AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 575

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Session 575: Tales from the Crypt: Medieval Chinese Muzhiming in Five Perspectives

Organizer: Jessey J. Choo, Rutgers University, USA

Chair: Wendi L. Adamek, University of Calgary, Canada

Discussant: Wendi L. Adamek, University of Calgary, Canada

Muzhiming — stone slabs designed for burial with the dead usually inscribed with biographical details, burial information, and a rhymed eulogy — were excavated in huge quantity over the past half-century. Analysis of them has transformed the study of medieval China, most notably in the areas of political and social history. However, few scholars have examined the multivalent nature of the muzhiming both as a text and object situated within a nexus of artistic, literary, religious, and economic practices. They neglected that muzhiming as a unique cultural form invites multiple interpretations and applications. This multiplicity is reflected in how the term muzhiming has been translated in scholarly works; in this panel alone, there are “emtombed epitaph inscriptions,” “epitaphs,” and “tomb inscriptions.” To further complicate matters, the practice of burying inscriptions that identify the dead has a long history, one which did not become conventional until the late middle ages. What then were the antecedents of muzhiming? This panel aims to examine and encourage discussion on the nature and functions of muzhiming in medieval China through five different approaches: 1. problematizing transparent readings of content through studying of the venal motivations of its authors; 2) considering the roles of muzhiming within commemorative culture; 3) interpreting the ritual and social meanings of their regular inclusion of divination results regarding burial; 4) exploring differences between muzhiming and miaozhenzang (portrait eulogy) in terms of their processes of production and ritual functions; and 5) reflecting on the materiality of muzhiming and its relation to their ritual functions.

Entombed Epigraphy in Early Medieval Commemorative Culture and the Rise of Muzhiming as a Literary Genre
Timothy M. Davis, Brigham Young University, USA

This paper investigates the roles played by muzhiming (entombed epitaph inscriptions) within the commemorative culture of the early-Medieval Chinese elite. Specifically, I explore the particular needs filled by this genre that were not being met by other forms of commemorative and biographical writing such as stele inscriptions (bei), dirges (lei), laments (aice), accounts of career (xingzhuang), and unofficial biography (jiazhuan, biezhuan). I am further concerned with the “afterlife” of pre-Tang muzhiming as they were collected, critiqued on their literary merits, and compiled in anthologies and collected works for wider consumption. In other words, through the combined analysis of anecdotal material from the dynastic histories and miscellaneous jottings, data from collectanea, anthologies, and bibliographic records, as well as epitaph texts themselves, I hope to shed light on the early history of how this particular commemorative form developed into an indispensible component of elite burial practice and became a respected literary genre during the early-medieval period and beyond.

How to Read the Genre of Muzhiming in the Mid-Tang
Alexei Ditter, Reed College, USA

In reading and interpreting muzhiming, contemporary scholars often overlook differences in the content, style, and rhetoric of muzhiming from different periods. Genre theorists, however, have argued that these kinds of differences can be quite significant, indicative of changes in the perceived aims and audiences of genres and of the broader social and historical context within which they were read and circulated; failing to account for these changes, they suggest, could compromise contemporary readings of earlier texts and the conclusions based upon them. In this paper, I focus on muzhiming authored during the late-eighth through early-ninth centuries. I explore questions of how the content, style, and rhetoric of the muzhiming of this period may have been influenced by the changing material, social, and economic contexts of the mid-Tang: I argue in particular that the increasing professionalization of muzhiming writing (i.e., the ability to acquire symbolic or material capital through one’s skill in composing muzhiming) and the ability to circulate longer prose texts easily and inexpensively (due to increasing production and lowered cost of paper) influenced who were writing muzhiming (e.g., family, friends, commissioned professional writers, or even the deceased prior to their demise), whom they addressed (the dead, living family members or friends, future descendants, or potential future customers of muzhiming authors), and the aims they intended to achieve (commemorate the dead, memorialize the filial deeds of surviving family members, offer political commentary or social critique, or record or advertise the writer's compositional skills).

The Will of the Oracle:The Practice and Significance of Burial Divinations as Reflected in Muzhiming
Jessey J. Choo, Rutgers University, USA

In the year 823 CE, the natal family of a Mrs. Zheng buried her for a second and last time. They only managed to lay her to rest by her husband's side after 18 years of repeated frustrations. According to her muzhiming, it took months to ascertain the proper location and years to come upon the correct moment to bury her at the chosen site. Her burial became a protracted affair during which her casket had to be interred temporarily at a separate location. Delayed burial due to inauspicious divination results was nothing extraordinary in late medieval China. Slaves to the will of oracle, families could sometimes hang in painful suspense for generations. Yet this subservience is not the only interesting aspect about these divinations on the place and time of the burial; this practice was a fixture of all burials regardless of religious affiliation, and was even performed for Sogdians, Persians, and Japanese! Why was this practice so pervasive? What was its significance? It appears to be a method for obtaining further instructions on the burial; but, from whom? What spirit(s) or numinous power lay behind it? Why were these results recorded? The Tang muzhiming first began to report adverse results and then auspicious ones as well. Does this reflect a change of genre convention or that of burial practice? This paper aims to understand the function of muzhiming and the pervasiveness of divination in Tang society from these angles yet to receive scholarly attention.

Image, Word, and Ritual: Comparative Perspectives on Portrait Eulogies and Tomb Inscriptions in Medieval Dunhuang
Huaiyu Chen, Arizona State University, USA

Numerous portrait eulogies (miaozhenzan) and tomb inscriptions (muzhiming) have been uncovered in Dunhuang. Portrait eulogies were textual compositions usually appended to illustrations created for local monks while they were on their deathbeds. In contrast, tomb inscriptions were compositions written after the deaths of these same monks. They were then inscribed in stone and buried in the tomb. Although both genres served to commemorate local monks, they nonetheless fulfilled unique functions resulting from the different stages of death ritual practice during which they were composed. Contemporary scholarship to date has often neglected or ignored the literary and ritual aspects of these texts in favor of using them to understand the social history of a local Buddhist community. This study will focus on Dunhuang manuscripts P. 4660, P. 4522v, P. 2002v in the Pelliot collection. It will examine the ways in which portrait eulogies and tomb inscription were composed, circulated, and employed in medieval literary and religious contexts. On one level it will study how the images in portrait eulogies were made and the ritual functions played by those images. It will also consider the significance of the specific location where the eulogies and tomb inscriptions were placed, offered, and worshipped. Finally, it will highlight differences and similarities of structure and vocabulary in these two genres, in particular shared terms employed by them for describing the living image of the deceased.

The Art of the Epitaph
Chao-Hui Jenny Liu, Princeton University, USA

This paper explores the form vs. the function of the epitaph. In other words, the ostensible function of the epitaph, to maintain prestige of the deceased and glorify his or her good life, seems at odds with the physical form of the epitaph, which hides the carved epitaph text under a stone cover in the tomb. During funerary rituals, the epitaph stone can be uncovered at certain points, and possibly during the times when the funeral procession stops for worship. In fact, during the procession, the epitaph stone at times has its own vehicle, suggesting that it is on display for the mourners. However, the stone is definitively interred at the time of burial. What remains outside in the public domain are the transient paper copies. The forms of the stones also suggest they were designed for hiding in the tomb. This seems at odds with the purpose of the epitaphs to preserve the image of the deceased. This paper argues that the conflict of the form vs. function of the epitaph stone can be resolved by an understanding of the ritual concepts behind funerary practice. According to ritual, there is a point at which the body must be put away, and I would suggest that the epitaph at this point in the funerary ritual, becomes a metaphor for the body of the deceased and must also be simultaneously put away. In this way, the epitaph becomes the identity “body” of the deceased.