China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

4 - Cultural Contact or Buddhist Influences? Half-Open Doors in Chinese Mortuary Art

Friday, July 6
12:10 PM - 1:40 PM
Location: Jacaranda I, First Floor

This paper explores a mysterious but well-studied pictorial subject in Chinese visual art, namely half-opened door. The scene often shows a female figure standing in or emerging from the middle of two door-leaves, suggesting a path or access to certain space and also indicating a view incompatible with what the viewer has already seen. The motif frequently adorns stone sarcophagi and tomb walls in northern China during the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. A good body of scholarship has examined the forms and meanings of the pictorial subject. Instead of pointing out its intended purposes in burials, the present study extends the range of the motif and considers a wider impact beyond its original mortuary contexts.


First, a few earlier examples of half-opened doors are known from the Eastern Han period. Of particular interest is that we can also find similar visual forms appearing on Roman ash urns, funerary alters, and sarcophagi in the period from third century BCE to first century CE. Examples from the West might suggest a parallel tradition. Yet there is also a possibility that motifs and objects were introduced and integrated into Chinese material culture. Second, half-opened doors are not limited to burials. From ninth century CE onwards, such doors began to ornament pagodas, crypts, sutra pillars and relic pillars in north China. This study attempts to demonstrate the ways in which this motif originally associated with cultural exchanges and Buddhist ideas were included in later Chinese burials.

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