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muzhiming 墓志銘, tomb inscription on a buried stone

Mar 10, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Muzhiming 墓志銘, also written 墓誌銘, is the designation of a special type of tomb inscription applied on a stone buried in front of the tomb chamber. The designations zangzhi 葬志, fenji 墳記, maiming 埋銘, guoming 槨銘, kuangzhi 壙志 and kuangming 壙銘 denote the same, but were less frequently used. Inscriptions created for a re-burial at a different tomb site were called xuzhi 續志, houzhi 後志, guifuzhi 歸附志 (if the new site was the home district) or qianfuzhi 遷附志. The expression quancuozhi 權厝志 was used for inscriptions made public during the wake if the latter was organised on the burial place.

Scholars like Xu Shizeng 徐師曾 (1517-1571) in his Wenti mingbian 文體明辨序說 discern between muzhi 墓志 and muming 墓銘, the former written in prose, and the latter as a lyrical text. Most, but not all, inscriptions combined these two styles, and Xu shows that the designations zhi and ming were not used consistently, but were often wrongly interchanged. Han Yu's 韓愈 (768-824) Dianzhong shaojian Ma jun muzhiming 殿中少監馬君墓志銘 is actually just a prose text, and his inscription Lu Hun muzhiming 盧渾墓志銘 only a poem, even if the title of these two inscriptions includes both the words zhi and ming. Han Yu's Liu Zihou muzhiming 柳子厚墓志銘 is a ming or summarizing eulogy in prose style. Some inscriptions had an introduction (xu 序).

The stones on which muzhiming texts were incised were usually square and relatively flat. Tomb stones consisted of two parts, namely a base (di 底) stone bearing the prose part and the laudatory poem, and a cover (gai 蓋) bearing a kind of title like the name and the official laurels of the tomb owner. In older times, muzhi inscriptions were incised in ceramics (zhuanming 磚銘) or on wooden boards (then called fenban wen 墳版文 or muban wen 墓版文). Zhang (1992) is of the opinion that muban wen were neither muzhiming nor mubei wen 墓碑文 (large stele inscriptions), but that it was a term used for a variety of tomb inscriptions, including beiji 碑記 (on the back side of steles, beiyin wen 碑陰文), muzhiming, and mubei wen. The word ban 版 does neither mean board, nor that they were not yet incised into stone.

Figure 1. Muzhiming 墓志銘 tomb inscription
Rubbing of the inscription of a two-part buried tomb stone. The cover with the title of the inscription, written in seal script, is seen on the left (it says Gao feng taishuren Zhang shi zhi mu 誥封太淑人張氏之墓 "Tomb of Ms Zhang, who was granted the title of Grand Lady of Virtue"), while the inscription is presented on the right hand. The inscription consists of a long prose text (zhi, and a short final eulogy in poetry form (ming). From He 2013.

Because the text was written in embellished and beautiful language and might have been "composed" by famous writers (yu muwen 諛墓文), muzhiming inscriptions were counted as a literary genre of its own, and were collected as examples of quality literature. Quite famous are Yu Xin's 庾信 (513-581) Zhou Dajiang Huaide gong Wu Mingche muzhiming 周大將軍懷德公, Han Yu's Liu Zihou muzhiming, Ouyang Xiu's 歐陽修 (1007-1072) Yi Shilu muzhiming 尹師魯墓志銘, Gui Youguang's 歸有光 (1507-1571) Shen Zhenfu muzhiming 沈貞甫墓志銘, Fang Bao's 方苞 (1668-1749) Chen Yuxu muzhiming 陳馭虛墓志銘 or Peng Ji's 彭績 (1742-1785) Wang qi Gong shi kuangming 亡妻龔氏壙銘. There are also separate collections of tomb inscriptions like Wang Xing's 王行 Muming juli 墓銘舉例 from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644).

While the large, detailed, and representative tomb inscriptions like mubei, mujie 墓碣 or mubiao 墓表 were incised on stone steles or tablets erected before or behind a grave or on the side of a soul path, muzhiming were incised on stones that were buried close to the tomb pit or just before the burial chamber. This was done in order to prevent intentional destruction, and also to guarantee that—should the stele be lost—later generations would know who was the owner of the tomb. Muzhiming stones can thus be seen as a kind of grave furniture.

Moreover, muzhiming stones were put into place before the interment, while mubei were erected later, also because their inauguration required official approval. Muzhi-type tomb inscriptions were sometimes a present of a sovereign towards a highly estimated state official. All types of tomb inscriptions had the intention to present the name and origin of a tomb owner and to praise his achievement in the political and social fields. The lyrical part, ming, was usually a concluding praise of the moral virtues of the deceased person.

The custom of buried grave stones emerged during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420-589), but the first mentioned example was a tomb stone of Du Zixia 杜子夏 (Du Qin 杜欽) during the very late Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE).

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