Spirit way

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Spirit way at the Ming Dynasty Tombs outside of Beijing. Spirit Way Pass Through Emperor Pavilion in Thirteen Tombs of Ming Dynasty.jpg
Spirit way at the Ming Dynasty Tombs outside of Beijing.
Spirit way of Kong Zhengan in the Cemetery of Confucius Kong Zhengan - seen from S - P1060221.JPG
Spirit way of Kong Zhengan in the Cemetery of Confucius

A spirit way (Chinese : ; pinyin : Shén dào ) is the ornate road leading to a Chinese tomb of a major dignitary. The term is also sometimes translated as spirit road, [1] spirit path or sacred way. The spirit way is lined on both sides by a succession of statues, pillars, and stelae. The statues along the spirit way depict real and mythical animals, as well as civilian and military officials.



Eastern Han Dynasty

Spirit ways were a well-developed feature of tombs by the time of the Eastern Han Dynasty. [2] [3] A traditional burial site of an emperor or a high official of that era would be typically arranged along the north–south axis; the spirit road would lead from the south to the southern gate of the enclosure within which the tomb itself and the associated buildings were located. This layout, with few exceptions, has persisted since then through the entire history of the spirit road. [3]

A characteristic feature of an East Han spirit road were monumental towers ( que ), which were much larger and more expensive than the statues and stelae. [4] The que were followed by statues of animals, among whom feline-like creatures were prominent: both fairly realistic-looking tigers (long known to Chinese artists) and lions (a Han Dynasty innovation), as well as more fantastic varieties, provided with wings, beards, and/or horns. The feline-based fantastic creatures were known under a variety of names, among which the most common were tianlu , bixie and qilin . [5] As in later dynasties, the creatures were facing the road, and were designed to be primarily viewed from the sides. [6] There is no definitive information about any elephants appearing on Han Dynasty spirit roads; however, it is speculated that an ancient stone elephant (which may have originally been part of a pair) 2 km south of the Eastern Han imperial mausolea near Mangshan (in Luoyang area) may have been associated with those mausolea: the two elephants may have marked the entrance to the mausoleum area. [7]

As on the later spirit ways, the stone animals on the Eastern Han spirit roads must have been followed by human statues, but very few of those have survived. A pair of well-preserved stone officials from that period are now kept at the Temple of Confucius, Qufu. [8]

The last component of the Eastern Han spirit roads, the stelae are believed to be a stone reproduction of wooden slabs, which in the ancient times were placed on both sides of the open grave during the burial. The coffin was lowered into the grave on ropes passed through holes made in each slab. After the burial, those wooden slabs would be placed upright on top of the tomb, with appropriate text written on them. In reminder of that old custom, early spirit way stelae have a round hole in the middle of their upper parts. [9]

Southern Dynasties

Two of Xiao Xiu's stele-bearing turtles, and the base of one of the two columns Xiao Xiu - panorma, west to east - P1070573.JPG
Two of Xiao Xiu's stele-bearing turtles, and the base of one of the two columns

The fall of the Han Empire was followed by a period of upheaval, when China was divided between a number of short-lived Southern and Northern Dynasties. The Wei and Western Jin rulers (3rd century AD) seemed to have frowned upon funeral art extravagance of the fallen Han Dynasty, generally shunning above-ground statuary at their tomb sites. Literary sources attest to the resumption of the spirit way construction already by the time of the Eastern Jin (4th century AD), but the surviving spirit way statuary from the "period of disunion" pertains almost exclusively to the last four of the six Southern Dynasties: Liu Song, Southern Qi, Liang and Chen, which were usually centered around Jiankang (today's Nanjing). [10] Around thirty of their tomb statuary groups, in various degrees of preservation, are known to modern researchers. They are located primarily in the eastern and southeastern suburbs of Nanjing (Qixia and Jiangning Districts) and in Danyang, farther east.

The Southern Dynasties regimes, with their smaller economic base than the mighty Han, did not create as numerous and as grandiose funeral ensembles as the Qin and Han. The use of spirit ways under these dynasties was limited to emperors and their close relatives. The new Buddhist and Daoist currents in the spiritual life of south China greatly influenced the art of sculpture as well. In the words of the art historian Ann Paludan, in Daoism-influenced art, "Han emphasis on spatial relationships, forms, and limits was rejected in favour of flowing lines suggesting flexibility, a lack of clear-cut boundaries, and endless motion". [11] The newly reinterpreted feng shui principles called more attention to orienting the tomb with respect to the terrain than to the strict north–south axis. [12]

A typical Southern Dynasties spirit way was quite short and included a pair of giant (3–4 m tall) winged felines, a pair of columns, and a pair or two of memorial stelae. [13] These felines, whom connoisseurs called "the most noble creatures to guard any tomb in Asia" [14] came in two varieties. The qilin , distinguished by their horns and beards, appeared at emperor's tombs, while the princes of blood (wang) had the bixie , who sported lions' manes and long outstretched tongues in their wide-opened mouths. [13] While both fantastic species must have derived from the Han era animal statuary, experts distinguish the two's pedigrees. The stocky bixie is thought to have evolved from the tiger statues of Han-era tombs in Sichuan and Shandong; however, there is now more emphasis on the power of the creature than on its speed. It is not clear any more what the symbolism of the outstretched tongue was: it has been variously interpreted as a prayer for rain, or as a way of communicating with the world of spirits. [15] The more elegant and sinuous qilin, their bodies almost completely covered with complicated patterns of carved curves, have a touch of Chinese dragon in them, and may have been related to the Han tomb statues from central China (e.g. the pair from Cuanlinmiao in Luoyang). [14]

Ming Dynasty

Later on, the layout of many mausolea involves a large stone tortoise ( bixi ) along with the spirit way. At Ming Dynasty mausolea in Nanjing, e.g. Ming Xiaoling or the tomb of the Sultan of Brunei Abdul Majid Hassan, visitors are first met by a bixi holding a stone tablets extolling the virtues of the deceased, and then walk along the spirit way to the tumulus where the emperor or dignitary is actually buried.

Camels along the spirit way at Ming Xiaoling, Nanjing Stone Elephant Road - camels - P1060454.JPG
Camels along the spirit way at Ming Xiaoling, Nanjing

Notable examples

Spirit ways are found in a number of imperial mausolea:

At the graves of other dignitaries:

See also

Related Research Articles

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Song, known as Liu Song, Former Song (前宋) or Southern Song (南朝宋) in historiography, was an imperial dynasty of China and the first of the four Southern dynasties during the Northern and Southern dynasties period. It succeeded the Eastern Jin dynasty and preceded the Southern Qi dynasty.

Qilin Legendary creature in Chinese mythology

The qilin is a legendary hooved chimerical creature that appears in Chinese mythology, and is said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. Qilin are a specific type of the lin mythological family of one-horned beasts. The qilin also appears in the mythologies of other cultures, such as Japanese and Korean mythology, where it is known as the kirin, and Vietnamese mythology, where it is known as the kỳ lân.

Liang dynasty Chinas Southern Dynasties (502–557)

The Liang dynasty, alternatively known as the Southern Liang in historiography, was an imperial dynasty of China and the third of the four Southern dynasties during the Northern and Southern dynasties period. It was preceded by the Southern Qi dynasty and succeeded by the Chen dynasty. The rump state of Western Liang existed until it was conquered in 587 by the Sui dynasty.

Ming tombs Collection of mausoleums built by emperors of China

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Chinese guardian lions Chinese statues of lion-like creatures

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Pixiu Chinese mythical hybrid creature

Pixiu is a Chinese mythical hybrid creature. Pixiu are considered powerful protectors of feng shui practitioners, and resemble strong, winged lions. A Pixiu is an earth and sea variation, particularly an influential and auspicious creature for wealth, and is said to have a voracious appetite exclusively for gold, silver, and jewels. Therefore, traditionally to the Chinese, Pixiu have always been regarded as auspicious creatures that possessed mystical powers capable of drawing cai qi from all directions, and according to the Chinese zodiac, it is especially helpful for those who are going through a bad year.

Ming Xiaoling UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jiangsu, China

The Ming Xiaoling is the mausoleum of the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming dynasty. It lies at the southern foot of Purple Mountain, located east of the historical centre of Nanjing. Legend says that in order to prevent robbery of the tomb, 13 identical processions of funeral troops started from 13 city gates to obscure the real burying site.

Qianling Mausoleum Ancient site in Qianxian, Shaanxi, China

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Eastern Qing tombs Imperial mausoleum complex of the Qing dynasty

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Huabiao is a type of ceremonial column used in traditional Chinese architecture. Huabiao are traditionally erected in pairs in front of palaces and tombs. The prominence of their placement have made them one of the emblems of traditional Chinese culture. When placed outside palaces, they can also be called bangmu. When placed outside a tomb, they can also be called shendaozhu.


Bixi, or Bi Xi, is a figure from Chinese mythology. One of the 9 sons of the Dragon King, he is depicted as a dragon with the shell of a turtle. Stone sculptures of Bixi have been used in Chinese culture for centuries as a decorative plinth for commemorative steles and tablets, particularly in the funerary complexes of its later emperors and to commemorate important events, such as an imperial visit or the anniversary of a World War II victory. They are also used at the bases of bridges and archways. Sculptures of Bixi are traditionally rubbed for good luck, which can cause conservation issues. They can be found throughout East Asia in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia, and the Russian Far East.

Xiao Xiu

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Ann Elizabeth Paludan (1928–2014) was a British author of several books on Chinese history, sculpture and architecture.

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Yangshan Quarry

The Yangshan Quarry is an ancient stone quarry near Nanjing, China. Used during many centuries as a source of stone for buildings and monuments of Nanjing, it is preserved as a historic site. The quarry is famous for the gigantic unfinished stele that was abandoned there during the reign of the Yongle Emperor in the early 15th century. In scope and ambition, the stele project is compared to other public works projects of Yongle era, which included the launching of the treasure fleet for Zheng He's maritime expeditions and the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Stone sculptures of Southern Dynasties mausoleums

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Tomb of the King of Boni Tomb of Abdul Majid Hassan, in Nanjing, China

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Han Zigao, formerly known as Han Manzi (韓蠻子), was a Chinese general. He is recorded in history for his beauty and for being the favorite lover of Emperor Wen of Chen.


  1. Paludan, Ann (1991), The Chinese spirit road : the classical tradition of stone tomb statuary, Yale University Press, ISBN   0-300-04597-2
  2. Albert E. Dien, Six dynasties civilization, Yale University Press, 2007
  3. 1 2 Paludan 1991 , pp. 29–31
  4. Paludan 1991 , pp. 31–32
  5. Paludan 1991 , pp. 41–42
  6. Paludan 1991 , p. 44
  7. Paludan 1991 , p. 45
  8. Paludan 1991 , pp. 45–46
  9. Paludan 1991 , pp. 49–51
  10. Paludan 1991 , pp. 53–55
  11. Paludan 1991 , pp. 55–57
  12. Paludan 1991 , pp. 59–60
  13. 1 2 Paludan 1991 , pp. 60–61
  14. 1 2 Paludan 1991 , p. 65
  15. Paludan 1991 , pp. 63–65