He Xilin: Image, Text and Interpretation


He Xilin: Today I will talk about the topic “image, text and interpretation”. I will use an example to introduce the subtitle and mainly talk about the relationship between image, text and interpretation.


I have been thinking about this topic over the past few years. I remember I set this topic as the subject for the doctoral dissertation writing in 2007. It is known that the study of art history includes both inward and outward research. Inward research is generally concerned with the form and style of artistic works, with its focus on the self-discipline of artistic language, or what is usually called ontology research. Meanwhile, outward research focuses on the interactive relationship between artists, artistic works and society.

Of course, outward research may also include two aspects: while one aspect is to finally reveal the form and content of artistic work as well as its formation, development and change through the  social background analysis, the other aspect is the study of social history, intellectual history, and cultural history by revealing the information contained in the works. As a matter of fact, a historical problem, rather than the problem of the works, will be ultimately solved. In this case, the works will take on the value and significance of historical materials.

Of course, image is the most important part in the study of art history. As an entry point of the study of art history, image is the essence and core of the study of art history. In addition to images, some existing literature is equally important to the study of earlier art history as they are the source we get to know about images and the key to entering the images. Therefore, the literature in earlier times should not be ignored as they are also a very important source of information for us to study art history. The existing earlier literature is very limited, fragmented and scattered. From the perspective of acceptance, the images have uncertainty and openness to some extent. How to study art history with such scattered and fragmented literature as well as images is of significance. Interpretation, in my opinion, is extremely meaningful in this process, the ultimate goal of which is to reconstruct the experience of history.

图一 马王堆一号汉墓“非衣”帛画.png

The silk painting from No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb

Next, let's talk about the relationship between image, text and interpretation through the silk painting from No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb. I want to emphasize again that interpretation, as a critical way for us to reconstruct the historical experience, makes art history full of vitality and offers a unique charm. This is a silk painting from No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb. The original painting on one side and a line sketch drawing on the other. Since being found in 1972, the painting has received much attention and become a classic of the early history of Chinese art, especially with the art history of the Han Dynasty. The rich research results have been warmly discussed by many great scholars. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, two important foreign scholars, one was Professor Loewe from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and the other was Professor Silbergeld from Princeton University in the United States, who doubted the validity of this painting. However, many scholars, especially art historians, continued to further deepen this discussion.

Since the 1990s, a long paper titled “Art in Etiquette—Rethinking of Mawangdui” written by Professor Wu Hung from the University of Chicago provides a comprehensive interpretation of No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb from the perspective of art history, opening a new chapter in the study of Mawangdui Han Tomb. Afterwards, some scholars joined the discussion. I also wrote a long article at the beginning of this century, mainly discussing the lacquer paintings and silk paintings in the No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb. Professor Wang Yuejin from Harvard University in the United States has also published several papers in recent years to discuss Mawangdui Han Tomb, including the silk painting from the No. 1 Han Tomb. The latest research result is by Professor Li Qingquan from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.

图三  学者鲁惟一和谢柏柯关于马王堆汉墓帛画研究的观点.png

The above-mentioned studies of these art historians have highlighted the value and significance of the theory and methods of art history in the study of Mawangdui Han Tomb. The basic viewpoint of Lu Weiyi and Jerome Silbergeld is that the early literature is very fragmented and scattered. They express doubts on whether the intrinsic logic and structure of silk paintings can be revealed through responsive reading and mutual proof reading between the literature and paintings. For example, Professor Lu Weiyi believes that Chinese scholars drew too close a connection between this silk painting and the literature at that time, going too far in being overly rational. Professor Jerome Silbergeld also proposed that due to the great uncertainty in the image content of the painting, interpreting the painting from the perspective of imagery by searching the scattered literature in a purposeless way is a dubious practice. A definitive answer is elusive. Is this the case? Is there a need to further discuss the silk painting from No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb? I think the answer is yes. Several art historians hereafter conduct effective discussions based on the necessity of it.

Several scholars, such as Professor Wu Hung, Professor Wang Yuejin, and Professor Li Qingquan, have published long articles and expressed their viewpoints on the No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb, especially this silk painting. In fact, they are talking about the concept, thoughts and beliefs at the time by combining literature with the image. Now I will talk about the relationship between image, text and interpretation from my personal point of view, through the interpretation of this silk painting.

图四 学者巫鸿、汪悦进、李清泉关于马王堆汉墓帛画研究的观点.png

Let’s first look at the lower part of the silk painting. For a long time, scholars have believed that it demonstrates a space. Professor Wu Hung was the first to propose that this part is likely to contain two spaces with the board as the boundary of two spaces. One space is below the board and the other above the board and below the “sha”. What are the images inside two spaces and the concept and meaning they intended to convey? The most important image at the bottom depicts two big fish intertwining with each other. A man stands on the back of a fish, and a snake wraps around the drooping tail of two dragons. This is an important image in the space at the bottom, and of course there are some other images. In fact, we can't give a clear explanation of many specific details, but we must try to interpret and reveal some images of significance.图五 “非衣”帛画下段交尾图像.png

The lower part of the silk painting

For example, what is the fish? What does it mean here? We know that fish must be related to water. We can learn the symbolic meaning of this fish from a section in the Classic of Mountains and Rivers, which says: “The wind blows from the north, the spring water is blown from the ground, and the snake transforms into a fish. This is the so-called fish woman.” What information could be inferred from this section? The north, the water, and a snake which turns into a fish. What is this fish? It is called a fish woman. So, the fish is likely to be a god associated with the north, the water, the yin, and death. There are two kinds of arguments in the academic circle about the naked man standing on the back of the fish. A group of people think he is Yuqiang , the northern god; while others think he is Xuanming, one of the important gods in the north of the five elements. In fact, Xuanming and Yuqiang were confused in the Han Dynasty. According to the earlier literature, the style name of Yuqiang is Xuanming. Anyway, no matter named as Yuqiang or Xuanming, this god must be a northern god and related to yin and death. Let’s look at this snake, which must also be related to water as well as to yin. We know that the northern god indicating directions in the five elements is Xuanwu. But what is Xuanwu? It is a tortoise fusing turtle and the snake, or a turtle wrapped with a snake. Therefore, this snake is also a symbol associated with water, the north, long night, the yin, and death. And this space is likely to represent a dead space, or the so-called hell in water.

However, it seems that it does not represent absolute death as new life could be born here in this space. Why? As I just mentioned, the fish woman recorded in Classic of Mountains and Rivers, says: “The wind blows from the north, the spring water pours from the sky, and the snake turns into a fish. This is the so-called fish woman.” And the next sentence is “the death of Zhuanxu indicates rebirth”. When the snake became a fish, a very important god in the north named Zhuanxu was resurrected. Therefore, this fish woman also implies a meaning of recovery. Another question is about the fish: why did the painter draw the snake on the intertwining tails of the two dragons instead of any gap? We know the interweaving may imply mating, then what is the purpose of mating? Nurture the new life. Therefore, another symbolic meaning of breeding new life is also implied. Through the analysis of these images, we think that this space is first and foremost a place of death, while at the same time a source of life. The physical life of the tomb owner ends here, where his new life is generated and cultivated.

Arguments about this space abound. Some believe that it is a scene of waiting for the death in  hell. The ghosts in the underworld prepare a rich banquet to welcome the tomb owner. Another belief is that it may be a farewell ceremony and on the board lies the body of the tomb owner. Besides, it is also said that this is a scene of sacrifice in the human world. After the death of the tomb owner, his relatives and family held a ritual ceremony in the ancestral temple to express their wish that the soul of the tomb owner go to a better world. I agree with the third version of sacrifice.

The boundary between these two spaces is this board. There are two turtles on the two sides of the board with an owl on each of them. What does this image imply? It was unknown for a long time. Later, a scholar named Wang Kunwu said that this image is probably the so-called “ostrich-shaped turtle connection” in the Songs of Chu·Asking Heaven. So, what does it mean by “ostrich-shaped turtle”? We can see the turtles on both sides have crossed this boundary. The turtle must be related to water, yin and long nights. Xuanwu in the north is the fusion of turtle and snake, so the turtle is also a northern god symbolizing death. What does the owl on the back of the turtle mean here? Some scholars have also offered an explanation that it might represent the sun at night. Why? We know that in a symbol indicating yin and yang in Han Dynasty, there is often a black crow in the middle of the character “日”, which is called golden crow. This black crow represents the sun. So, some scholars believe that the owl represents the sun during the night in the north. We know that the owl is a bird and also a nocturnal bird, so I think this speculation is reasonable to some extent. And this turtle carrying the owl crosses this boundary which means that it spans transience and the eternal, yin and yang, life and death. We have done some analysis of this space, some of its important images and the implications of these images. This is some of the early literature I have consulted in this part of the analysis.

Let's look it up again. There are many images in the middle part of the silk painting, such as dragons, jade, and a platform supported by a slanted column with people standing on it as well as a canopy with a big bird below. Besides, there are two human-faced birds on the “sha”, with the body of a pigeon and a human head. Of course, we cannot offer a clear interpretation of all the images and its symbolism in this space, but we must try to interpret some of the key images.

图七 “非衣”帛画中段图像.png

The middle part of the silk painting

First of all, the people standing on this board have waiters in front and behind. Scholars generally believe that the image in the middle should be the tomb owner named Xinzhui, the wife of Changsha Xiangdai Marquis in the Western Han Dynasty. This explanation seems plausible because the autopsy report shows that the body should be a woman in her 50s, which coincides with this image.

Within  the important images are the two human-faced birds. We know that there are many human-faced birds in the Han Dynasty, and the most common one in the Han Dynasty is called feather man. What is a feather man? The feather man is a fairy. And what is a celestial being? We know how to write the character “仙”(celestial being), “人”(human) on the left and “山”(mountain) on the right. We can also see how to write the older version of “仙”(celestial being) from the Origin of Chinese Characters with “人”(human) above and “山”(mountain) below, and the person on the mountain. Therefore, the celestial being must be closely related to the mountain, and the celestial being is inseparable from the mountain. We will definitely associate the space a celestial being exists with a mountain.

Of course, not all mountains were related to the celestial beings in the Han Dynasty. Only two mountains, one the Penglai Three Mountains in the East, and the other the Kunlun Mountain in the West. Would this space be Kunlun or Penglai if it is associated with a fairy mountain? According to the scholars’ study of the image on the third set of No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb, the symbol of these three mountains appeared at two places on the third set of coffins. Besides, the whole coffin was painted red, so some scholars believe that the third set of coffins indicates the Kunlun Wonderland. According to the literature, there are three realms in Kunlun, hence three peaks are a symbol of Kunlun. Other literature sources  record that the Kunlun Wonderland enjoys “bright light and bold spirit”. Therefore, some scholars have speculated that the image on the third set of coffins should represent the Kunlun Wonderland. Then this silk painting on the inner side of the coffin should be consistent with the content of the lacquered side. If the lacquered side displays the Kunlun Wonderland, we could also judge this space as Kunlun.

Two human-faced birds aside, does this platform have other meanings? I think so. This platform is very strange, because the visual logic requires the pillar supporting this platform to be straight as the painting is very symmetrical, right? It doesn't seem to fit the visual logic if drawn obliquely, so it must be deliberately painted in such a way. A slanted pillar supporting a wide platform may carry symbolism. I guess it might suggest a certain realm of Kunlun, the second layer of Kunlun called Xuanpu, because Xuanpu is very broad and flat according to the literature. Therefore, this space not only displays Kunlun, but also directly points to Xuanpu, the second layer of Kunlun, indicating that the tomb owner entered Kunlun and even climbed to Xuanpu. So, is this the complete narrative of the silk painting? Obviously no, there are images on the upper part.

So, what does the upper image featuring a big bird under the canopy suggest? There are basically two arguments in academic circles. Some people say that it is a strigidae, or an owl, but it looks different from the owl on the turtle's back below. Whether it is a strigidae is quite doubtful. Another group of people think that it is the northern wind god, called Feilian. So is it Feilian? Let's take a look at the description of Feilian in the literature. Literature says “The head is like a peacock, its body like a deer, and the pattern like a leopard.” It is a mythological beast in the shape of a tiger or a leopard with wings. So is this Feilian? I don't think so. So what exactly is it? I retrieved some literature and gave an explanation. I think it is a kind of mythological bird from ancient Chinese legend called Pingyi.

What is Ping? It means screen and shelter literally. What is Yi? It is canopy. There is another explanation of Yi, a colorful mythological bird. Can the big bird under the canopy possibly be the so-called Pingyi? In terms of its function, a line in “Historical Records·Biography of Sima Xiangru” says that “called Pingyi, killed Fengbo and punished Yushi”. Later, Zhang Shoujie, a scholar of the Tang Dynasty, cited a sentence from Ying Zhao, a scholar in the Han Dynasty, “Pingyi is a god envoy.” It is a god envoy. So what is the significance of its appearance here? Obviously, it is calling the tomb owner, because there may be a better land above the Kunlun Wonderland. This is the important literature I referred to for the interpretation of images on the middle section of the silk painting.

So where is the tomb owner going? We can see from Lamenting My Fate written by Yan Ji that “I wish to go to the Kunlun Xuanpu to pick the jade from Zhongshan Mountains; Hold the long branches, and look at Lang Feng and Ban Tong”. Wang Yi, another scholar of the Han Dynasty, commented: “Climb on the Kunlun Mountains, visit the Xuanpu, pick the jade and chew it to extend life. Since you are already on the Kunlun Mountains, you want to take the branches of the jade tree. Looking up at the mountains of Lang Feng and Ban Tong, you leisurely walk in heaven.” We may then assume that the place the tomb owner wanted to go is heaven.

Well, let's take a look at the top of the silk painting. There are so many various images on the top of the painting that defies the comprehensive interpretation. For example, here is a door consisting of two pillars with leopards. An ancient large bell and two monsters with one riding on the other. And two dragons with wings, and a person on the dragon's wings who seems to be a woman, as well as many crane birds. Then the sun with a golden crow in it; and the moon with toads and jade rabbits inside. Then a giant god featuring a human head and body yet wrapped by a huge dragon tail. The images are abundant. We can't make clear all the images one by one, but we must also try to unlock and reveal some important images.

The top of the silk painting.jpg

The top of the silk painting

For example, what is the boundary of the upper part of space? It is the door between two pillars, and these two men guarding the door. The door between the two pillars is a very important image. So what does this door refer to? I think it is probably the gate to heaven in  literature, the so-called “Changhe”. Who is the person guarding the gate in the sky? A person named Hun. Let's take a look at the Songs of Chu: “I asked the person guarding the gate to heaven to open the gate for me, but he just leant on the gate and looked at me.” Entering this gate means entering paradise in Chinese culture in the Han Dynasty. It is not a pure, natural paradise in cosmical sense. It is a free and beautiful world full of imagination, detached from the temporal world where people can gain immortality. This is paradise in Chinese culture in the Han Dynasty. Of course, there was no such concept and the word  paradise but there is a heaven court in the Han Dynasty, and this is the heaven court. The images of the sun and moon are also important. We know they represent yin and yang respectively. The appearance of the sun and moon must imply yin and yang.

These two dragons have long wings and are generally considered to be the Ying dragon. The person standing on this dragon seems to hold the moon. Of course, there are two interpretations regarding this image: one is related to Chang’e, a Chinese mythology about her flying to the moon with the elixir of life; the other believes that it embodies the image of the tomb owner who has entered heaven. Are they reasonable? In fact, I have doubts on both of these opinions. I made two speculations. First of all, who may be related to the moon? I thought of Yueyuwangshu. According to the early Chinese mythology, the movement of the sun and the moon were driven by two gods carrying them, one called Riyu, and the other Yueyu. Who is the Riyu? He is Xihe. And who is Yueyu? He is Wangshu, also known as Xian’e. Then, would the woman related to the moon be Yueyuwangshu? But why did the painter not draw a Riyu on the other side to keep the symmetry. So, my speculation cannot hold water either. Later, I searched some literature and materials on the bronze mirrors in the later period and proposed another explanation. Is it possible that a woman in the heaven is called Jade Girl? We can see from Cherishing Promise by Jia Yi and Prose for Official by Sima Xiangru in the heavenly court, there is always a girl named Jade Girl  accompanying the Heaven Emperor. Is it possible she is the jade girl? We can't give a definite answer but a mere explanation.

In fact, the most important image in the uppermost space is the one with a human head and body but wrapped by a huge dragon tail. This is the key to explaining this silk painting. The concept and meaning of the whole painting can be understood instantly if this image is determined and explained. Who is this great god? There are at least ten interpretations in the academic community. Some people say that he is Fuxi, while others say Nüwa. Why? Han Dynasty literature records very clearly, “Fuxi has a body of a dragon and Nüwa has a body of a snake”. It seems plausible that it would be either Fuxi or Nüwa with a huge dragon tail. Still others say that he should be the Yellow Emperor, the central emperor in the five elements; more opinions are around: candle dragon, the image of the tomb owner, the tomb god of the town and Riyuxihe. Who is it on earth? Of course, it is also believed that he is the Emperor Taiyi. I am very much in agreement with the saying of Taiyi, and I have sufficient evidence to prove that. First of all, according to the progressive spatial relationship of this silk painting, the Graveyard Water House at the bottom, and then the upper part is the human sacrifice, and then the Kunlun realm, and upper part to Kunlun Xuanpu. She still wants to fly higher. Where is she going? If we can confirm the spatial relationship with the early literature and a paragraph from Huainanzi·Topography, we will understand the space above and who this god is.

A paragraph in Huainanzi·Topography says: “The higher part of the Kunlun Mountain is the mountain of the cool breeze, and people climbing on it will not die. Onwards is Xuanpu where spirits live. Climb on it and you can control the wind and rain. On the top is the heaven where the god lives, and it is called the residence of the emperor.” Kunlun has three layers: the first layer is the mountain of cool breeze, the second layer Xuanpu, and the top is heaven. So, who is the main god of heaven? It must be the most honorable Taiyi. If the spatial relationship from bottom up of this silk painting is consistent with Huainanzi·Topography, the main god in heaven should be Taiyi.

Then let’s look at this silk painting again. We know that the concept of yin-yang and five elements prevailed in the Han Dynasty, and had a strong influence. What is yin and yang? Is it a symbol of dynamics, where is the source of power for the generation, development, and change of the universe, society, and individual life? It is driven by the interaction between yin and yang. We see this image is between the sun and the moon, and even above the sun and the moon, so its position must be higher than that of yin and yang. Other than Taiyi, nobody has a status higher than yin and yang. This can also be found in the literature regarding the function of Taiyi. A passage in Springs and Autumns of Master Lü · Great Music records: “Two instruments come out of Taiyi, yin and yang come out of two instruments. The changes of yin and yang changes form composition. All things come out of Taiyi and turn into yin and yang.”

Therefore, it can be seen that yin and yang are explicit power, and there is an implicit ultimate power hidden behind the yin and yang represented by Taiyi. Who is Taiyi? Taiyi is the embodiment of heaven, and the reincarnation of the Tao. Therefore, Taiyi, heaven and Tao are a set of equivalent concepts. What is the Tao in Springs and Autumns of Master Lü · Great Music? “The Tao is delicate and cannot be shaped or named. It can be called Taiyi.” Tao has no image or name, and if it has to have a name, call it Taiyi. Therefore, Taiyi is the embodiment of heaven, the reincarnation of the Tao, the greatest god, and the ultimate power hidden behind the yin and yang.

Therefore, taking both the silk painting and the literature into consideration, we could judge from the spatial relationship of the painting and the narration in Huainanzi · Topography that this space should be heaven, and its owner be Taiyi. As for the painting itself, the image of this great god is between and above the sun and the moon. Besides, according to the function of the Taiyi in Springs and Autumns of Master Lü · Great Music, the image should undoubtedly be Taiyi . Once this image is definite and explained, then the rationality and inner logic of the whole painting, as well as the concepts and meanings it expresses, are clear. There are some important materials I have just quoted in the previous image.

Well, let's summarize this silk painting. I think the motif of this painting is the tomb owner and various symbolic gods, building the hell, the human world, Xuanpu and heaven from the bottom up. A series of scenes such as soul rejuvenation, ancestral temple sacrifice, immortal summoning, riding on a flying dragon, angel reception, etc., shows the tomb owner undergoing a whole process of death, immortality, and ultimately entering the heavenly court of Tian Yi, and returning to nature and universe represented by the Tao as Taiyi. As stated in Huainanzi · Topography, enter Kunlun, climb to the highest Mountain of Cool Breeze, and you can only be immortal. Then continue climbing to Xuan pu, and you can become a celestial being and control the wind and rain. If you climb to the top and enter the heavenly court of Taiyi, you will be among the gods and step into the ultimate realm of being with the heavenly emperor and with the sun and the moon. This ultimate and eternal status is the concept and significance conveyed by the silk painting from No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb.

I think through an analysis of this painting, at least we could understand how to take the image as a starting point and make use of  some earlier documents. Although they are fragmented and scattered, they must be meaningful. Coupled with our interpretation, we could then unite these scattered materials. We are actually conducting research on the intellectual history through this study. By studying No.1 Tomb of Mawangdui Han Tomb, we finally learn and understand the Han Dynasty, at least the belief in post-mortem of the upper class and the nobility of the early Western Han Dynasty and the South Chu Dynasty. This question falls into the category of history of thoughts. Thus, that’s all for today, thank you!