"Wu Family Shrines" pictorial stones

Anonymous, Chinese
"Wu Family Shrines" pictorial stones
China, Shandong province, Eastern Han dynasty
Mid-second century; date of rubbings, before 1907
Mounted sheets
Ink on paper rubbings
Size varies
Far Eastern Seminar Collection

Carved images of legendary rulers and paragons of filial piety and loyalty, historical and mythological stories, scenes of feasting, homage, processions, omens, and other figural and decorative designs are the subjects of a set of ink-on-paper rubbings taken from an assemblage of pictorial stones, steles, and gate-pillars known as the "Wu family shrines." Traditionally dated to the mid-second century during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) these carvings, and the rubbings made from them, have been recognized since the Song dynasty (960–1279) as some of the most valuable and authentic materials for the study of Chinese antiquity. For this reason the Wu shrines are fundamental to understanding historical approaches to and methods of studying Chinese art and history, and have also been central to the dating of archaeologically excavated Han tombs and artifacts. The nearly one thousand years of scholarship behind the monument known as the "Wu family shrines" is itself a kind of monument.

The history of the "Wu shrines" begins with silence from the third to eleventh centuries. The assemblage was initially formulated through rubbings compiled during the Song dynasty, and held to comprise four inscribed steles, an inscribed gate-pillar, and a one-bay structure that has come to be known as the Stone Chamber 3 (Wu Liang Shrine). Without physical substance or geographic location, the assemblage continued to be known after the thirteenth century through received textual descriptions and through recarved copies and rubbings. Confused transmission and evidence that later interpolations and conflations colored the received story of the stones now cast doubt on the integrity of the carved inscriptions and on the assemblage as such. For example, it is by no means certain that the four memorial steles—said to be dedicated to four males of the Wu family—originally belonged to this site, to a Wu family, or were all carved in the Han dynasty.

The "Wu shrines" assemblage was only linked to actual carved stones in 1786 when the amateur archaeologist Huang Yi (1744–1802) claimed to have discovered them at the cemetery ruins. Only after this date does the historical record begin for the majority of the pictorial stones, including stones that have now been reconstructed as Stone Chamber 1 (Front Chamber) and Stone Chamber 2 (Left Chamber). Preserved at the site, additional slabs have continued to be inserted until the present day and several architectural stones with little or no decoration remain at the site and have yet to be recorded. Some stones have gone missing, while some formerly missing stones have recently been located in museums in Tianjin and Berlin.

In raising questions about the consensus view of a "Han dynasty Wu family shrines" assemblage, we must finally ask: So what are these gathered stones? Many of the pictorial stones may indeed have a base origin in the second to early third century but they must be considered in terms of "recarving China's past." The stones reflect "recarving" on multiple levels. First, the carved scenes are historical and legendary stories that are retold, that is, recarved in stone. Second, the damage and wear on the stones caused by natural weathering, the rubbing process, or accident necessitates that the finely incised stones be retouched, recut, or in some cases totally recarved. The surface of these pictorial stones, therefore, may evidence a complex patchwork layering of accurate recarving, interpolated repair, or purposeful reinterpretation. Finally, over the course of a thousand years, the assembled stones as well as their rubbings and textual descriptions have generated a complicated and confused cultural history. How the materials came to be gathered and identified as the "Wu family shrines" must also be considered a form of historical recarving of the past.

Published References & Reproductions

Cary Y. Liu, Michael Nylan, Anthony Barbieri-Low, et al., Recarving China's Past: Art, Archaeology, and Architecture of the "Wu Family Shrines" (Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).


Recarving China's Past: Art, Archaeology, and Architecture of the "Wu Family Shrines"
PUAM, 3/5-6/26/05