An ancient historic and cultural city in China, Nanjing had served intermittently as the capital of nine dynasties, of which the Six Dynasties were the earliest.
The Six Dynasties included the Eastern Wu and Eastern Jin during the Three Kingdoms, and the Song, Qi, Liang and Chen during the Southern Dynasty period. This period was a transitional stage of unification from the Han to the Tang Dynasty lasting more than 300 years. It was also an important stage in the development of China's ancient art, and served as a link between past and future.
It is over a history of more than 1,000 years that the mausoleums of the SIX Dynasties, and stone carvings in front of tombs have been preserved with historical characteristics, systems and styles of their own. These relics are still a symbol representing historical and cultural art at that time, and are attractions for scholars from both home and abroad.
Recorded histories show 71 tombs of emperors, princes and marquises through the Six Dynasties, 31 of which have been discovered, all located around the area from Nanjing to Danyang in Jiangsu Province. They include Emperor Liu Yu's Chuning tomb of the Song Dynasty; Emperor Xiao Chengzhi's Yong'an tomb of Qi; Emperor Xiao Daocheng's Tai'an tomb of Qi; Emperor Xiao Luan's Xing'an tomb of Qi, Emperor Xiao Xun Zhi's Jian tomb of Liang; Emperor Xiao Ye's Xiuling of Liang; Emperor Xiao Gang's Zhuangling of Liang; Emperor Chen Baxian's Wan'anling of Chen, and Emperor Wen Di's Yongningling of Chen, and the tombs of many princes and marquises of the Liang Dynasty, such as Xiao Hong, Xiao Xiu, Xiao Hui, Xiao Jing, Xiao Ji and Xiao Zhengxuan.
In addition, several unidentifiable tombs have been found with damaged stone inscriptions and stone animals and pillars covered by earth.
Stone inscriptions of these Southern Dynasties tombs scattered in 31 locations can be divided into two categories -- tombs of emperors and those of the nobility. Materials from emperors' tombs have been found in 13 scattered locations. Stone inscriptions in front of Liang Emperor Xiao Xunzhi's Jian tomb are well preserved.
There are four kinds of stone objects in eight pieces: a pair of stone beasts, a pair of pillars for the pathway leading to the grave, a pair of stone tablets and a pair of square stone bases lying between the stone beasts and the pillars on the path leading to the grave. Since the structure on the base stones has disappeared, the shape of the stone carvings it originally held remains unknown.
Remaining stone inscriptions in front of most emperors' tombs consist only of a pair of stone beasts, with only pieces of a few surviving. Generally speaking, spirit path pillars and stone tablets were placed in front of the tombs. However, these stone carvings either disappeared or were damaged over the centuries.
Stone beasts in front of these tombs are almost identical though some have double horns and some a single horn. Usually, those located to the left have double horns, while those on the right are single horned. The single horned beasts were generally called qilin (Chinese unicorn) and paired with a ferocious mythical creature with two horns.
Stone unicornStone unicorn
Tombs of the nobility are scattered in 18 locations. Inscribed and carved stones in front of the tomb of Prince Xiao Xiu of Liang, were well preserved, consisting of eight pieces, a pair of stone lions, a pair of stone spirit path pillars and four stone tablets. As for other tombs, most of their stone inscriptions have been destroyed. Some have only stone lions, or stone pillars and some
have inscribed stone pillars and stone lions, or even only stone pillars.
Based on stone carvings found at 31 tombs, general rules for placement of stone carvings usually covered six pieces, that is, an emperor's tomb would have a pair of stone animals (the ferocious creature and a Chinese unicorn), a pair of spirit path pillars and a pair of stone tablets, while tombs of the nobility typically have a pair of stone lions, a pair of stone pillars on the path leading to a grave and a pair of stone tablets. Perhaps this placement was the law for stone carvings at that time. However, some differences are important. For example, the stone animals erected in front of emperors' tombs and tombs of the nobility were quite different. Usually, the ferocious creatures and the Chinese unicorn were reserved for the emperor's tomb while stone lions were placed in front of a nobility tomb. Legend has it that the ferocious animal and the unicorn were spiritual animals whose appearance would coincide with emergence of a man of high position. Therefore, such animals could only be used in front of emperors' mausoleums, indicating the absolute power and dignity of the emperors. The lion is a beast of prey known as the king of animals. Placement of stone lions in front of tombs of the nobility speak of the person's great renown in life. All this was designed to distinguish the nobility from the humble, a reflection of the feudal system of the time.
Among the three carved stone decorations (animals, pillars and tablets), the animals ranked first, reflecting priority characteristics of tombs in the Six Dynasties, and were of high artistic value and quality.
Carved with unique skill and artistic exaggeration, the imposing stone animals are usually large in size, and display a rich imaginative faculty, quite different from the awkward carved stone pieces of the Han Dynasty. Stone animals such as the unicorn and its ferocious companion generally were carved separately from a single large stone. On most of them, heads were raised with bodies in repose; some crouched on their heels; some were lifting their feet, as if to paw the ground, and some were obviously stationary but straining to move forward. These were traditional forms for stone beasts after the Eastern Hah Dynasty.
However, stone animals in the Six Dynasties were more vigorous and powerful, exuding life and vitality.
The unicorns and ferocious beasts in front of the tomb of Liu Yu, Emperor Wu Di of the Song Dynasty, are a good example to use for an explanation. With huge stones carved in a rough-cast way, the finished animals exhibit a simple and unsophisticated style, connecting closely with the carving styles of the Han Dynasty.
Tombs in the Qi and Liang dynasties were a change from the old, entrenched awkward style into one of fully developed, vivid shapes, that leave a deep impression on viewers. Stone animals in front of the tomb of Emperor Wendi (Chen Qian) appear full of vitality and very cocky as if they are about to rise into the air in a great jump. Obviously, these carved stones demonstrate fundamental changes from the rougher carving practices of the Han Dynasty. This indicates that the art of stone carving developed from a simple and unsophisticated style toward a style of strength, vigor and flexibility. These were important features of stone carvings during the Southern Dynasties.
Pillars on the spirit path to the tomb are tomb pillars unique to the Six Dynasties. Carving features can be divided into three pillar parts -- upper, middle and lower. The lower segment of the pillar has a base of a facing pair of two-homed dragons with pearls in their mouths, coiled in opposite directions around the pillar to crossed tails; the middle part is the pillar body which generally contains carvings of 24 bamboo slip patterns. A few pillars have 28 such patterns. The upper part of the pillar is a rectangular stone block inscribed with carved characters. Also on the block are carved dragon designs, rope patterns and robust men and other relief sculptures. The top is a lotus-shaped round cover on which a small stone animal similar to those in front of the tomb is placed. All the elements blend into unity and the pillar is erected between the huge stone animals and inscribed stone tablets, providing the impression of height and endurance. Unfortunately, most of the little stone animals and round covers of the stone pillars leading to the tomb were damaged except for those of the nobility tombs of Xiao Jing and Xiao Ji. These two tombs are sufficiently intact to provide visitors with strong indications of how all the tombs looked.
The shape of the inscribed tablets continued in the patterns established during the Han Dynasty, i.e., an elongated shape topped by a round head. The tablet's top is decorated in coiled double dragon designs and the stone horizontal inscribed block has a round hole while the bottom is a turtle-shaped base.
There are eight pieces of relief sculpture patterns on the sides of the stone tablets of Xiao Hong's tomb, featuring gods and spirits, rare birds and animals. This type of decoration is seldom seen in relief sculpture art.
Special attention was paid to the placement symmetry of stone objects for tombs of the Southern Dynasties. Not only each kind of carved stones were to be arranged in a facing formation, but also shapes of stone animals and even characters on the stone tablets of the pillars on the path leading to the grave were to be arranged in symmetry. Such emphasis on symmetric form is typical of carved stone arrangements in Southern Dynasty tombs.
For burial, the Six Dynasties inherited clan burial customs of the Han Dynasty. During the Song Dynasty in the Southern Dynasty, individual occupation of mountain forests and river marshes was affirmed by law. Owing to private ownership of land, burial through clan practices had become common, and preferred, practice during the Six Dynasties.
Emphasis was given to geomancy and the aura of the tomb location; usually favoring a site with hills behind and a flat plain in front. Tomb locations in the Six Dynasties to the south were all placed on the low slope of a mountain, while the buildings and other structures, such as carved stones, were all placed on flat ground. This was the regulation of the time, which affected directly the burial rules of the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties.
After selection of burial location, a rectangular tomb pit was dug in the mountain slope. To build a tomb pit on the large scale of the times required a deep cut into the hill, reflecting the extensive work in building a tomb at that time.
A tomb chamber would be built soon after completion of the pit. According to records and findings, all tombs of the Six Dynasties were brick chambered, with two characteristics:
1) The tomb gates were stone and lintels were semicircular. Generally, an emperor's tomb had two doors while those for princes and marquises, one door. 2) A long drainage system was built for each tomb. One channel started under the chamber inside the tomb, to drain the structure. An outlet was built into the floor tiles to drain water from inside the tomb. The drain was into low lying land or a pond. Taking great care to build a durable, effective system, long drainage conduit was lined with seven or eight layers of brick, a feature seldom seen in other tombs in northern China. The durable pipeline was to accommodate the humid climate of southern China.
Emperors of the Six Dynasties repeatedly warned that grand burials were strictly forbidden, especially the inclusion of gold and silver as burial accessories.
However, not only were gold and silver articles found in some damaged tombs of these times, but they are likely to have been very ornate and costly. This suggests that so-called burial prohibitions may have been misleading, and even deceitful.
The large tombs of the Six Dynasties usually had imposing door-sealing walls across the broad front and a wind breaking earth wall. Once the tomb was completed, a sacrifice hall was built and stone carvings were placed in front of the tomb.
After Liberation in 1949, a number of painted brick tombs containing relief depictions and patterned printing were excavated in quick succession in Nanjing, Zhengjiang and Danyang. Discovery of these tombs is an important archaeological achievement for studying the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern dynasties. Rich in content and theme, portraits include gods, monstrous
elephants and blue dragons, white tigers, rosefinches, and strange animals with bird or human bodies which would, according to legend, protect the dead. Other portraits depict lions, warriors, an immortal playing with a dragon, heavenly men and a panoramic depiction of the pageantry of a royal excursion.
In addition, there are paintings in which gods and spirits reflecting Taoist consciousness are integrated with images symbolizing Buddhism, such as lotus flowers and rosefinches, monsters with animal heads and bird bodies with potted lotus and double lotus patterns.
These brick paintings were made by piecing together colored blocks or tiles, creating mosaic inlays in the tomb chamber.
Sometimes, one brick contained a single, small depiction while larger-sized works were pieced together from dozens or even hundreds of bricks. Because each tile was cast with a raised surface appropriate to its place in the work, the art has the appearance of relief sculptured patterns. Some of the patterns are precise and minute, appearing to be bent wires and coiled threads, presenting an extremely elegant appearance, while others are much more bold in design, becoming a decorative pattern. These treasured relics provide valuable material for studying the art and thinking, as well as learning of the customs, of the Southern Dynasty period.
Calligraphy is an art special to China. Since ancient times, calligraphy and painting have often been mentioned in the same breath. After unification of characters in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), xiaozhuan (small seal character) was changed to zhengshu (regularized script) and again changed to lishu (official scrip) in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) for convenience in writing. At that time there appeared the caoshu (cursive hand). During the Wei (220-265) and Jin (265-420) dynasties, the character form once again evolved in kaishu (regular script) and xingshu (running hand). Many calligraphers appeared in the Qin Dynasty, and many more during the Wei and Jin dynasties.
Notable was Wang Xizhi (321-349), who was known as the "sage master of calligraphy." Unfortunately, most original manuscripts have been lost or neglected during the intervening centuries. Those we see today are mostly carved inscriptions on memorial tablets in tombs which have been preserved. Thus, carved stones and inscriptions of tombs from the Southern Dynasty are valuable materials for studying the art of calligraphy from ancient times.