XU, Jin 徐津
University of Chicago
The Northern Dynasties (386-581 CE) marked a turning point in Chinese history. After the collapse of the Han Empire in 220 AD, the native Han Chinese were never again able to establish an enduring unified dynasty again. Consequently, the Northern Dynasties represented the final stage of the longstanding political division between dynasties in the south, ruled by Han aristocrats and generals, and the kingdoms in the north, founded by various peoples of nomadic origins. From the Northern Wei (386-534 CE) to the Northern Zhou (557-581 CE), nomadic Xianbei rulers created and consolidated a ruling coalition composed of multiple cultural and ethnic groups, which paved the way for the reunification of China in 589 CE and the emergence of the so-called golden age of Chinese civilization.
The interaction between diverse cultural and ethnic groups that characterized the Northern Dynasties was especially intense among the uppermost echelon of the society. The key to understanding the dynamism of this interaction is a careful consideration of the colorful ways in which people of the period defined themselves politically, culturally, and personally. To this end, this dissertation addresses the question of how the elites of the Northern Dynasties used stone mortuary equipment to express their identity. Eschewing the hackneyed analytical paradigm of sinicization (or desinicization), this dissertation draws attention to political, communal, and individual identity through a series of case studies. By so doing, it also reveals the intersection of identities during the Northern Dynasties.
This dissertation is comprised of three chapters and chiefly uses visual analysis to account for the material properties, spatial strategies, and narrative images of mortuary stones. The first chapter investigates the mortuary stones of three groups of people: the Tuoba royalty of the Northern Wei, Sogdian immigrant merchants, and Han scholarly officials. It demonstrates how these people articulated their distinct political, communal, and cultural identity by taking advantage of the ritual significance, versatility, and natural beauty of the material of stone. Concentrating on the Shi Jun 史君 sarcophagus, the second chapter reveals the dualistic identity (secular and spiritual) of a Sogdian immigrant merchant. Shi Jun’s tomb brings together two distinct spaces — a physical space of ancestor worship constructed according to Confucian ritual protocols and a virtual space of paradisiac afterlife invoked by religious visual devices. The third chapter focuses on the narrative engravings of mortuary stones and demonstrates that artists of the Northern Dynasties tended to customize standardized illustrations in such a way that they could capture the personal identity of the tomb owner. This chapter first discusses how artists transformed filial son illustrations into mortuary symbols or allegorical portraits of the deceased. Secondly, this chapter shows how the artists that created the Shi Jun sarcophagus composed a pictorial biography of the deceased by deploying the illustrations of the Buddha’s life.