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  • Underground Wooden Architecture in Brick: A Changed Perspective from Life to Death in 10th- through 13th-Century Northern China
  • Wei-Cheng Lin

Tombs in ancient China have been the chief sources for the study of Chinese art because of the wealth of burial goods, furnishings, figurines, murals, etc. interred with their inhabitants. Therefore the investigation of Chinese funerary art has until now focused more on the content of the tomb chamber than on the chamber itself.1 An important exception to the tomb as treasure trove is a style of tomb built entirely in brick, with reliefs carved into the brick inside the burial chamber depicting columns, brackets, beams, and portions of roof eaves, as in typical Chinese aboveground timberframe buildings. These unusual efforts to construct an “underground wooden architecture in brick,” as it will be called in this paper, contrast significantly with older tombs in the relatively smaller number of burial objects they contain.2 As illustrated in the photograph of such a tomb from Baisha, Henan, uncovered in 1951, the tomb chamber itself, with its visually cohesive simulation of a built environment, has become the tour de force of innovative creation (Fig. 1).3 Entering the tomb is like entering an actual wooden building: one is greeted by a female figure peering out from behind a half-open door, turning the place for the dead into a simultaneously realistic and illusionistic space of experience.

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Fig. 1.

Female figure standing in a half-open door. 1099 ce. Polychromed brick. Northern wall of Tomb 1, Baisha, Henan Prov. From Su Bai, Baisha Song mu (Beijing: Wenwu, 1957), pl. 28.

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The example from Baisha, dating from 1099 ce during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), belongs to a category of tomb structure that has been termed by modern scholars qionglong ding zhuanshi mu, literally, “domed brick-chamber tomb.”4 Tombs of this type are single-or double-chambered; their floor space may be square, circular, hexagonal, or octagonal; and they are surmounted by one or two corbelled domes, according to whether the space comprises one room or two. They were uncovered primarily in the northern provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hebei, and Henan, areas traditionally known for their manufacture of bricks and development of brickwork techniques. This style of tomb appeared in the 9th century but did not become popular until the following centuries. The majority of the surviving examples appear to date from the 11th and 12th centuries, and the style slowly went out of fashion during the 13th century, a period that coincides with the Northern Song, Liao (915–1125), and Jin (1115–1234) dynasties in northern China.5

The reason for using brickwork and brick reliefs to create and exhibit a similitude to a traditional wooden building inside the burial is a subject of speculation. It has been generally agreed that it was intended to enhance the likeness of the underground chamber to a this-worldly residence, in line with the long-standing belief in China that a human being continues in some fashion to exist after death, and therefore one’s tomb should be an extension of familiar earthly architecture.6 In his extensive research on Song burial structures and practices, when discussing the “domed brick-chamber tomb,” Dieter Kuhn writes, “The idea behind these impressive building efforts [carving the brick reliefs to imitate wooden buildings] was to transfer the architecture of the land of the living to the realm of the dead.”7 The idea of imitation, furthermore, is also the premise on which the underground chamber of this type has been analyzed. Chinese scholars often describe wooden architecture in brick as fang mugou, literally, “imitating wooden structure,” a term that has also been broadly applied by Western scholars.8 As tomb interiors of this type became more elaborate over time, the brick reliefs mimicking wooden structures (fang mugou) continue to be crucial in discussions of style, technique, and, most importantly, their approximation to contemporaneous architecture aboveground. If the brick reliefs built inside the burial chamber were intended to imitate wooden structure, precisely what category of aboveground structure the burial chamber was intended to imitate is the...


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