Theater of the Dead

A Social Turn in Chinese Funerary Art, 1000-1400

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Jeehee Hong
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , May
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For a thousand years, funerary culture has been one of the most important aspects of Chinese social life. From the upper class to the lowest rungs of society, deceased ancestors have never been entirely separated from the living world. Although technically the deceased no longer have any response to worldly affairs, the rationale for the existence of festivals like Tomb-Sweeping Day or the death anniversary implies that it is necessary for a culture to establish some kind of connection between living beings and the deceased. This might also be one of the reasons for the existence of funerary art, a medium carrying the imaginations and expectations of both living descendants and the deceased themselves. It is unsurprising to find that people from different time periods created different imaginations and expectations for the underworld. Jeehee Hong’s work is just that type of study that provides us with a perspective from which to reconsider the transition of funerary art during the Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, a period in which stage play, or zaju, popularized and thus influenced funerary art in a variety of forms.

As Hong states in the “Prelude” of her book, rather than attempting to identify possible prototypes of theatrical images by singling out particular sites in the limited data (6), her work focuses on explaining the effect of the theatrical image or statue as one part of the whole space of the tomb. This makes her work multidimensional and interdisciplinary.

The main question put forth in her book is how theatricality was visually and spatially manifested and how it redefined tomb space. To answer these questions, Hong uses several tombs as examples and analyzes them in great detail. The book is broken down into four main chapters in chronological order, accompanied by a “Prelude” and a “Postlude.” The first chapter, “Theater and Funeral,” describes a limestone sarcophagus of a man named Zhu Sanweng from the Song Dynasty. The left and right slabs of the sarcophagus were carved with a number of line drawings. On one side, there was a scene of an ongoing theatrical performance with actors depicted. On the other side was a group of monks, female celestials, and the deceased couple, implying that the statues of the deceased would be transformed by the funerary rites. Although the carvings are quite lively, one can hardly say that the ongoing theatrics played any role during the process of the deceased’s transformation. Rather, its significance is that it reflects a new trend of literati interest in funeral art, with their concerns becoming more about worldly life.

The second chapter, “Theater for the Dead,” introduces other funerary arts that included theatrical elements around the same time as Zhu Sanweng’s tomb. It is interesting that the images of five vivid zaju actors showing up in a tomb in the county Yanshi have also been discovered in another area of Henan Province, prompting Hong to discuss the technology of making the brick relief and the formation of the “pattern” of the image of a theater scene. In this case, the image of the deceased did not appear with zaju actors, but, according to Hong, it indicates the spectators of this theater were the deceased of the underworld, implying that the deceased gradually participated in theatrical activities.

The third chapter, “Theater of the Dead,” focuses on funerary art of the Jin Dynasty, in particular on a set of figurines (yong) that have been found. Their identities can be confirmed due to the typical clothing and actions displayed by zaju actors of the period. By investigating the historical records pertaining to the funerary objects (mingqi) selling in the market, Hong states that the functions of those figurines were not fixed, which means their identities would change depending on their context. One of the most essential contents in this chapter is the size and the position of these actor figurines. First, they were not the same size as the other images in this one tomb; second, the position in which they were located, exactly above the relief of the deceased couple, seems to suggest that the “gate” in fact symbolized a miniature theater connecting the living world with the departed world. In this case, the deceased were no doubt the spectators, along with their descendants, who would then become “ancestors” in the future. In other words, the designer created a virtual theater with the “real” stage for the deceased. When compared with the theatrical display mentioned in the previous chapter, the participation of the deceased was more obvious.

The last chapter, “Theater, Body, and Passage,” again commences with an individual sarcophagus, one whose owner was an abbot of a monastery in Shanxi Province, during the Yuan Dynasty. The image carved on the head panel of the sarcophagus shows a two-storied theatrical stage on the second floor of which are standing four typecast actors. A door is depicted at the center of the first floor and included a louvered door that could be opened from the outside. After analyzing its function, especially the doorways and the play room of the real theatrical stage, Hong points out that this door on the sarcophagus might enable these “actors” to freely move between the two worlds, with the reclining occupant inside being able to participate in this theatrical activity.

By establishing the interplay of various dimensions of funerary art, Hong provides us with an interesting underworld. Literary, architectural, and religious studies are all utilized, making Hong’s argument more convincing. Nevertheless, at times the explanation or the conclusion she provides creates further curiosity as to whether there also exists a “pattern” in funerary art, with all the defined positions of the figurines being explained in the same way. With that said, Theater of the Dead is an interesting book for all readers, and especially for scholars in the field of art history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lu Zhang is a Ph.D. student in East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeehee Hong is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University. Her research focuses on the ritual art and visual culture of middle-period China (9th-14th centuries), and has worked on themes as diverse theatricality in painting, shifting roles of tomb portraits, cultural patterns of emerging local elite, temporality in tomb imageries, and new conceptions and practices of "spirit articles" in middle-period funerary art. Her research has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, and, most recently, American Council of Learned Society.



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