Miller, Allison Ruth
For the past thirty years, scholars have largely assumed that the ancient Chinese primarily built tombs for reasons related to the afterlife. Nearly all early Chinese tombs, whether belonging to emperors or petty local officials, are interpreted in this light--as spaces to be inhabited by the deceased after death. This focus on the afterlife, however, is a relatively recent direction in scholarship. Prior to the last few decades, Chinese scholars generally agreed that the ancient Chinese did not have a clear notion of the afterlife until the rise of Buddhism, basing their interpretation on the notorious silence of ancient texts on this issue.
This dissertation explores reasons other than the afterlife that so much wealth and labor were expended on monumental tombs in early China. It does so by analyzing the social and political tensions underlying a major shift in tomb architecture that occurred in the Western Han dynasty--the emergence of rock-cut tombs. Rock-cut tombs were meticulously-carved, grotto palaces that bore little resemblance to the mounded, earthen pit tombs that had preceded them. These tombs changed the orientation of elite Chinese burials for the rest of Chinese history.
By examining this shift in tomb architecture, my work suggests that by the mid-Western Han, tomb architecture had become a principal means by which rulers marketed new political agendas and elites expressed their social and political identities. Relying on evidence from texts and archaeology, my research traces the history of tomb construction back to the Eastern Zhou to understand why tombs may have assumed this function by the Western Han. It also demonstrates the way that the study of shifts in material culture can lead to significant revisions of Han political history. This study, for example, challenges the typical conflation of the reigns of Emperors Wen (r. 180-157 BC) and Jing (r. 157-141 BC), and argues that Emperor Wen, rather than the founding emperor, ought to be considered as the chief architect of Han political ideology.