Theses Doctoral

The Jiuquan Tombs: Re-Ordering Art and Ideas on China's Frontier

Clydesdale, Heather Dawn

The Jiuquan tombs, on the western frontier of China and dated to the third and early fourth centuries, deploy architecture, paintings, and burial goods to redefine space and express new concepts in mortuary art. Constructed over a period of about fifty years, the consistent rendering of distinct areas across these eleven tombs reflects a consensus in the expectations related to commemorating the dead and the division of souls in the burial process.
Aboveground features show that powerful families in Jiuquan disregarded imperial edicts for austere burials. Underground, each tomb features a “screen wall” that rearranges spatial compositions to situate the celestial realm in an iconic position near the bottom of a tall tower. The front chambers are presented as courtyards under an open sky, surrounded by an estate, farms, pastures and wildernesses. Here, tomb occupants are not portrayed in a grand cosmic setting or lauded as Confucian archetypes; instead they are dynamic agents at the center of the action. Pastoral peoples are displayed within a context of harmonious co-existence and cultural exchange. These images combine to reflect an optimistic outlook that ignores the upheavals in the Chinese heartland. By contrast, the rear chambers show a retreat to traditional styles and subject matters, creating a stillness that reinforces the solemnity of laying the corpse to rest.
Jiuquan’s geographic location and topography made it both stable and prosperous while precipitating contact with migrants from the Chinese heartland, the northern steppes, and the Western Regions. The vibrancy and originality of the tombs at Jiuquan, as well as what they reveal about changes in beliefs, increase appreciation for the role of peripheral zones in shaping Chinese art and history.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Harrist Jr., Robert E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 4, 2016