the tilted carriage, holding reins in hands, and a passenger rests at leisure in the back of the carriage. Both figures are rendered with such sketchiness that few facial or bodily details can be recognized.

A close scrutiny, however, reveals subtle differences among these chariots that betray the inherent structure and hierarchy within each procession and between the two processions. In either the shrine or the burial, all vehicles advance from the right to the left in a uniform direction along the walls, except that in the shrine the south stone is omitted to make room for the entry (see Figs. 1, 2). (15) As observed by the excavator, this yields two parallel processions. (16) Beneath this apparent evenness, however, each procession hinges upon a unique center, occupied by the most important chariot and passenger in the journey. The central vehicle is highlighted by 1) more horses that draw the chariot; 2) the fantastic imagery of dragons in front of the chariot; 3) the central positions of the chariot in the architecture. These three elements, in such a rare combination, elevate Chulan Tomb 2 above most of its contemporary counterparts.

Let me elaborate on the observations on the principal chariots in the burial and the shrine respectively. In the burial the unique and nonparallel chariot L (see Fig. 2a) appears on the east stone under the rear wall and faces the entrance. This chariot is drawn by four horses, the only chariot as such in the entire cemetery. During the Eastern Han dynasty, the number of horses one could deploy in front of one's chariot depended on one's social status: the more horses, the higher one's status. (17) For example, only the emperor was entitled to a chariot pulled by six horses; imperial emissaries representing the emperor could muster as many as four horses; princesses and empresses were allowed no more than three. (18) Thus on the social ladder the only...

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