China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - The "Art" of Yuan Tomb Architecture

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Washington Room 1, Exhibit Level

Scholars have recently argued that China’s funerary art underwent a major transition, or more precisely a decline, during the Yuan dynasty. Many characteristics important in making an underground burial chamber previously became less constructive of a place of the dead. Many observed, for example, that tomb murals appeared more decorative after the Song dynasty, rather than suggestive of an imaginary interior. Architecturally, building motifs were more discrete, rather than integral of a fabricated and cohesive built environment for the deceased in the life after death. In other words, tombs from the Yuan period were constructed more with the “surface” value of different pictorial components, rather than a holistic pictorial or/and spatial program devised specifically for the dead.


This paper, while not to completely refute the observation, will examine Yuan tombs by reconsidering how the presumably enclosed and cohesive burial chamber, as seen in previous periods, was “deconstructed” during the Yuan times. In particular, it will focus on how the actual burial structure and painted or carved building motifs worked together to fabricate a “built environment” in ways that are different from the past. It will demonstrate, the “art” of Yuan tomb architecture lies precisely in making the architectural space inside the burial chamber incoherent. It suggests a different conception of the burial space after the Song, indeed; but instead of a break with the past, Yuan tomb architecture was also more inclusive of various constituents, old and new, that betrays a development that furthered the previous tradition, rather than a decline.

Wei-cheng Lin

University of Chicago, Illinois

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