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  • Text and Tombs:A Fragile Relationship
  • Armin Selbitschka (bio)
Wu Hung. The Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011. 272 pp. Hardcover $50.00, isbn 978-0-8248-3426-5.

The Art of the Yellow Springs is an ambitious study of Chinese tombs, dating from the Neolithic period to Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. Through a holistic perspective, Wu Hung intends “to push … scholarship to the next level by making interpretative methods the direct subject of consideration” thereby providing “a genuine understanding of the art and architecture of Chinese tombs” (p. 14). It is, however, for the reader to figure out what exactly these “interpretative methods” entail. Perceiving such a phrase, one cannot help but wonder: Is not interpretation the ultimate goal of all historical/archaeological research? Yet, delving deeper into the book, it quickly becomes obvious that he is referring to a modus operandi quite familiar since at least the publication of his Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).1 Wu Hung, a classically trained scholar, prefers to interpret archaeological data exclusively on the back of written sources. Accepting the latter’s universal validity and, in terms of reliability, dominance over the former, the author offers many stimulating thoughts.

The book is organized in three chapters (pp. 17–217) that are preceded by a short introduction (pp. 7–16) and succeeded by a coda (pp. 219–233). The three chapters are divided in three or four subchapters; these are arranged in several sections. Unfortunately, only the titles of chapters and subchapters appear in the table of contents. Nevertheless, aptly named headings of subchapters and sections facilitate easy navigation through the author’s arguments. As it has become usual practice of publishing houses to replace the much more user-friendly and thus infinitely more desirable footnotes with endnotes, we find the latter appended to the main text (pp. 234–254). The bibliography (pp. 255–263) follows. A comprehensive index (pp. 264–272) concludes the volume. Divided into three parts — general index (main concepts, locations of tomb sites, personal names, periods), period index (tombs of the discussion appear in chronological order), and location index (tombs of the discussion appear in alphabetical-geographical order) — it is a valuable tool for browsing through certain subjects. The sheer amount and high quality of its altogether 230 color and black-and-white illustrations as well as line drawings certainly contribute to the quality of the book.

As the title “Spatiality” suggests, chapter 1 argues for a tomb to have been “a special place for the dead” (p. 17) and traces how structure as well as decoration of Chinese tombs developed accordingly. Wu identifies the desire to provide a space for the deceased with the invention of the coffin about six thousand years ago. The concept evolved into wooden burial chambers constructed within the confinements [End Page 444] of vertical shaft pits (Shang through Han periods) and got even more elaborate when the chambers were divided into various compartments and people started to use several nested coffins (Eastern Zhou period). Practices changed, however, when members of the social elite started to bury their dead in horizontally arranged rock-cut tombs (Western Han) from which horizontally organized brick-built chamber tombs developed (second century c.e.). These changes were but manifestations of altered religious beliefs: ancestral worship shifted from temple to tomb, the traditional dualistic concept of the soul had become obsolete, death started being viewed as an alternative way to immortality, and the development of an underground bureaucracy. The author concludes “that these ideas all encouraged people to envision and construct an underground tomb as a houselike, three-dimensional space. Indeed, we may conceptualize the transition from casket grave to chamber grave as a shift in tomb planning from an ‘object-oriented’ to a ‘space-oriented’ design” (p. 33). He follows up on that thought in the following subchapter, “A Tripartite Universe” (pp. 34–47). Attempting to provide a “posthumous ‘happy home’” (p. 38) by chamber graves, people stopped to evoke the notion of underground houses solely through burial goods, that is, the different functions of the aforementioned compartments were realized by...