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  • Exorcism from the Streets to the Tomb:An Image of the Judge and Minions in the Xuanhua Liao Tomb No. 7
  • Jeehee Hong (bio)

The uncertain fate of the dead was always a major concern surrounding tomb-making in traditional China. A series of rituals were conducted before, during, and after the burial to securely send the deceased off to the other world, shaping the tomb site as a conceptual nexus of the manifold rites of passage.1 While the funeral conducted prior to the entombment was to end at the tomb chamber as the destination of the physical body, a new ritual process—through images and objects devoid of any living agency—began where the funerary ritual was finished: the transfer of the deceased to the netherworld and/or the transformation of the deceased into an eternal being.2 The separation between these ritual phases in the larger context of the funerary process is thus marked at both the physical and symbolic levels.3 However, in tombs where there are many images that refer to preburial rites—some by direct description and others through metonymy—a sense of ritual continuity that may have transcended the clear division of those phases is too strong to ignore.

Symptoms of the ritual continuum and the roles of representations in linking the two worlds have been touched upon with varied degrees of focus and depth in previous studies of distinctive subjects. For example, images of the deceased, which occupied a central place in the funerary space and had a predominantly iconic significance, have been considered for their potential function as the focal point of the worshipping rite.4 Images of the funerary ritual, of which there are a much smaller number of extant examples (often highlighting selected moments of the ritual), have been studied in the context of the symbolic journey of the deceased to the netherworld.5 Last of all, images of exorcism in the tomb space have been studied with an emphasis on their particular role as a purifier and/or protector of the burial site.6 All three themes were adopted for representation in the space for the dead by the second century ce at the latest, and production of these kinds of images continued with some frequency throughout China’s middle period (ninth–fourteenth centuries).

Although the roles of such images within the burial chamber have been discussed at length in previous studies, the notion of how they might have manifested or contributed to ritual continuity between the realms of the living and the dead remains largely unexplored. The focus of this essay is one of the themes mentioned above: exorcism, the least studied of the three. Exorcism as a representational motif in tombs is doubly distinguished from the other two themes: unlike the deceased and the funerary rite, which are exclusively connected to the funerary discourse, exorcism was a ritual broadly associated with the realms of both the living and the dead, and hence is embedded with a ritual duality of its own. Also, images of exorcism charted a distinctive path as a pictorial motif in the burial space. Representations of semi-anthropomorphic exorcists such as Fangxiang 方相 or Chiyou 蚩尤, for example, appeared ubiquitously in Eastern Han tombs (25–220 ce), but almost disappeared from burials after that time.7

Such a waxing and waning of exorcism as a subject in tomb art suggests a general shift of interest in representing particular themes in tombs, rather than reflecting changes in the degree of popularity of exorcists aboveground.8 In light of such a trend in representation, an unusual depiction of an exorcism in a middle-period tomb deserves special attention. A small mural of five grotesque figures painted in an eleventh-century tomb in Xuanhua 宣化, Hebei province, offers a rare glimpse of the intersection between exorcistic and mortuary practices in northern China during the middle period (Fig. 1). Because its variegated ritual genesis has gone unnoticed in previous studies, this image has usually been interpreted as performing a protective role for the burial chamber.9 Although I agree largely with this view, I would like to call attention to the complex web of ritual practices underlying the image, which...


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