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Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
This sarcophagus was discovered in the tomb of Prince Cheng Ching (pronounced Chung Cheeng), whose name means "fitting example." Prince of Chao and grandson of the sixth emperor of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Cheng Ching was a successful military general who died in the prime of his life and was buried north of the capital city of Loyang in the Pei Mon mountains. His coffin and tomb were commissioned by his nephew, the ninth emperor of the Wei Dynasty.

The tomb, a chamber inside a large, artificially constructed earthen mound, was elaborately decorated with wall paintings. The coffin rested on a stone base and around it were found sacrificial vessels, symbolic figurines, and utensils. Placed on the ground, slightly to the south, was the memorial tablet (46.2.5-6) inscribed with the Prince's biography, a eulogy, and the date of death.

The shape of the sarcophagus is traditional, with the head end being higher and wider, and the cover being curved.

The Sarcophagus is carved from dark grey limestone in six slabs (the top is missing). The carving is in very low relief, and it is polished to form an even, shiny black surface, leaving the background rough and grey. The details are incised.

The Sarcophagus of Filial Piety is a vivid example of the hybrid religious beliefs in China during this period. While the main subject matter is that of Confucian morality, Taoist deities reign in the skies, and Buddhist imagery dots the center of the long sides and the short end where the head of the Prince once lay.

At first glance, the composition on the long sides is almost too crowded and complex to read. But, upon closer inspection one discovers that there is a logical coherence. The sides are bounded by tall landscape elements which are arranged in a complex pattern of rock slabs with jagged overhanging caps and leafy trees. Sarcophagi such as these represent some of the earliest depictions of landscape in Chinese art. The landscape along the bottom creates a deep middle distance that is divided into space cells where figures are actually placed in space. Space cells are formed by landscape elements in front of them which the figures rise above, indicating that they are behind it. Then the figures are flanked by trees, whose height leads one's eye back to the next row of small rocks and trees.

These space cells enclose a series of vignettes illustrating famous Confucian examples of filial piety, each labeled with a vertical cartouche.

The overall style of the relief reflects the formative attempts at landscape painting typical of this period:

  • Depth is conveyed through overlap or stacking instead of through a system of perspective or diminution of scale.
  • There is a sharp linearity of form and an emphasis on outline.
The most important reliefs, five scenes on each side, represent the Confucian virtue of filial piety and illustrate love and respect for parents and old age. The great philosopher Confucius (K'ung Fu-tzu, 551-479 B.C.) considered jen (love and respect for others) to be the essence of humanity. Confucius first set down the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." To this end, Confucius formulated the Five Relationships:
  • between ruler and subject
  • between father and son
  • between husband and wife
  • between older brother and younger brother
  • between older friend and younger friend

The careful observance of these he recognized as fundamental to the social order. The Confucian emphasized reverence for elders in these relationships, but the obligation was not to be one-sided. The Five Relationships were to be governed by ten attitudes:

  • love in the father; filial piety in the son
  • gentility in the eldest brother; humility and respect in the younger
  • righteous behavior in the husband; obedience in the wife
  • humane consideration in elders; deference in juniors
  • benevolence in rulers; loyalty in subjects

For many centuries after his death, these teachings served as the basis for education in China. The following exemplary narratives are among those illustrated on the sarcophagus:

  • Lao Lai-tzu, at the age of 70, dressed as a little boy and played with a pull-toy before his parents to make them feel young.
  • Kuo Chu sacrificed his own child for his mother.
  • Ming Tse Chien went without clothes so that his parents could dress his brothers.
  • A man treated a wooden effigy of his dead mother as if she were alive.

The cartouches on the sides depict ancestral portraits, which demonstrate an appropriate respect for elders. The appearance of Cheng Ching's name and the fact that his nephew commissioned the tomb also fit well with the Confucian themes.

Up above these scenes is the realm of the heavens, where auspicious deities, stately ancestors and wild-eyed demons cavort among wispy clouds and floral scrolls. The citizens ofthis sky include:

  • Taoist Immortals who ride on the backs of phoenixes, indicating the tomb occupant's wish for longevity, in terms of the immortality of the soul.
  • Fierce monsters, called Thunders, who rumble and squat throughout the sky. In ancient texts, they are described as having pig-like faces with glaring eyes, five or six horns, fleshy blue serrated wings, gold colored double-taloned hands and feet, and voluminous stomachs They are clad in scarlet knee breeches, bound about the waist by a leopard's skin. Despite their fearsome appearance, Thunders had an apotropaic function in which they scared away other demons, protected children, and, when necessary, could induce childbirth.
  • Directional animals, including the White Tiger of the East, The Red Bird of the South (a phoenix), and the Green Dragon of the East. Their presence helps set the world in alignment, thus ensuring that no calamities will occur.
  • A portrait of a pair of solemn scholar ancestors appear through square windows in heaven twice, on each long side of the sarcophagus. Their presence on the sarcophagus and over the scene indicates their approval. Thus they enhance the reputation of the tomb occupant and his family.
Buddhist iconography also appears but is well integrated with the Taoist and Confucian symbols.
  • The short side where the head once lay shows a bridge over a lotus pond, where two scholar/guards flank a temple front strung with bells. These bells represent the twelve pairs of musical accords. The temple door itself is supported by two monster caryatids. In the sky, among the floral tendrils, are two mounted beasts who flank a flaming pearl, which is not only associated with the dragon (imperial power), but is also a reference to a Buddhist holy king or defender of the faith. (chakravartin)
  • In the center of one long side, a lion-like monster head clenches a ring in its mouth. This image was common in China as an apotropaic protector against demons. It was commonly placed over doorways and on important vessels. Hanging from the ring is a stone chime and a jewel, an image which commonly appeared in Buddhist art. The stone chime is also supposed to remind a ruler of those who die in his defense. Above the creature, two birds perch on lotus pedestals.
On the opposite short side a wiry dragon cavorts among rain clouds. Its five claws indicate its imperial connection and the esteemed rank of the Prince.
Use on the following tours:
  • Chinese Art
  • Asian Art
  • Visual Elements
  • Religion and Art
  • Highlights of the Collection
  • Death and Funeral Practices

Transition suggestions:

  • from the bells shown on the larger end to Chinese or Japanese bronze bells
  • depiction of landscape to Japanese screens (Landscape of the Four Seasons or White Herons in Plum and Willow)
  • from the Confucian scholars shown on the end to the T'ang tomb set court officials
  • from the sarcophagus to the T'ang Tomb Retinue (both would have been found in contemporary tombs)

Compare the idea of filial piety and respect depicted here with West's Portrait of the Drummond Family or the Largillière.
Compare the Chinese ideas of tomb burial with the Egyptian; contrast the relief style shown here with the False Door.
The inscription which accompanies this sarcophagus tells us that this was carved to publicly express Cheng's great achievements. It describes his position as diplomatic envoy and commanding general and records his eminent family pedigree, tracing his lineage back to the Chou Dynasty and crediting the great virtue inherited from the Chou as responsible for his outstanding accomplishments. The motifs illustrated associate him with the Confucian virtue of filial piety.
  • What virtues would you want praised on your sarcophagus?
  • What would you want your inscription to say?
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Source: Docent Manual entry for Chinese, Northern Wei Dynasty, <i>Sarcophagus</i>(524 A.D.), The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009