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Panels from a Funerary Couch (Guanchuang)

A work made of limestone.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • A work made of limestone.


Northern Wei dynasty (386–535); c. 525



About this artwork

These stone panels were originally assembled to enclose the back and short sides of a low, couchlike platform that held a coffin in a tomb. This “funerary couch” was probably supported along the front and back by two long stone slabs, each elevated on rectangular feet. Such a coffin platform may also have been partially enclosed in front by two stones carved to resemble gate towers, making the couch resemble the walled enclosure of a villa or a city.

The original order of the Art Institute stones is not certain. Their present sequence is based on their relative lengths and pictorial compositions as well as on the alignment of the iron hinges. The left and right stones—one including a bullock cart, the other a horse with decorative trappings—may each have formed one short side of the funerary couch. The two stones between them—depicting scenes of figures under canopied platforms or umbrellas (both symbols of high status)—together may have formed the back of this structure. As reconstructed, these scenes present a symmetrical composition that is bracketed at either end by figures facing inward. Such linear drawings in stone enable us to imagine the appearance of early horizontal scroll paintings.

Eight framed figural compositions are engraved into the inner surface of these smoothly polished stones. The figures’ proportions and clothing are characteristic of early sixth-century Chinese styles, as known from datable tomb figurines, stone carvings, and rare surviving paintings. Except for the bearded gentlemen and those wearing baggy trousers and small “official” caps, with or without projecting wings, most of these figures seem to depict women. Not all figures, however, can be clearly distinguished as to sex, since long robes with wide collars, high sashes, and flowing sleeves were worn by aristocratic men and women alike, who also shared a hairstyle of upswept side buns. These figures are grouped in stagelike settings—hills, mountains, trees and bushes with decorative foliage patterns, and windblown cloudbands—which suggest what early pictorial landscapes may have looked like.

This panel probably portrays the legend of the clever and virtuous Yuan Gu. His father was about to abandon his grandfather in the forest because the old man could no longer earn his keep. Yuan Gu pointedly observed that the cart which had carried the grandfather to the forest would also serve to carry the father when he grew old. Made to realize his heartlessness, the father brought the grandfather home again. (Here the cart is depicted as a stretcher, carried by the figure at far left). In imperial China, this theme of “filial piety”—respect and support for parents and other elders—was a preeminent Confucian virtue. The other scenes have yet to be identified; they may depict similar stories of virtuous behavior or they may incorporate images that had become part of a familiar repertoire for funerary art.


On View, Gallery 133


Arts of Asia


Panels from a Funerary Couch (Guanchuang)


China (Artist's nationality)


520 CE–530 CE




44.7 × 94 × 3.5 cm (17 5/8 × 37 × 1 3/8 in.)

Credit Line

Ardith Lauerman Fund; Louise Lutz, Samuel M. Nickerson and Russell Tyson endowments

Reference Number


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Extended information about this artwork

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