Author: Jie Shi
Source: Archives of Asian Art, 1 October 2020; 70 (2): 199–224. doi: 10.1215/00666637-8620375
Publication type: Article
Abstract: Dated to 524 CE, the lavishly carved stone sarcophagus of the Northern Wei Prince Yuan Mi exemplifies an early Chinese method using a diagonal gaze as a visual device to construct a three-dimensional space. On the exterior faces of the sarcophagus, the anonymous artist simulated a three-layered space, imagining the deceased's wooden coffin (the inner layer) contained in his burial chamber (middle layer), which in turn is embraced by a complex three-dimensional natural and supernatural world (the outer layer). In the middle layer, eight figures cast a slant gaze from behind four windows at filial paragons dwelling in the outer layer. This gaze was used as a rhetorical device to bridge the physical and psychological gap between the gazers and those upon whom they gaze. Evoking the idiom found in medieval Chinese texts of "watching the ancients as neighbors," the artist defined the deceased as a neighbor of the ancient filial paragons who dwell in an ideal landscape as recluses. In addition to the visual analysis of the sarcophagus, this article also examines the epitaph buried along with the sarcophagus. While the carving praises the private virtue of the dead, the text paints another rosy picture of the deceased prince as a good official. Eventually, the image and text were used in tandem to create a perfect image of the deceased.