SSG POST 13 – On Epigraphy

An important component of our ‘replicating a rock-cut cave’ experiment in Banan, Chongqing City, Southwest China, were the two epigraphic inscriptions added to both replicas.



All material qualities of an inscription constitute its context of enunciation, the way the author chooses to shape its message, and inform the written meaning, or the way it is perceived by viewers.

Whether an inscription is engraved deeply in a hard, resistant material, or just scribbled with a piece of chalk, and the scale of it, are among these qualities.

Our two inscriptions, one carved directly on the sandstone cliff face by our stone masons, ourselves, or simply traced in wet concrete, regardless of their content, thus convey contrasting experiences.



Also, the stonemasons had their own understanding of the location chosen for the caves, especially the second one. We picked it thinking of the hardness of sandstone, its homogeneity and it suitability for daily access by the workers, as well as for positioning the camera.

Instead, Master He and Master Fu saw a specific fengshui pattern in the natural fault in the rock above our cave, which you can spot as a dark shadow above the rock-cut opening in the following picture, taken from the forest across the mountainous gorge. According to Chinese geomancy, this is a ‘dragon and tortoise’ nest, a extremely favorable position to place a house or a tomb, and they assured that the place would be ‘inhabited’ in no time after we left…


Let us first shortly review a few functions held by epigraphic inscriptions related to the meaning and function of the space the inscription is located in.

It being a urban space or a deserted mountain, public or a private enterprise, a secular or a ritual building, one destined to be perceived by a community to which the writer belongs, or by war enemies across a frontier, a message to the living or to the dead, both a commemorating event and a reminder for future readers, etc.

In our case, the replica of an open-air monument is set in the wild and jungly margins of a heritage site. The location, as well as the masons, were lent to us by the local cultural relics administration office.

The most direct role played by the written piece of information is not only to record its production event, but more specifically, its belonging to a research/heritage context. Moreover, the experiment fitted the scope of our ‘site-seal-gesture’ collaboration, and could be further interpreted as a revival of Chinese antiquarianist practices.

To the usual function of epigraphic inscriptions, we thus added three layers of meaning :

  • mark of ownership
  • stone masons’ marks (craftsmen calligraphy)
  • epitaph (funerary)
  • foundation sacrifice (propitiatory)
  • Heritage (commentary/’caption’/didactic)
  • SSG (addition/parasite/commentary on the commentary)
  • Contemporary ‘Stone and Metal Studies’ (Chinese Antiquarianist practices)


In the Chinese epigraphic tradition, inscriptions hold a crucial role, often eluding the building, or becoming a monument on their own .


Reading the Memorial Stele. Unidentified Artist; traditionally attributed to Li Cheng and Wang Xiao. 14th century or earlier. Lender: Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts.

When set in wild, mountainous landscape, they tame it (frontiers), inhabit it with legendary beings and superpose mythical places or cosmologies on them. As literati would not engage in the physically demanding exercise of carving characters in stone themselves, specialized craftsmanship would have developed, to transfer calligraphy from silk and paper, to stone and metal. (although in some cases the calligrapher might have written directly in ink on the hard material support.)

Mount Tai

6th century monumental Buddhist sutra carved in Mount Tai, Shandong Province.

Two other essential aspects in the way Chinese scholars traditionally studied their own Past are due to the length and the pervasiveness of epigraphic culture.

One is the obsessive habit of collecting inscriptions, taking rubbings of them from cliffs, walls and artefacts, decontextualizing them and compiling them into composite books, often struggling with scale. The second one, is the addition of calligraphic commentaries (colophons) and seals directly on physical or represented landscapes.

Dwelling amidst Water and Bamboo (水竹居圖) Ni Zan (倪瓚, 1301-1374), Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper, 53.6 x 27.7 cm, National Museum of China, Beijing

Dwelling amidst Water and Bamboo (水竹居圖)
Ni Zan (倪瓚, 1301-1374), Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper, 53.6 x 27.7 cm, National Museum of China, Beijing

In our case, the stone masons were the illiterate executor of the wills of a ‘patron’ (us) with a higher (although limited) level of literacy.

But, the 2nd century AD caves our replicas are based on, being located on the Southwest frontier of the Han empire, similarly displayed inscriptions written in a clumsy graphy, filled with phonetic loans and barely readable characters, very different from the beautifully crafted inscriptions on moveable stone steles of the same period found in provincial centers.

It is not clear who was behind them, what kind of cultural group, and whether these were destined to a large (or any) audience at all.

光和六年崖墓题记-马炜图3 copie Qigedong-overlap copie

Our stone masons faced the request of carving a lengthy inscription with distress: they expressed a certain fear of being ridiculed, a degree of shame for being illiterate, asked if the inscription could be shorter. A notebook with the characters written big had to be held in front of them as they carved, and Master He felt uncomfortable wearing his reading glasses while carving.



However, they were happy to write their own names and numbers, together with a small pool of characters they were familiar with. Also, they were proud of the final result and ready to carve more characters after the experiment was over.


贺 character for ‘He’, Master He’s family name, written bigger and with more confidence than any other character in the lengthy inscription.

As a result, the replica corresponded to the 2nd century AD epigraphy very closely, especially because of phonetic loans, but also because of the straight chisel marks, a natural adaptation of calligraphic strokes by the use of a standard chisel on sandstone, on an unprepared surface.  Horizontal strokes are longer than usual, vertical ones deeper than usual, curvy lines are squared and characters are abbreviated and simplified.

For the second and last inscription, because the cliff face was too soft, crumbly, waterlogged, we chose a radically different approach. An existing concrete block placed near the cave opening was used as support.The workers proposed to bring a little bag of cement and a few bottles of water, to cover the concrete block with a thin layer of cement and write in it while wet.

lia carving

Master He insists on reworking the characters while Lia writes.

The text of the first inscription, carved on the cliff right next to the cave opening in Experiment 1, is modeled after epigraphic inscriptions found next to Eastern Han caves, which usually contain the date of execution (usually expressed in traditional calendar year), the name of the patron (in this case, the researcher, ie Lia), the name of the mason, the amount of cash invested in the building project, as well as propitiatory formulas. The inscription reads:


On Yiwei (乙未),[1] three days before the Duanwu festival (端午),[2] on the 18th of June 2015 of the Western Calendar, Lia Wei made (this cave). The two-layered recessed doorframe of and Eastern Han cave was reproduced for Experimental Archaeology. (The cave) was finished in four days, took eight working days of 300 RMB each, (and was executed) by the stone masons Master He and Master Fu.

[1]Yi is the 2nd heavenly stem and 末 Wei is the 8th earthly branch. The combination of 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches produces the sexagenary cycle (干支 ganzhi), basis for the traditional Chinese calendar system.

[2] The Duanwu festival, also called Dragon Boat festival is a traditional holiday occruing on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar, around the time of the solar solstice.

The text of the second inscription, printed into a concrete slab laid in front of the cave opening in Experiment 2, is composed in a freer style. It only mentions the purpose of the experiment, listing a series of past and existing interpretations produced by the viewers of Eastern Han caves after their original function was forgotten. It reads:


Lia Wei created a stone chamber. It is not meant to bury ancestors, it is neither the dwelling of immortal beings, nor ‘wild tribes’ caves, as local people call them. (This cave was built) to study the Past by replicating it.


Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s