Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 28, 2020
Jie Shi Modeling Peace: Royal Tombs and Political Ideology in Early China Tang Center Series in Early China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. 368 pp.; 5 color ills.; 74 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780231191029)

It is generally assumed that a Chinese tomb was a private space of concealment, where the occupant would enjoy an idealized afterlife primarily concerned with personal welfare. In Modeling Peace: Royal Tombs and Political Ideology in Early China, however, Jie Shi presents the lavishly embellished royal tombs of the Western Han empire (206 BCE–8 CE) as public monuments that announced the ideological agendas of their elite owners. The book is structured around an in-depth case study of the renowned Mancheng tombs, where Liu Sheng (r. 154–113 BCE), the regent of the enfeoffed Zhongshan kingdom, and his wife, Dou Wan, were interred. Accidentally uncovered in 1968 near Baoding (Hebei Province), the Mancheng site includes a pair of multichambered graves cut horizontally into a rocky hill. Intact upon excavation, the two burials yielded over ten thousand objects, several of which have been designated national treasures.

Shi’s book convincingly argues that the Mancheng tombs embodied a political ideology of kingship, embracing the philosophies of both Huang-Lao Daoism and Confucianism to “pacify all under heaven.” While Huang-Lao thought advocates for spontaneous and effortless action in everything from regimens of personal well-being to political rule, Confucianism emphasizes the political ideal of “bringing peace to the world” (ping tianxia) through active and harmonious governance. More specifically, Shi seeks to show that the architecture and artifacts of these burials materialized a deliberate scheme of tripartite “pacification” aimed at harmonizing self, family, and state. In Shi’s view, a Western Han royal tomb was created as a public monument rather than a private project, serving ultimately as a manifestation of its royal patron’s ideology.

Modeling Peace is divided into two parts, respectively focusing on objects (tombs) and subjects (social agents). Chapters 1 through 3 delve into visual and material analysis of objects to unravel the religious, social, and political layers of the funerary monuments, which harmonized body and soul, husband and wife, and ethnic Han and non-Han. Chapter 1 highlights the significance of the union of Liu Sheng’s body and soul in achieving immortality. As Shi suggests, the self-cultivation of the king in the netherworld was simulated through three layers of “outfits” (fu) in the rear chamber of his tomb: the solid jade suit in the inner coffin; the intangible ritual robe of ceremonial objects such as swords, seals, and garment hooks in the outer coffin; and the “dissolving outfit” represented by scattered jade pendants, swords, and other bodily objects in the casket. These nested outfits facilitated the bodily dissolution of the deceased, a notion derived from the Daoist practice of “releasing the (corporeal) form” (xing jie) to ascend to immortality. In the front chamber, two tents were set up with sacrificial instruments to frame a banquet scene, which was to “arrest the soul and prevent it from disintegrating completely” (60). In sum, this chapter captures how architectural design and furnishings were meant to maintain the longevity of Liu Sheng, a foundation for ideal rulership.

The second chapter moves from the personal to the familial by comparing the king’s tomb with that of his queen. Shi reveals a three-tiered ideology of gender relations. First, the jade suits representing the sex organs of the deceased and other gendered bodily decorations marked their gender distinctions. Second, the architectural deviation of the queen’s rear chamber slanting toward the king’s tomb solidified the idea of male gender superiority. Finally, the more spacious funerary architecture and ritual objects of superior quality in Du Wan’s tomb rebalanced the gender relationship. As Shi sees it, these symbolic representations of power negotiations united husband and wife as one: the two tombs not only formed mirror images of one another but also symbolically constituted a shared palatial space of outer and inner quarters harmonizing the yin and yang forces. After all, ideal kingship was predicated upon a harmonious spousal relationship between the king and the queen.

Chapter 3 interprets the juxtaposition of non-ethnic-Han and Han material elements in the Mancheng tombs. Liu Sheng was the founding ethnic-Han king of the Zhongshan fiefdom, which had long been occupied by the Rong-Di pastoralists prior to the Han dynasty. Shi provides a thick description of a wide range of objects—from necklaces to swords, bronze needle cases to “barbarian” gaming figures—associated with the White Di, the founders of the Zhongshan state (414–296 BCE). In bringing together Han-style artifacts with objects fashioned in either archaic or contemporary “barbaric” styles, Liu Sheng enacted visual political strategies of “returning to antiquity” (fugu) and “integrating customs” (qisu). This material practice symbolically enabled the king, as both “vassal of the Han Empire” and “heir of the Rong-Di ‘barbaric’ kings” (119), to unite the Chinese and “barbarian” subjects in his new kingdom “in order to forge a unified ethnic-Han identity” (142), another important trait of an ideal ruler.

Whereas part 1 reveals the design principles—“embracing (body and soul), paralleling (two genders), and intermingling (multiple cultures)” (160)—of the royal Mancheng tombs, the second part turns to exploring the underlying logic and motivations of the human agents behind the tripartite tenets. Deftly navigating the related issues of patronage, authorship, and spectatorship, Shi concludes that the construction of the Mancheng site was a deliberate, unifying act. Chapter 4 argues that the royal tombs were a state project intended to transform the burials of Liu Sheng and his queen into a political image of the kingdom. Revisiting the debates over lavish burial between philosophers in the late Warring States period (475–221 BCE), Shi points out that, as a public matter, Liu Sheng’s burial resonated with the advocacy of Xunzi (active third century BCE) for lavish burial as “a visible ornament of the invisible way of the sage kings” (178).  

Chapter 5 addresses Liu Sheng’s ideological involvement as a codesigner of his mausoleum. Scrutinizing biographical accounts in transmitted texts, Shi finds that the Huang-Lao and Confucian schools of thought yielded different images of the king. One is a seemingly licentious ruler who indulged in drinking, music, and sex yet followed “life’s natural course without falling into the trap of desire” (194), a sage way to attain longevity according to Huang-Lao teachings. The other image is of an eloquent gentleman well versed in the Confucian classics. Shi’s close analysis of the inscriptions on a set of wager coins unearthed from Liu Sheng’s tomb affirms the king’s affinity for both schools of thought: he simultaneously favored effortless action and active governance.

The last chapter challenges the common assumption that a Chinese tomb was completely hidden from view. Instead, Shi analyzes three gazes at the tomb—those of ghosts and gods in the netherworld, of living spectators during the funerary rite, and of the government throughout the process of construction—to argue that royal burials were a public spectacle under constant scrutiny. Shi contends that the king mentally constructed the intended audience, an imagined viewer who was hypothetically postulated in Liu Sheng’s mind, due to “the feeling of constantly being watched and monitored by others” (215). This provided an ulterior motive for the king to laboriously build his tomb as “a display of objects” (223) and “a latent pictorial narrative” (230).

Modeling Peace is a methodologically ambitious work. Shi foregrounds a new approach that he characterizes as topological. Contrasted with the more conventional typological method that focuses on the classification of objects in terms of their physical and functional attributes, Shi’s topoanalysis pursues a structuralist understanding of webbed, contextual relationships among things. He is primarily interested in examining the “spatial relations among the objects” to “unravel the intentional relationships embedded among actual things and images placed across the burial chambers” (20). In this regard, Shi’s book advances Wu Hung’s spatial and relational study of tombs, as exemplified in The Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs (University of Hawai’i Press, 2010).

However, Shi’s effort in applying contemporary theoretical notions to studying ancient Chinese materials is not always seamless. For instance, the argument in Modeling Peace that the Mancheng tombs served as a “public spectacle” (217) introduces a loaded concept that may need further contextualization and clarification, for in art historiography, “spectacle” usually connotes something performative, deceptive, enticing, and superficial. Likewise, it is unclear whether “public” refers to what Shi calls “the psychologically constructed viewer” (214) or the viewers who actually existed during the Han. Moreover, from what we know of the period, it would have been inappropriate for imagined or real public viewers—whether ancestors or living relatives—to gaze at the queen’s inner quarters as represented in Dou Wan’s tomb and at the licentious revels staged in Liu Sheng’s tomb.

In his conclusion, Shi briefly points out that other Western Han royal tombs followed the same design principles of “embracing, paralleling, and intermingling” in fusing Huang-Laoism and Confucianism. If that is true, then Liu Sheng may not have been the first designer to come up with such a grand, ideal model, as there exist earlier Han royal tombs with similar designs. To what extent, then, can this design ingenuity be claimed for the Zhongshan king? And how unique were the royal tombs compared with tombs of those from lower ranks? Such questions encourage further archaeological investigation and art historical study.

Modeling Peace is thought provoking, going far beyond a narrow case study of royal burials in the Zhongshan kingdom. The book will enlighten readers interested not only in Chinese funerary art but also in the ongoing dialogue between art history, material culture studies, and the history of thought. Thanks to Shi’s lucid, vivid writing, its sophisticated argument, which weaves together seemingly arcane material, becomes accessible and enjoyable.

Yanlong Guo
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Smith College