AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 668

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Session 668: Visual Theatricalization of Death in Middle-Period China

Organizer: Sun-ah Choi, Myongji University, South Korea

Chair: Hsueh-man Shen, New York University, USA

Discussant: Hsueh-man Shen, New York University, USA

Theatricality is one of the conspicuous features embedded in Chinese funerary art and practices, but a less explored theme in the field. Pictorial representations and material objects found in tombs or used in Buddhist and Daoist ritual performances have symbolic functions as visual props, aiding departing souls to find their eternal home safely. Papers in this panel investigate theatrical features in Chinese mortuary culture with in-depth analyses of four different cases ranging from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the period when the unremitting effort of theatricalizing death was unprecedentedly intensified. Sun-ah Choi opens up the issue with an eighth-century underground chamber for Buddha’s relics, pointing out the sudden emergence of performative elements in the crypt and explaining their meanings in relation to the contemporary relic veneration. Qingquan Li emphasizes the intensified theatricality in mortuary contexts, moving on to new visual technologies found in the tombs during the tenth and the eleventh centuries. Susan Huang extends the scope of this issue by dealing with a Song dynasty Daoist salvation ritual, in which the theatrical moment reached at its peak when a Daoist master performs soul-saving dance in the liminal space. Jeehee Hong’s paper highlights the significance of this issue with actual actors’ images and their theater engraved on the surface of a 13th-century sarcophagus, exploring their implied mobility in the particular setting. Including both religious (Buddhism and Daoism) and non-religious cases, this panel will offer an expanded view of Chinese visual and material culture.

Reenacting Buddha’s Death and Creating a Relic Depository at the Qingshan Monastery in 741 A.D., China
Sun-ah Choi, Myongji University, South Korea

The underground crypt built at the precinct of the Qingshan Monastery in Lintong, Shaanxi Province and the sumptuous artifacts buried therein is not an unfamiliar example in the study of relic veneration during the Tang dynasty. What this relic deposit has attracted scholarly attention mostly lies in two things: an expanded underground space and coffin-shaped reliquaries, both of which assume a great similarity with traditional Chinese human burials. Accordingly, the two distinctive elements have made the Qingshan relic deposit mainly discussed within the topic of “Sinicization” of Buddhism, and recently under the rubrics of the “corporeality” of the relics. However, such big notions have masked the uniqueness of this crypt. Consisting of many other significant parts such as murals drawn on the three walls of the chamber, an unusually large stone box called “Precious Canopy” and burial goods of novel shapes, it still calls for an in-depth study, particularly of the logic lying behind the unprecedentedly intricate design of the space as well as implied functions of the buried objects. In this paper, I will consider spatial and temporal significations projected in this underground space in relation to early Tang Buddhists’ attitude toward relics—treating relics as the dead body of the Buddha Sakyamuni and performing funerary rituals wearing white robes and weeping over them. Through this, I will demonstrate that the Qingshan relic deposit visually exemplifies the contemporary practice of reenacting Buddha’s death with relics, playing an intriguing game for masking his physical absence through complex material proxies.

“True Image” Idols and Tomb Chamber Shape: The Transformation of Funerary Rites in Middle-Period China
Qingquan Li, Independent Scholar, USA

This project explores how Buddhism “conquered” medieval Chinese culture during the tenth and the eleventh centuries by looking at, in depth, some new funerary “technologies” in the Liao, Song, and Jin dynasties. It first examines a special type of funerary statues from the tombs of the Liao dynasty that has been termed the “True Image” (zhenrong). I posit that the emergence of this new idol was related to changing Buddhist notions of the “Dharma-body” (dharmakaya) in the eleventh century. Second, this project analyzes the use of dharani pillars in Liao funerary ceremonies. Due to the eschatological function of dharani pillars, several Buddhist groups of the Liao Dynasty, both lay and monastic, erected them around their tombs. Over time, these aboveground pillars and the corresponding tomb chambers below were transformed into Buddhist pagodas and pagoda-like rooms. Other new Buddhist elements were also introduced into Liao, Song, and Jin tombs, including bronze mirrors installed in the middle of the lotus pattern on the tomb ceiling and dharani incantations inscribed with monochromatic ink on the surface of the coffins. Taken together, these new funerary elements indicate a heightened fear of hell and an urge for rebirth in the Buddhist Pure Land among some social groups of the three dynasties, a cultural phenomenon that was ultimately inspired by Buddhism.

Materiality and Performance of Daoist Salvation Ritual in Song China
Shih-Shan S. Huang, Rice University, USA

This paper introduces the material and performing aspects of the Yellow Register Purgation or Huangluzhai, the most popular and encompassing Daoist salvation ritual in Song China. Drawing visual materials from Daoist liturgical manuals, it unveils the abundant display of ritual objects, written documents, and other paraphernalia used in the Daoist sacred space. Since the Southern Song, the space for a salvation ritual has situated the highest celestial court in the north and the secondary gods in the east and the west, separating them from the souls and from hell in the south. Between heaven and hell is the place of humanity, symbolized by the performing Daoist master active in the ritual space. He burns incense, recites scriptures, chants hymns, and makes offerings to the gods at different altars in the ritual space. At night, moving to the place for the souls, he dances, waves banners, casts spells, and burns talismans to save the souls from hell, then cleanse, feed, and transform them. Traveling back and forth between heaven and hell, he seeks to rectify the cosmic order. Theatrical moments occur when he summons the gods in front of the altar and when he performs a soul-saving dance at the border of the ritual area symbolizing hell. While all these animated actions are visible to the audience, they are not as important as the master’s invisible meditative visualization that functions as an internal form of ritual.

Staging Death: Actors and Their Theater Carved on a Thirteenth-century Sarcophagus in Ruicheng, Shanxi
Jeehee Hong, Syracuse University, USA

Several representations of theatrical performance in various media have survived in tombs dating to the middle period of Chinese history (tenth to fourteenth centuries). These images have been almost exclusively utilized by scholars of Chinese drama as models for reconstructing early dramatic forms. While they certainly hold documentary value, this focus has overlooked two of the most important aspects of these representations: their innovative visual mode of theatricality and their symbolic functions and meanings within the mortuary context in which they were created and used. This paper investigates the ways in which a particular theatrical mode reveals contemporary conceptions of death and life by showcasing an image of actors and their theater incised on the surface of a mid-thirteenth century sarcophagus. The theater façade depicted on the head panel configures the entire coffin as a kind of architecture. A physical opening, organically incorporated into the represented stage on the same panel, connects the pictorial space to the realm implied behind the stone panel. The actors’ deictic postures, strikingly juxtaposed with the physical opening below, self-reflexively manifest a virtual performance going on behind their own stage. This performance within a performance is highlighted by the presence of play rooms, or “ghost doorways” (gui mendao). The implied mobility of the actors within and beyond the depicted stage further speaks to the existence of the liminal space between the two. I argue that such mobility reflects the simultaneity of the multiple conceptions of the relationship between life and death.