Aspects of Death in Early Medieval China

4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room B

  • Organised by Jakub Hrubý, Andreas Janousch, Annette Kieser, and Monique Nagel-Angermann
  • Chaired by Andreas Janousch
  • Andreas Janousch, “Approaching Death (linzhong 臨終): Deathbed Rituals during the Six Dynasties (222–589)”
  • Annette Kieser, “Concepts of Death and Burial during the Six Dynasties (222–589)”
  • Monique Nagel-Angermann, “Death and Burial: Narratives about the Rulers of the Sixteen States (300–430)”
  • Jakub Hrubý, “Early Medieval Testamentary Edicts”
  • Antje Richter, Discussant

How did men and women during Early Medieval China (2nd to early 7th centuries CE) approach death? How did they prepare for it? And, how were the dead provided for in their abode, the tombs? These are only a few of the questions that the papers of this panel intend to bring into focus. As Emily Vermeule has powerfully argued in her classic study on Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, the shared experience of all sentient beings, death, could be imagined in a simultaneous multiplicity, depending on artistic and literary genres, religious affiliations, familial traditions, and ritual context. It is the express purpose of this panel to bring into focus this multiplicity in the expectations and imaginations, both as the living were approaching the moment of death and later after their demise, of their condition as the deceased in the tomb. To this end, the panel unites not only historians of different fields (religious traditions, political, and social history), but also specialists of material culture, archeologists, to stimulate a multidisciplinary debate across the scholarly disciplines. Based on careful contextual readings and analyses of a wide variety of textual sources – such as official dynastic histories, ritual texts, biographical writing, Buddhist and Daoist scriptures and historical writing – as well as material evidence from burial archaeology this multidisciplinary approach will provide a more complex understanding of the elites’ notion of death and the role it played in their lives during Early Medieval China.

Andreas Janousch, “Approaching Death (linzhong 臨終): Deathbed Rituals during the Six Dynasties (222–589)

In many religious traditions all over the world the critical process when an ill or old person approaches death became highly ritualized. Famously, in the Tang dynasty (618-906) in Pure Land Buddhism the moment of death (linzhong) was soteriologically so charged, as it temporarily opened the door to escape the samsaric cycle, that precise instructions were issued to ensure the rebirth in a pure realm of a buddha. The proposed paper intends to explore the diversity of ways this critical moment, linzhong, was anticipated, lived, imagined, and represented during the Early Medieval period, when practices were not yet highly standardized, when, in fact, new practices were emerging together with the burgeoning variety of innovative religious methods and rituals (both Buddhist and Daoist), and when the north-south divide facilitated the diversification of local customs. For this purpose, a wide range of written sources will be analyzed. These include, prescriptive and descriptive, religious and non-religious, circulated and entombed (muzhiming 墓誌銘) texts: biographies of Buddhist monks/nuns and laity (Gaoseng zhuan 高僧傳, Biqiuni zhuan 比丘尼傳), the standard dynastic histories, Shishuo xinyu 世說新語, anomaly accounts, and biographies of other religious specialists among others. Casting the net widely, the paper pretends to work towards a typology of deathbed rituals, not only to shed a light on the prehistory of later, more well-known practices but also to capture the multiplicity of the condition of the dead. 

Annette Kieser, Concepts of Death and Burial during the Six Dynasties (222–589)

This paper will focus on the material evidence from burial archaeology in Early Medieval South China. A large number of tombs have been excavated around the former capital of the Six Dynasties of the South, Jiankang (modern Nanjing), and also in secondary centres that were located along the Yangzi river as well as its tributaries. Given the long time span as well as the wide geographical distribution of tombs, a certain diversification was to be expected. However, an analysis of the structure of these tombs, their ornamentation as well as the remaining burial goods reveals an astonishing range of differences in design and content from tombs excavated in neighbouring burials even. Several case studies from different parts of Southern China will focus on these differences. Taking into account the historical background, my paper will offer possible explanations for the manifold burial patterns evident in the south. It will show that diversity not only reflects burial patterns of various social but also different ethnic groups. Very pronounced local differences of the burials may also point to local centres or strongholds. This analysis will pave the way for a deeper comprehension of the different concepts concerning death and “eternity” as well as the treatment of the deceased. It will also contribute to our understanding of the southern Chinese society in a period of unrest and migration during Early Medieval China.

Monique Nagel-Angermann, “Death and Burial: Narratives about the Rulers of the Sixteen States (300–430)”

The period of the Sixteen States (300–430) in northern China was characterized by rather short-lived regimes mostly founded by non-Han rulers, some of them avid supporters of Buddhism. Narratives about their history were composed by later historians, the Shiliuguo chunqiu 十六國春秋 by Cui Hong (478–525), the Weishu 魏書 by Wei Shou (506–572) and the Jinshu 晉書 ordered by Tang Taizong (r. 626–649) and compiled by his historians between 646 and 648. Although the Sixteen States was condemned as illegitimate, they left their mark on the political and cultural development of China. Testaments and last wills are acknowledged as valuable documents revealing personal concepts of death as well as political statements of intent. Moreover, it is well attested, that imperial burials can serve as demonstrations of power closely connected to ritual and religion. A comprehensive analysis of the attitude of the rulers of Sixteen States towards their own death and their treatment of burials is still missing. Therefore, I will compare specific death-related historiographical narratives about several rulers of the Sixteen States in order to show how later historians presented them as mortal beings and as emperors on the death bed. Narratives about their own burials and the dealing with others’ burials will be deconstructed in order to understand the historiographers’ judgments about the rulers of the Sixteen States.

Jakub Hrubý, “Early Medieval Testamentary Edicts

Chinese archives preserve a number of testamentary edicts (yizhao 遺詔), representing the last wills of the emperors of the late imperial China. Together with the accession edicts these came to be seen as the most important documents determining and strengthening the legitimacy of the imperial succession. While in late imperial history the issue of such an edict became the regular and expected conclusion of any given reign, the official dynastic histories provide us with merely a dozen or so testamentary edicts for the early medieval period. Given the number of medieval dynasties it seems that this practice was not nearly as widespread or regular as in later times. The transmitted testamentary edicts vary greatly both in length and content. Some were issued from a deathbed of an emperor, some promulgated only after his death by his successor. Despite their unquestionably legitimizing importance the issue of succession is not the only topic as they often provide the posterity with instructions regarding the burial and sometimes even a kind of reflection on the life and reign of the given emperor. This paper will analyse the content of the edicts preserved in the official histories such as Sanguozhi 三國志, Songshu 宋書, Nan Qishu 南齊書, Weishu 魏書, and Jinshu 晉書, as well as the circumstances of their issuance, focusing on gradual development of this important imperial institution and evolving nature of the medieval emperorship.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room B