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Treasures of the Dead: Burial Art of Ancient China

October 26, 2016

Today’s post comes from Mo Gyeong Seong, a DMA Teen Advisory Council member with a serious passion for history. He currently attends Carroll Senior High School in Southlake, Texas, where he has taken several classes in world history, humanities, and global languages. Enjoy his bite-sized tour of Chinese burial sculpture from the DMA’s permanent collection!

China’s Tang Dynasty was marked as a time of prosperity and discovery that fostered a distinctive cultural sphere lasting down to the modern day. Religion and spirituality played an important part in Tang life, and great thought was put into what would happen after an individual’s last breath. With Halloween fast approaching, I wanted to share a bite-sized tour of some of the burial art made by the Tang Dynasty.

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Pair of Lokapalas (Heavenly Guardians), early 8th century C.E., Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Ellen and Harry S. Parker III

The Lokapala are guardians of the world in Buddhism, introduced to Tang China by the preceding Sui Dynasty. According to legend, the Lokapala were originally protector gods in Ancient India, called the Four Great Heavenly Kings. After witnessing the enlightenment of the Buddha, they chose to lead an army of ghosts to defend the worshippers of the Buddha from demons. The Four Kings would slowly integrate into Chinese burial traditions, guarding the four cardinal directions. Their fierce faces reflect their foreign origins. However, their armor is of a mystical Chinese style and a feng huang–an East Asian mythological King of Birds and symbol of harmony and royalty–is sculpted into their helmets.

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Polo horse tomb figure, 618-906, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Rothwell.

Some of the finest pieces from Chinese tombs are the handsome and muscular ceramic horses created by talented craftsmen for burials of the elite. This one has faded over time, but centuries ago it would have dazzled in reds and oranges. Horses, thought to be related to dragons and crucial to the countless military campaigns waged by China, symbolized strength, wealth, and power. Horses also represented a spiritual ascension, as the souls of the dead could ride them into the afterlife.

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Tomb Plaque Marker on a Tortoise Base, 1000-1200, Dallas Museum of Art, the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund

After the fall of the Tang Dynasty, a new burial tradition was adopted by the nobility: the use of large stone stele, or bei in Chinese. These stele were often etched with information from the deceased’s life, including occupation, age and date of death, birthplace, and their life accomplishments, as an enduring honor to the deceased. The stele is capped by carvings of mythological animals and erected on the back of a stone tortoise, an animal who could carry heavy loads according to Chinese mythology.

Make sure you visit these works of art currently on view on Level 3 of the permanent collection galleries! What other burial traditions can you uncover at the Museum?

Mo Gyeong Seong
Teen Advisory Council Member

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