Possessions are seen as ephemeral trappings belonging to this life only. But what if you could “take it with you,” in the form of a painted image? Representations of exquisite objects and human servants in Liao dynasty (907–1125) tombs are abundant, and attempted to do just that. Painted on mud mixed with grass and coated with white lime plaster, these millennia-old frescos evidence cultural beliefs about the afterlife, but are also snapshots of material culture, recording fashions and personal habits of an elite class of consumers.
The Khitan Liao Dynasty
The Khitan (Qidan, 契丹) people were nomadic pastoralists and predecessors of the Mongols. They were impressed with the eminence of the cosmopolitan “Great Tang” dynasty (625–907), and determined to conquer Tang territories. They eventually established a vast empire, the Liao Empire, or dynasty (907–1125, 大遼). At its height this empire spanned from the Sea of Japan and Bohai Sea, across present-day northern China, and encompassed parts of Russia and North Korea. Territorially, the Liao eclipsed the Han Chinese Song dynasty to the south, and by the mid–10th century, a Khitan population of about 750,000 ruled over an estimated two and a half million ethnic (Han) Chinese.
The Khitan emulated their Han predecessors, adopting and integrating many Han practices and conventions with their own. They adopted similar surnames and styles of governance and used Chinese language in administrative matters. There were distinct differences though—Khitan women had higher status and greater independence than their Han counterparts, and the Liao dynasty was unique in maintaining five autonomous capitals throughout their large, culturally diverse territory.
Khitan spiritual beliefs blended Buddhism and animism, and their tombs reflect diverse faiths and practices. There is no known surviving textual evidence that explains the logic of tombs from this period, but they seem to have inherited the Tang tradition of constructing tombs as well-appointed houses for the afterlife. In contrast, such lavishly painted tombs are less commonly found in Song dynasty territory.
Two recently excavated tombs include well-preserved mural programs with richly specific scenes of everyday life and accoutrements used for dressing, dining, drinking and preparing wine and tea. Both tombs are located in former Liao territory, near modern day Datong, Shanxi Province, and are important because they are well-preserved and intact examples of lavish tombs that evidence a rich material culture and a complex system of beliefs that may forever remain a mystery.
Liao tombs at Dongfengli Neighborhood
The Dongfengli Neighborhood tomb was discovered during commercial construction in 2011 and excavated through rescue archaeology—excavations conducted quickly after accidental discovery. The murals on its four walls and ceiling are exceptionally well preserved. A single-chamber tomb, it was constructed of brick with a domed ceiling and had a southern orientation.
A platform for a coffin was placed near the north wall, opposite the entrance — although neither the remains nor painted image of the deceased were present when it was discovered—only a stone effigy of the male occupant was found. Such effigies were associated with Han Buddhist burial practices of the same period, while Khitan burials included cremated remains or stone coffins. There were 14 other artifacts found in the tomb, including fine porcelains, seals used for signing and authenticating documents, jewelry, a beeswax candle, and objects for personal grooming like bronze tweezers and a bone ear pick.
Murals cover 360 degrees of the tomb’s interior walls as well as the domed ceiling where stars are painted and dashed lines delineate astrological constellations.
The images surrounding the four walls are unified and anchored to the ground by painted architectural details: trompe l’oeil pillars, architraves (horizontal beams), and dou-gong brackets (斗拱, interlocking wooden beams traditionally used in East Asian architecture) painted in vermillion. The room thus becomes a liminal space, belonging to both the “real” world and the realm of the Buddhist hereafter.
Other visual cues reinforce this liminality, such as painted cloth drapes and bamboo shades that frame the largest, central composition on the north wall. These drapes perform across two worlds: they are realistic enough to appear as objects within the realm of the living, but their two-dimensionality suggests that we cannot pass through them or see the world “beyond” them. Objects for sleep and personal grooming rest on and beside a bed—a blanket, pillow, mirror, washbasin, and towel rack—while diverse ranks of male and female attendants stand ready on either end holding cups, spittoons, fans, and a fly swatter. Behind the bed we see a four-paneled painted screen that recalls a contemporaneous bedroom for the living.
On the south wall flanking the tomb entrance we see a male and female figure, but it is unknown if these, or any persons painted in Liao tombs, were portraits of actual people. In the undefined space surrounding them float auspicious Buddhist objects: the Garuda bird, rhinoceros horns, flaming pearls, and clouds. It is possible that their position near the tomb’s main entrance indicates their function as apotropaic images.
The East and West walls are complex, multilayered spaces that can be understood as co-existing both above ground and within the tomb. Pastoral vignettes depicting agricultural labor are seen in the upper corner of the Western wall, while in its foreground we see modes of transportation such as a camel, horse, and carriage, each with an attendant.
Five male attendants hold trays with cups and fruits, wine ewers, and a clapper instrument. They face in the direction of the funeral couch (not pictured in this essay)—a small raised platform upon which the remains of the deceased were placed. Sitting before the attendants are food containers, ewers (pitchers) in a charcoal brazier, and other jars likely intended for afterlife feasts. To the right is an array of auspicious images, plants, animals, and secular objects. At the bottom of the scene, we see a yet unsolved visual puzzle of peony flowers blooming from an axe that rests on a lotus platform with a snake. These types of rebuses were common in painting of the time, and although this example is particularly interesting for its diversity, there may be more examples of rebus in the other flowers or objects depicted in other tombs.
Liao tombs at Xihuan Road
Discovered in July 2007, also due to construction, the paintings in tomb M1 at Xihuan Road are not well preserved. Conceptually similar to the above example, both have a single, circular inner chamber with domed ceiling; both face south, both have a bed and folding screen painted on the northern wall, guardians flanking the south tomb entrance, and murals depicting scenes of attendants and objects surrounding the interior that also includes a funeral couch.
Distinctly different from the other tomb described above, however, the Xihuan Road tomb contains an urn with the cremated remains of a husband and wife, who were likely Khitan, because it was their custom to cremate remains. There was also a cache of yellow-glazed fine porcelains found in the tomb, along with some lesser quality, low fired wares, and a pottery wheel — clearly porcelains were important to the occupants.
The ceiling caved in completely at some point, but painted architectural details once again frame the interior. Painted draped curtains “hang” at the top of the northern wall above a balustraded bed, again making the tomb a liminal space using trompe l’oeil effects that turn the wall into a portal through which only those in the afterlife can travel.
An exquisitely painted, four-paneled folding screen delineates the space behind the bed (visible in the aerial photograph above), and perspectival drawing techniques are used on the screen, such as the angled edges of the screen panels that attempt to make it appear to recede into space. A single crane is beautifully rendered across each of the four panels, recalling a famous composition including six cranes that was known to have graced the walls of Tang palaces. The cranes themselves may have implied immortality, but on this particular screen, they were also an aspirational interior design choice recalling Chinese notions of imperial splendor.
“Fashion forward” into the afterlife
The murals on the eastern and western walls, reveal the en vogue tastes of the tomb occupants. To the left of the funeral bed (on the north wall), two female maids wearing heavy makeup and decorated hairpins are posed amidst wardrobe stands laden with colorful dresses. Distinguishable flower patterns are still visible on some of the fabrics, calling attention to their materiality. Tables in the foreground display fine jewelry in lacquer bowls, a wine ewer, three ceramic cups, cup stands, and foods wrapped in cloth. Echoing the spatial recession demonstrated in the folding screen, the painters rendered the table using orthogonal lines that appear to recede into space, this can also be seen in the depiction of two wooden trunks to the right, where special attention was given to their elaborately painted locks.
On the eastern wall, a single male attendant waits next to several robes and under garments hanging neatly on a rack. He faces the funerary couch, holding a sutra scroll and a sutra text in his hands. Besides him, a flickering candle sits atop a tall, thin candle stand, perhaps intended to forever illuminate the chamber in an alternative universe.
The attention to detail and efforts to convey the materiality of the objects painted in this tomb hint at the priorities of the occupants: they were a fashionable pair, perhaps even “social influencers.” No matter how these murals were intended to function in the afterlife, much care and attention was given to the types and styles of objects painted. The liminal worlds depicted in these tomb murals, once reexamined by our eyes, bring the trends of 1,000 years ago into contrast with the densely saturated visual culture of our contemporary world, and sometimes, they don’t even look outdated.
Li Qingquan & Fei Deng (Translator) (2010) “Some Aspects of Time and Space as Seen in Liao-dynasty Tombs in Xuanhua,” Art in Translation, 2:1, 29–54
Wu Hung, “Two Royal Tombs from the Early Liao: Architecture, Pictorial Program, Authorship, Subjectivity,” in Tenth-Century China and Beyond: Art and Visual Culture in a Multi-Centered Age, ed. Wu Hung (Chicago: Center for the Art of East Asia, 2012), 100–124