Fengshui for the Afterlife

Penn student curators learn about the making of a museum exhibition by exploring the contents of a 12th-century Chinese tomb in context with fengshui and cosmology.

Each year, the Penn Museum selects several students to curate a small exhibition. This allows students like us to gain valuable experience learning how to use objects to teach the public about the ancient and medieval world, as well as to explore modern-day themes and objects. This year, we had the amazing opportunity to work on objects from a Song Dynasty tomb.

Many of the artifacts showcased in the exhibition Looking to the Stars, Listening to the Earth—such as clay figurines, jars, and offering bowls—were discovered in a tomb located in Jiangxi, China. Mostly dating to around 1200 CE, these objects provide a fascinating glimpse into the cultural and technological achievements of the Song Dynasty—a transformative era in Chinese history marked by remarkable advancements in art, culture, and science.

Exploring the objects and themes of the exhibition not only deepened our understanding of the customs and beliefs surrounding burial practices during the Song Dynasty, but also afforded us invaluable insights into the art of storytelling through curation. We carefully selected and arranged artifacts in alignment with the exhibition’s thematic focus. 

Throughout the 2023–2024 academic year, we began by reading research articles and papers in both English and Chinese to gain a deeper understanding of the objects and the culture to which they belong. We slowly narrowed our focus and delved deeper into the cultural belief system (fengshui) that we see represented in the figurines and other grave goods and manufacturing processes of the objects.

Finally, we materialized the theory and information into object groups and infographics. During the fall, we attended weekly meetings with Dr. Adam Smith, Dr. Anne Tiballi, and several collection managers to analyze and organize objects, develop content, and make necessary amendments and refinements to the overall structure of the exhibition.

The opening title wall of the exhibition Looking to the Stars, Listening to the Earth: A Song Dynasty Tomb.
Yang Guan Yong (LOOKING UP TO OBSERVE FIGURINE), and Fu Ting Yong (LYING DOWN TO LISTEN FIGURINE), Unglazed Clay ca. 1200 CE, Song Dynasty, Jiangxi Province, China. 80-5-19, 80-5-24
Bai Hu (WHITE TIGER GUARDIAN FIGURINE) Unglazed Clay ca. 1200 CE, Song Dynasty, Jiangxi Province, China. The White Tiger of the West was one of four guardian figures representing the cardinal directions. Here, he is depicted with a dragon wrapped around his shoulders. A White Tiger figure was placed in a tomb with the Azure Dragon of the East, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermilion Bird of the South. 80-5-1

As things progressed into the spring, the discussion focused more on the application aspect, ranging from the writing of wall labels and text to graphic design and object display. Tours of the conservation lab and mountmaking shop also helped us gain a better understanding of how the exhibit came together. Finally we went through a few iterations of object arrangement and exhibition layout, and fixed any overlooked errors in the content before installation. 

During the internship, we got to do scientific testing that included pXRF (portable X-ray fluorescence analysis) to look at the composition of glazes on the jars and bowls. We also referred to infrared photography to reveal ink labels on the bottom of the figurines that were no longer visible to the naked eye. And we looked at X-rays of the figurines and urns to gain more insight into the manufacturing techniques.

We also had the opportunity to bring in students from Dr. Jason Herrmann’s Intro to Digital Archaeology class alongside experts from the Fisher Fine Arts Materials Library to create 3D scans of several figurines. 

While investigating the objects, we learned a lot about how the objects present in the tomb, along with the tomb’s layout, are intricately connected to the idea of fengshui and ancient Chinese cosmology. A set of figurines from the tomb represent in human form a cosmological cycle of 12 terms that permeated nearly every aspect of daily life, including the calendar and deciding auspicious times for activities. These activities included deciding on a day for burial.

This cycle of 12 also shows up on objects like compasses, which were used by fengshui specialists to determine the location of the tomb. The 12 figures representing this cosmological cycle can also be seen encircling the shoulder of the decorated jars, accompanying other figurine motifs—such as the Jade Dog, Golden Rooster, Listening to the Earth, and Beidou Turtle—all contributing to good fortune. Other figurines show deities associated with stars and constellations, as well as important deities in securing the deceased space in the supernatural world. 

Luopan (FENGU SHUI COMPASS), Wood, Lacquer, Glass, Metal. 19th century CE, China. Fengshui masters often used compasses like this to site and orient a tomb. These specialty devices typically included rings of symbols referring to directions, constellations, and other cosmological elements. Their visual complexity was intended to emphasize the technical prowess of the practitioner. 9023

We also learned about the manufacturing processes that went into the creation of objects necessary for a good burial. Most of the figurines from the tomb were made with a mold, rather than being hand-sculpted—evidence of which can be seen through visible seams on the figurines as well as exact copies between figurines—which allowed for mass creation of these objects.

We viewed tombs that were excavated and published by Chinese archeologists, and these showed very similar figurines. The vessels, such as the jars and bowl, were made of qingbai ware: a local Jiangxi technique with a blue-green glaze tint that is also thought to be mass produced. However, many other elements of the figurines, such as decor on the White Tiger, Listening to the Earth, the animals, and characters on the jars, were handmade.

The synergy of the mass production processes as well as handmade care goes to show that while this tomb may not be particularly unique among contemporary burial practices, a lot of care was put into it to ensure a happy, healthy burial for the deceased and his descendants.  

We are happy to have the opportunity to experience work in exhibitions and to share our hard work and dedication throughout the past year to the public. Our hope is that museum visitors take away some new and different ideas about what Song Dynasty tombs meant in the context of fengshui and auspiciousness! 

From the exhibition: 79-14-1B, 80-5-3, 80-5-18, 80-5-32, 79-15-1A

Sarah Hinkel (pictured at right, top image) is a junior from Maytown, Pennsylvania, double majoring in Ancient History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

Mac McKillip (pictured at center, top image) is a senior from Wartrace, Tennessee, majoring in Anthropology, with minors in Archaeological Science and Environmental Studies.

Jasmine Wang (pictured at left, top image) is a third-year student currently pursuing studies in Fine Arts, Psychology, and Digital Humanities.

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