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: A Stone Sarcophagus of the Wei Dynasty


Richard S. Davis



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute takes pride in announcing the purchase of six great stone bas-reliefs from the tomb of a Chinese general. The six reliefs comprise the memorial tablet and its protective cover, the two ends and the two sides of the sarcophagus of Prince Cheng Ching who died in 524 A.D. They form one of the most complete groups of Chinese tomb sculptures in the world. Due to the fact that the memorial tablet and sarcophagus have been preserved together the group may also be considered unique.The six reliefs enable us to reconstruct an almost unbroken tradition of richly decorated Chinese tombs. Moreover, they specifically document a great period in Chinese history and art, for Cheng Ching belonged to the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 A.D.). The Weis unified a vast empire and fostered the universal spread of Buddhism and, in the arts, unparalleled building, the perfection of sculpture, and the foundation of landscape painting in China. The tablet and sarcophagus from Cheng Ching's tomb bring to Minneapolis not only representative examples of carving in relief from the greatest period of Chinese sculpture, but an even more important record of a landscape style in painting which has not survived on more perishable materials such as silk, paper, or wood.The bas-reliefs formed an ensemble to commemorate a prince of both illustrious background and character. The Northern Weis were by far the most important dynasty of what is popularly called the Six Dynasties Period (220-589 A.D.). They were the famous Toba Tartars who expanded southward under the dynastic name of Wei. They maintained their capital at Ta-t'ung-fu until 494 A.D., and at Loyang after that date. It was at Loyang, in Honan Province, that they became great patrons of the arts, and it was there that Cheng Ching lived and died.As his memorial tablet relates, the Prince was the grandson of the Sixth Emperor of the Northern Wei dynasty, the son of the Prince of Chao, and the uncle of the Ninth Emperor of the dynasty. His familiar name was Mien, but his canonical name, given by his nephew the Emperor, was Cheng Ching, meaning "fitting example." He, also, was Prince of Chao, and Commanding General of the Southern Expedition, in which he was successful. He died in the prime of his life and was buried in the Pei Mon Mountains, to the north of Loyang, in 524 A.D.His nephew the Emperor definitely composed the eulogy, on his memorial tablet and very probably—although he too died within the year—supervised the construction of his elaborately decorated tomb. The Northern Wei emperors and their artists and craftsmen followed the general pattern and scale of tombs of the Han Dynasty, the most famous of which is that of Wu Liang-t-zu in Shantung Province. The tomb chamber was situated inside a large, artificially constructed earthen mound called a tumulus and must have been decorated with bas-reliefs or wall paintings. The sarcophagus probably rested on a stone base or couch, with the memorial tablet, according to tradition, placed on the ground and slightly to the south. The chamber doubtless contained sacrificial vessels and other symbolic utensils and figurines.The bas-reliefs, consisting of six slabs three to four inches thick, were carved in the dark grey limestone of the region. Like those from the Wu tomb, they were probably executed by highly skilled artisans rather than creative artists, for they are copies in stone of the prevailing style of landscape painting. The major figures and forms on the stones stand in relief. They have been polished to form an even surface, but the recesses between were left slightly rough. Painters' details were achieved through the use of incised lines. Although there are no traces of polychromy, it is possible that they may have been painted. The designers followed precedent in selecting their subjects, for the tablet, cover, and ends of the sarcophagus show conventionalized animals and symbols common to all Chinese art. The long sides present, in keeping with the classical tradition of Chou and Han times, scenes of filial piety set in a landscape.It is clear that these bas-reliefs are closely related to other sculptures of the period. Line is characteristic of both. If one compares the bas-reliefs with the Institute's small Bodhisattva from Lung-mên, one can see that the appeal of this sculpture is more linear than tactile. The stones from Cheng Ching's tomb illustrate the general style of low relief carving of the day and represent one phase of sculpture from a period of extraordinary activity in all types of carving. It is interesting to note that our reliefs are contemporary with the great Buddhist carvings in the cave temples of Yün-kang and Lung-mên.The relationship between our reliefs and contemporary painting is especially important. Under Wei literature and patronage the Chinese founded a great tradition in landscape painting, and our reliefs form one of the earliest surviving examples of this school of painting. They developed a better scale between figures and landscape and many sophisticated touches such as parallel perspective. However, line remained the dominant characteristic, as it did in sculpture. The designs in our reliefs are based on wall paintings by some of the leading artists of our time. Thus the reliefs represent, despite limitations of engraving in stone which prohibited variation in value, a more fluid and truly great landscape tradition which extended from the Buddhist cave temples of Tun-huang to the tombs of Gukenkri in Korea and Tung-kuo in Manchuria.We place special value on our reliefs, for they represent the current style at the dynastic capital of Loyang rather than the provincial style at the outposts of the Empire. There is little question that the handling of the figures in relation to the landscape is more refined on our reliefs than on the walls of the cave temples. The acquisition of these stone copies of Six Dynasties painting by the Institute makes Minneapolis one of the few centers in the world where the style can be studied. There are only about six similar tomb sculptures in other museums and even fewer examples of these early landscapes on perishable materials.The memorial tablet and epitaph is square and flat and bears a long inscription including the Prince's biography, the Emperor's touching eulogy, and the date 524 A.D. The inscription was protected by the cover, which fits over the tablet. Along the sides are eight blank squares indicating places for sacrificial vessels. The cover is surrounded by a bevelled edge of conventionalized dragon heads and contains remnants of bronze handles at the four corners. The sides of both tablet and cover are also decorated with dragons. Each measures 39 by 40 inches, the tablet being approximately nine and the cover approximately seven inches in depth.The shape of the sarcophagus is traditional with the exception of being higher and wider at the head end. Judging from the two ends, its cover must have been slightly curved. The head end bears an elaborate scene including a bridge leading over a lotus pond to a gate decorated with twenty-four bells representing twelve pairs of musical accords. Two guardians, standing at the sides of the gate, recall in style the tomb figurines of the period. The foot end shows a large dragon in a landscape. The ends measure about 25 by 30 and about 19 by 24 inches respectively.The two most important reliefs are, of course, the sides of the sarcophagus. Each side presents five groups of historical personages, illustrating filial piety and other virtues, in a landscape representing the Northern Wei Empire. The variety of conventions used in representing the mountains and trees portrays simply but realistically the Chinese terrain and its richly varied foliage. Short inscriptions identify the filial piety which occupy the lower portion of each side. The space above is filled with symbolic animals and cartouches containing ancestral portraits. The sides measure about 24 inches at the head end, about 20 at the foot end, and are 85 inches long at the bottom and about 88 at the top.The filial piety stories are the same well-known classical themes which appear on the famous Wu tombs, the Painted Basket tomb, and the Lady Yuan reliefs in Kansas City. We find them naively charming, but they held serious meaning for the ancients and still reflect some of the best qualities of Chinese philosophy. Most of them relate exaggerated examples of respect for parents or old age. They vary from the story of Ting Lan, who treated a wooden effigy of his dead mother as though she were alive, to Lao Lai-tzu, whose parents were still alive when he was seventy and who behaved like a child to make them feel young.The Wei sarcophagus was purchased through the Dunwoody Fund. It is now on view in the Oriental galleries with the exhibition of Master Paintings from the Chang Collection of Shanghai lent by C. T. Loo.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Limestone bas-relief from the tomb of Prince Cheng Ching. Detail of filial piety scene. Chinese, 524 A.D. Dunwoody Fund
  2. Head end of sarcophagus of Prince Cheng Ching showing guardians and conventionalized symbols. Dunwoody Fund
  3. Side of sarcophagus. Detail of filial piety stories. Left to right: Ting Lan, who honored the statue of his mother, Han Po Yuh, who reconciled his mother and father, Kuo Chu, who sacrificed his child for his mother.
  4. Side of sarcophagus. Detail showing filial piety stories in landscape setting. Left: Ming Tse Chien who remained cold so his parents could dress his brothers. Right: Mei Chih, who avenged his father
  5. Protective cover for memorial tablet from Cheng Ching's tomb. A rare example of Chinese art purchased through the Dunwoody Fund
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "A Stone Sarcophagus of the Wei Dynasty," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 37, no. 23 (June, 1948): 110-116.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009