Little survives today of the elaborate mural paintings that once adorned Han palaces and ceremonial halls. However we can grasp much of Han pictorial style and subject matter through scenes preserved in low relief in stone funerary shrines that have lasted. The most famous of the Han funerary shrines are those of the Wu family in Shantung. The West knew virtually nothing of the pictorial art of China until 1881 when rubbings of the shrines were shown at the Oriental Congress in Berlin by Stephen Bushell.
Offering shrines were yet another aspect of the ancestor worship responsible for the underground tombs resplendent with 'mingqi'. They were set up before the grave mounds of the departed and while stone shrines such as those of the Wu family are the only examples we have today, there were invariably wood-and-clay prototypes used more widely by poorer people. Stone was never a familiar building material to the Chinese and in these shrines it would have been used to make more durable the customary wood-frame construction. Such ancestral shrines ('zi') were freestanding peak-roofed structures, closed on three sides against the weather, about 2 metres in length, and with their walls engraved with scenes of mythology, history and cosmology, as well as scenes of homage to the deceased.
According to epitaphs on the Wu site, the members of the family were officials who held respectable middle-grade governmental positions. The shrines, built of stone slabs, gradually disintegrated over the centuries. As late as the 11th century three walls of the shrine of one member of the family - Wu Liang - were still standing and hence all the shrines on the site are often called after him - Wu Liangzi. The full set of some 40 odd slabs was not discovered until 1786, although their exact relationship to each other was not understood until recent research by Wilma Fairbank (Fairbank, W., "The Offering Shrines of Wu Liang Tz'u" in 'Adventures in Retrieval', Harvard-Yenching Institute Studies XXVIII, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 19??), who managed to arrange 29 of the slabs into at least 3 shrines but who could go no further because of the lack of gables or other structural keys. (Much of the information below is from her article on the shrines)
The Gallery's collection of rubbings of the Wu slabs is not complete but does provide a good idea of this type of art...the figures are conventionalised in silhouette; neither background nor perspective is effectively indicated; and the episodic scenes are composed in continuous horizontal bands separated by patterned borders reminiscent of the borders of decorated tiles. A rhythmic flow of lines relates figures and animals to the overall design. Architectural details are seen in front elevation. There are attempts to represent spatial depth through overlapping.
The technique for carving these reliefs was to cut away the background and then scrape it with vertical striations that provided a texture to contrast with the flat smooth surface of the relief design which was engraved in detail.
The subjects depicted in the Wu reliefs comprise a wide range of subjects drawn from Taoist mythology and Confucian history. Briefly, 4 classes have been distinguished (Watson, W., 'Realistic style in the Art of Han and T'ang China', University of Hull, 1975):
(1) Legendary emperors
(2) Scenes illustrating famous Confucian tales of, for example, filial piety
(3) Scenes from pre-Han history
(4) Scenes from Daoist mythology
This scene occurs on the south wall of the Wu Liang shrine. The focal scene of this slab is the pavilion with the large Fusang tree to its left. The pavilion contains an important personage perhaps the deceased surrounded by attendants. He seems to be being paid the respects of various figures, while feasting women occupy the upper story. The famous sun-myth of the Archer, Yi, shooting 9 of the ten bird-suns who nest in the Fusang tree, is depicted on the left. The bird-suns are represented by the crows. According to legend, one bird-sun was believed to mount each day into the sky by means of the sacred tree and the eastern boundary of the universe. The mythological archer Yi shot down nine of the suns lest they burn up the earth, leaving only one to light the universe.
In the upper half of this slab, as well as the corresponding sections on the east and west walls of the shrine, appear famous examples of female virtue, of filial piety, and a row of mythical emperors. Below this slab was an undecorated area in the shrine before which, presumably, the image or tablet of the deceased was set.
The Gallery's collection of rubbings contains several from the Front shrine of the Wu group. Although it is not known exactly for which member of the Wu family this shrine was constructed, it is considered to have been built some 17 years later than the other ones on the site...In considering the subject matter, in the upper registers of the east and west walls we recognize a row of Confucian scholars. The carriages and cavaliers below, repeated in long lines on every wall of all the Wu shrines, are clearly intended as visible signs of the family's wealth and respectability. The connecting frieze across the south wall maintains a general hierarchical sequence found in all the Wu processions. For example, on the left is a receptor (the standing figure bowing towards the approaching procession), then two horsemen side by side, three subordinate chariots in a row bearing officials of similar rank (as shown by inscriptions along-side), then a pair of horsemen, a pair of soldiers, the elaborate main chariot bearing the person for whom the shrine has been erected, followed by another pair of horsemen, another subordinate chariot bearing a "keeper of the accounts", and finally a dispatcher (standing figure bowing towards the retreating procession).
Many of the Wu scenes remain unexplained. The battle scene of the east wall of the front shrine has been linked to a unique genealogical claim made at the start of one of the Wu epitaphs. According to that inscription, the Wu family believed its unusual surname derived from a remote but famous ancestor, Wu Ding, the fourth Shang monarch to rule at Anyang. The bridge battle represented his best known feat, a long but victorious battle against the Gui Fang literally the Land of Demons (or of ghosts). There are also other interpretations of this scene.
An example of the didactic nature of some scenes is exemplified in the right hand end of the register third from the ground on the west wall. This scene depicts the story of Laolaizi, a paragon of filial piety who although an aging man himself, acts young to entertain his old parents. Below this, feasting lords are entertained by performers who dance and leap on drums (Hearn, M. and Fong, W., "The Arts of Ancient China" in 'The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin', no. 2, New York, 1973/74. unpaginated).
Other rubbings from the Gallery's collection represent loose slabs found at the Wu site which may or may not have been part of the same shrine. Their scenes are mythological and often Daoist inspired. The first scene, depicting a host speeding into battle, with fish ridden like horses, armed turtles and the like, may be the story of Wang Hai, the legendary first herder of cattle, who is said to have visited the Lord of Yi, where he behaved licentiously, and was murdered. His son sought the aid of Hebe, the Lord of the Yellow River, and with his watery host, defeated and killed the Lord of Yi. It could be Wang Hai's son, Shang Zhia, who is shown kneeling in front of the River God's fish-drawn chariot, begging for aid.
The second scene depicts a three horse chariot in the lower left, the chief personage and his two escorts beside him and then above them a fluid design of the "kingdom of the clouds".
The third scene is full of Han imagery. The prominent curving shape in the second register on the right forms an arc terminating at either end in the head of a dragon. This has been interpreted as a rainbow while the imp-like beings who are beneath it slaying a kneeling man by driving a spike into the back of his neck seem to stand for the destructive force of the squall that precedes the rainbow. The Thunder God follows him in his familiar car with a ring of drums. Various winged executioners armed with hammers and the lightning chisels move through the frieze. To the right below in another register is the armed bear like monster identified as Chiyu. It has been suggested that this slab represents the Battle of Zhoulu where the rebel leader Chiyu and his allies, the spirits of thunder, wind and rain, fought unsuccessfully against the Yellow Emperor (Bush, S., "Thunder Monsters and Wind Spirits" in 'Boston Museum Bulletin', vol. LLXXI, 1974, no. 367, pp. 24-55, p. 44).
Jackie Menzies, 'Early Chinese Art', AGNSW, 1983. cat.no. XXI.
Where the work was made
Shown in 1 exhibition
Early Chinese art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 26 Feb 1983–08 May 1983
Referenced in 1 publication
Jackie Menzies, Early Chinese Art, Sydney, 1983, (illus.) not paginated. cat.no. XXI See 'Further Information' for text.