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Chinese Tomb Chamber Paintings


The famous Chinese historian Qian Mu once said, apart from calligraphy the most important form of Chinese arts was paintings. Although the earliest Chinese paintings can be dated back to prehistoric times, most paintings in the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206BC -220AD) Dynasties were murals and stone carvings in palace and tomb chambers. It was until the Wei (220-265AD) and Jin Dynasties (265-420AD) paintings had developed into a more popular art form as silk and paper became more affordable and was gradually used for paintings. This illustrates that the earliest Chinese paintings were used almost exclusively to serve aristocracy and religions. From the Wei and Jin to the Sui and Tang Dynasties, Chinese paintings had a gradually transformation to become more accessible to relatively ordinary people. Since the early paintings of aristocracy and religioins were mainly drawn or carved on the walls and floors of religious buildings, tomb chambers and palaces, most paintings of Qing and Han Dynasties disappeared together with the destruction of palaces and temple. A few exceptions are preserved in tomb chambers, which have become the main sources to study paintings of those periods.

Murals in tomb chambers are relatively more difficult to destroy and many of them have survived. But perhaps the most significant paintings which have caught the imaginations of art historians are those painted on silk and buried with dead emperors and aristocrats. Dragon, Phoenix and Beauties, a silk painting unearthed in 1949 from a grave in Chenjia Mountain in Hunan Province is one of the earliest known Chinese paintings. It is estimated to belong to the period of 475 BC to 221 BC. After the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties China entered the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period when Confucius lived and during which many kingdoms fought for dominance in the land of China. The site where Dragon, Phoenix and Beauties was unearthed was in the middle of the kingdom Chu. As it was painted on silk, it was called “silk painting” (bo hua 帛画).

Like clay figures buried in graves, paintings were used to accompany and to protect the dead by the practice of witchcraft. Painting as art was not practiced by conscience and deliberation yet. On Dragon, Phoenix and Beauties there is a lady in the middle. It is difficult ot tell whether it is a witch praying for the deceased or it represents the deceased herself. Above the lady, there are dragon and phoenix, both are fictional figures of ancient China and they are auspicious signs. Like angles in Christian teaching, they are believed to be able to guide the dead to the heaven.

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