Thursday, August 17, 2017

[Dissertation] The Mancheng Tombs: Shaping the Afterlife of the “Kingdom within Mountains” (Zhongshan 中山) in Western Han China (206 BCE- 8 CE)


University of Chicago


Wu Hung


To extend the imperial authority to the newly conquered lands, early Western Han 漢 emperors in the second century BCE dispatched their sons and brothers to reign over some remote kingdoms in the restive border regions, whose people lived in vivid memories of their pre-imperial pasts. While ancient historians only left succinct and fragmentary documents about these kingdoms, modern archaeologists have excavated dozens of royal tombs, which allow us to probe into religious, social, and political agendas of early imperial Chinese rulers.

This dissertation scrutinizes one king’s complex identification with himself, his family, and his state in the formative period of the Chinese empire by analyzing his and his wife’s tombs, dubbed Mancheng 滿城 Tombs 1 and 2, located in Hebei 河北 province in the northern border region of the Han Empire. Widely acknowledged as the richest, most significant, highest-ranking, and best-preserved royal tombs so far excavated in early imperial China, both tombs were found miraculously intact. More than ten thousand objects, many of which have been declared national treasures of China, were distributed on the floors in meaningful patterns across a cluster of interconnected, house-like burial chambers. These parallel tombs were occupied by King Liu Sheng 劉勝 (d. 113 BCE) and Queen Dou Wan 竇綰 (d. ca. 109 BCE), who re-established the originally non-Chinese “barbaric” state called Zhongshan (literally, “People within Mountains”) in 154 BCE.

This dissertation argues that architectural plans, the patterns of furnishing, and the diversity of burial objects addressed the royal couple’s three significant concerns during their lives: harmonizing the body with the soul, the husband with the wife, and the Chinese with the “barbaric.” In doing so, this dissertation methodologically synthesizes interdisciplinary methodologies from art history, archaeology, and sinology by closely reading visual materials from the royal tombs in conjunction with textual sources about Zhongshan.

This dissertation consists of three main chapters. Chapter 1 examines the tombs’ pattern of furnishing as the material embodiment of the traditional Chinese philosophy of harmonizing body and soul, which were housed respectively in the rear coffin and the front chamber. Chapter 2 studies the parallel relationship between the twin tombs as a visual commentary on the discourse of ideal husband and wife, who is mirroring and subject to the husband. The last Chapter 3 shows how non-Chinese elements were intertwined with Chinese elements in the tomb to represent the king’s double identity both as the heir to the local “barbaric” cultural tradition and as a Chinese imperial representative.

This dissertation contributes to the field of Chinese art history and culture by providing the first comprehensive analysis of one of the most important archaeological discoveries of ancient China and by offering a theoretical and methodological reflection of what early Chinese tombs were and how to study them as a source for historical inquiries.

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