The Order of Filial Piety Illustrations: Four Pieces of Stone Mortuary Equipment from the Late Northern Wei Dynasty (495-534 CE)

Jin Xu, University of Chicago


In early medieval China, stories of famous filial sons constituted one of the most popular subjects for narrative illustration. The foremost examples of such illustration appear on four stone mortuary objects: the Yuan Mi sarcophagus in the Art Institute of Minneapolis; the stone mortuary couch in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the sarcophagus and stone couch in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas. Unearthed nearly a century ago, these four objects can be dated to the early sixth century and attributed to Luoyang (Henan province), the capital city of the Northern Wei Dynasty from 494 to 534 CE. While these objects have been extensively studied since they entered museum collections, the interconnection of their filial piety illustrations has never been thoroughly examined. Focusing on the sequential order of filial stories, this paper aims to reveal the textual source of the filial piety illustrations, explaining the consistency and discrepancy between the pictorial and the textual sequences. On the basis of such analysis, the paper further discusses two principles that dominate the arrangement of filial stories on mortuary objects: the types of senior family members and the division of life and death. Moreover, it explores the ritual and symbolic significance of these principles, demonstrating how the ritual context and symbolic premises of a tomb provoked artisans to reinterpret the filial stories and transform the narrative pictures into mortuary implements.