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Female Bodily Sacrifice and the Absence of Men: Filial Figuration in Song, Jin, and Liao Tombs

Winston Kyan, University of Utah


Among the pantheon of filial offspring in China, a striking if overlooked figure is the wife of Wang Wuzi, or Wang Wuzi Qi, 王武子妻, who offers her flesh to cure her sick mother-in-law through an act of filial thigh cutting, or gegu, 割股. While the paradox of gegu as being both an act of filial caring towards one’s parents and an act of unfilial neglect towards the parental gift of the body has attracted the attention of scholars both medieval and modern, a close analysis of its figural representation remains to be done. Images of Wang Wuzi Qi are particularly intriguing since they appear across a variety of funerary media from Song, Jin, and Liao period tombs, ranging across painted murals, engraved stone slabs, painted carved bricks, carved low relief tiles, and three-dimensional tableaux of clay figurines. However, these diverse images are limited by established pictorial conventions, geographic locations in southern Shanxi and northern Henan provinces, and chronological parameters from the late eleventh- to early thirteenth-centuries. Moreover, the pictorial standardization of a controversial filial sacrifice within the hallowed filial space of the tomb raises key issues regarding the construction of a “new” filial paragon, the relationship between Buddhist caves and ancestral tombs, as well as the connection between filial efficacy as a popular belief and an elite value.

Winston Kyan was born in Rangoon, Burma. He holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University and an MA and PhD in Art History from the University of Chicago. He has taught at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he is currently Assistant Professor of Art History. His current and primary research project is rethinking the intersection of filial piety and Buddhist art in medieval China through representations of the body, sacrifice, and health as a sensorium of sight, smells, sounds, tastes, touch, and other modes of perception beyond the usual five. He is wrapping up a manuscript on this topic while continuing side interests in the relationship between contemporary Asian art and Buddhism as well as Asian American visual culture as sites of religious identity. His next research project will explore the visual and material culture of the trade and military routes between Yunnan, China and Myanmar/Burma. His publications have appeared in The Art Bulletin, Amerasia Journal, and Art Journal Open, in addition to other conference volumes and digital resources.