‘Upcycling’ the Home for the Dead: The Case of Wang Jin’s Tomb

Jeehee Hong, McGill University


The practice of tomb making in traditional China was centered on the idea of the mutual benefit for both deceased ancestors and living descendents. Underlying the practice was the belief in the correlation between the spheres of the dead and the living, which is linked to the idea that the moral and ritual order in human society resonates with the cosmic order.

Nature in the funerary discourse was often positioned in the sphere of the supernatural as an agent of the netherworld, inert in the everyday world of the living yet serving as a habitat of otherworldly beings, including the spirits of the deceased. The land itself in which burials were made was essentially conceived of as the property of earth gods in various forms and had to be sanctioned by them even when it was legally “purchased” in the world of the living—hence the hybrid form of the land deed buried in tombs as a semi-legal and semi-talismanic document. As such, the natural environment in the practice of tomb art was treated as the metonymic embodiment of the otherworld, something that must not be trespassed or damaged in principle; doing so was unjustifiable in both realms of the humans and gods.

Did this time-honored bondage between nature and the tomb remain unquestionable throughout history as a symbolic space of the dead? Was the ontological status of a tomb unchangingly inseparable from the earth and land, and if so, did the tomb itself share the same level of sanctity as the land over time? One remarkable case of an “upcycled” tomb built in late fourteenth century exposes a complex picture of the very relationship between nature and a funerary monument, which betrays the general idea that spheres of the nature and humans formed a single continuum. Located in Chengwang village in Houma, Shanxi, the tomb belongs to Wang Jin who fought and died in a battle that helped Zhu Yuanzhang establish the Ming dynasty. The tomb was built as an aboveground structure along with a prominent stele that identifies the tomb occupant. Most striking is the fact that all (or most) components of the tomb—brick reliefs and wood-imitation bricks—come from a Jin-dynasty tomb constructed around two centuries earlier. One of the inscriptions installed on the exterior walls of the tomb bears the original construction year (1183), which stylistically and materially fit in well with its typical high-quality brick reliefs and wood-imitation bricks that are often found in Jin tombs from the same area. It is clear that the inscription panels were originally placed on the interior walls, and that some other images and inscriptions originally installed there were removed and repositioned during the “reconstruction” process. This tomb was built upon the imperial edict by Zhu Yuanzhang as a token of his appreciation of Wang’s loyalty. Does this then mean that the reuse of the Jin tomb components was carried out at the expense of nullifying the supposed continuity between the social and natural orders? Could this incident point to a historical moment when the legality in the imperial power erased ritual taboos by envisioning the tomb as an individual’s burial space isolated from its natural (and cosmic, by extension) environment? Rather than a simple aberration from the norm, the context in which such a striking form of burial was made possible needs to be discussed in light of the potentially changing ontology of the tomb and funerary art in its close connection to the conception of its natural environment.