- Changing Roles of the Tomb Portrait:Burial Practices and Ancestral Worship of the Non-Literati Elite in North China (1000–1400)
Representing the deceased on a tomb wall was already a common practice in China by the second century ce1 What might be loosely termed “tomb portraits,”2 images of the deceased with an iconic significance occupied [End Page 203] a central place in the funerary space, implying their potential function as the focal point of the worshipping rite.3 After a long period approximately from the seventh through the tenth centuries when depictions of the deceased in burial chambers were rare,4 such images reemerged and prominently adorned tomb walls in the eleventh century continuing throughout the following three centuries of the Song-Jin-Yuan dynasties, especially in the north (Fig. 1) (see Appendix 1). In light of the central role of such images in ancestral worship, and the fact that the practice was actively contested at various levels of society during the middle period,5 the timing of the resurgence of this pictorial motif in the funerary context is intriguing.
Taking up the multifaceted implications of this phenomenon, this essay examines new developments in the making of portraits in the ritual context, and unravels changing patterns of burial practices and ancestral worship during the Northern Song and Jin periods. As the twofold survey of the previous scholarship in the next section will show, one of the basic issues for understanding the “reemergence” of the tomb portraits in the eleventh century lies in the social standing of the tomb occupants and their families who sponsored such image making. A corpus of archaeological evidence reveals consistent [End Page 204]
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patronage of the tomb portraits by the “non-literati” elite whose status is defined mainly by their wealth rather than bureaucratic office or intellectual achievement. As will be fully explained in the following pages, among the most important changes in Song society, the reshaping of the literati (shi 士) and the emergence of new social groups, e.g., members of the non-literati local elite such as affluent farmers or merchants, generated different modes of representing the deceased for ritual purposes. It was the non-literati elite who preferred making the figurative image of the dead, for both tomb and ancestral shrine aboveground. By uncovering parallels in the positioning of the portraits between the two sites, the first half of the essay demonstrates that the initial mode of the tomb portraiture was inspired by the ritual praxis and layout of ancestral shrines. A shift in the orientation of the portraits in the tombs occurs around early twelfth century, alluding to their new status in the burial space, independent from the ritual practices in the ancestral shrines. Focusing on cases from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the second half of the essay explores a new mode of tomb portraiture that was accompanied by the alteration of their position in the tomb. This new mode was manifested in multiple ways, including portraits in tombs that held several generations and portraits duplicated in family graves. What was shared between these patterns was the changed status of the portrait in the burial space as the visual referent of the ancestor in collectivity, which challenges the very definition of “portrait” as used in the modern world. I argue that throughout such making and remaking of tomb portraiture, the non-literati local elite maintained their own customary burial practices and ancestral worship regardless of scholar officials’ denigration of them. Unraveling discursive interactions between the two types of elite in shaping their kinship, the paper suggests that it was not only the literati who made increasing effort in building genealogies by inscriptions and documentations, but the non-literati elite also developed their own channels of pursuing genealogical interests and consolidating lineages, a trend that heightens in the Yuan dynasty.