Ph.D. student, Art History Department
University of Chicago
Friday, April 22, 4- 6 pm
Displaying Filial Piety: Spatial Design of a Sodgian Immigrant Tomb in Sixth-century China
With a unique bilingual inscription and an intricate pictorial program, Lord Shi’s house-shaped sarcophagus has received increasing attention from historians, linguists, art historians, and scholars of religious studies since its excavation. Until now, academic attention has largely focused on the historical information and the iconographical interpretation of the inscription and the images carved on the sarcophagus. Scholars have focused on Lord Shi’s Sogdian background as well as his exceptional career as a sabao, or chieftain of commercial caravans. They are fascinated by the exotic religious or artistic elements of the sarcophagus, debating the source and meaning of the images in relation to similar structures owned by Sogdian immigrants. There are also a few scholars who have tried to interpret the sarcophagus from the perspective of sinification, primarily based on its Chinese-style appearance and the conventional mortuary construction. By treating the sarcophagus as an independent structure detached from its burial context, however, these scholars fail to fully address the significance of Lord Shi’s sarcophagus against the larger backdrop of funerary practices in early medieval China.
This paper addresses the spatial design of Lord Shi’s tomb, treating the tomb construction as a complex project which includes not only the entombment of the sarcophagus within the underground tomb chamber, but also the selection and arrangement of different funerary devices in the tomb and the graveyard as an organic whole. Taking the Chinese inscription as its starting point, the paper demonstrates that Lord Shi’s house-shaped sarcophagus was intended as a hybrid structure which functioned both as a coffin and an offering shrine. In light of the fact that the sarcophagus was surrounded by an empty space within the tomb chamber and was paired with a bei stele on the graveyard path, the paper then argues that the sacrificial space of Lord Shi’s tomb imitated the typical graveyard plan of the Eastern Han dynasty（25-220 A.D. Such imitation was realized in a very unique way, because it collapsed the division between the sphere of the dead and the domain of the living, which served as a crucial principle of conventional tomb constructions during the Sixth century. This paper proposes that this innovation of the tomb space reflects the desire of Lord Shi’s sons to display filial piety.