The culture of pre-modern Chinese funerals is intertwined with the concept of “filial piety,” which is at the heart of Ruist thought and an important part of traditional Chinese rites. After Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE) of the Han dynasty upheld Ruism above all other schools of thought, people began holding lavish funerals for their elders. This lavishness came to be seen as a sign of “extreme filial piety.” In their attempts to memorialize their ancestors and honor them, new styles of tombs emerged. These resembled actual living quarters and were constructed in a variety of ways, including stone, half-brick and half-stone, and tombs constructed out of living rock. At the same time, pictorial stones and bricks became popular as they reflected the beliefs of the deceased by creating an atmosphere of life in the tombs as well as possessing specific funereal functions.
An abundance of stone reliefs and pictorial bricks exists; they are a unique source for Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) art history. Artists would draw on soft materials such as silk, but drawing on huge stonewalls was quite rare. To make pictorial bricks, painters discarded their soft brushes and picked up sharp knives to create beautiful images.
Those reliefs and carved bricks were used to build and decorate tombs and steles. Pictorial bricks, as the name implies, are bricks with carved or impressed pictures on them. It is now generally agreed that they emerged in the late Spring and Autumn period (late fifth century BCE) and reached the height of their popularity sometime in the Han dynasty. They continued to be made during the Three Kingdoms period (220–280), the Western and Eastern Jin dynasties (265–420), and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589), as a kind of decorative construction material.
Pictorial bricks originated from a type of fresco art called “carved walls” which emerged at the end of the Warring States period (early third century BCE). Most pictorial bricks have a single picture per brick but others have two—one each on the top and bottom sides. These designs were impressed on the bricks with wooden molds before they were fired. Some bricks also had images engraved by hand. The artistic techniques used can be categorized as low relief, relief, and intaglio. Although the colors have faded since excavation, some bricks were decorated with red, green, or white pigments. The actual bricks themselves can be divided into two categories: large hollow bricks and solid square bricks.
The designs have many different themes. Some of them show work scenes, such as sowing, harvesting, husking, brewing, manufacturing salt, rearing silkworms, and raising livestock. There are also pictures depicting social activities such as banquets, acrobatics, and dance. Some mythical images are also present, such as the Queen Mother of the West and the Moon Palace (where Chang E, the Chinese goddess of the Moon was said to live). Realistic images, such as aristocrats travelling on horseback or in carriages, exist too. The artists were extremely skillful at grasping the liveliest and finest moments of people involved in activities. They focused on capturing the essence of the scene by vividly depicting a brief moment. The outlines are usually rough, but many different techniques, such as low relief carving were used. Pictures with strong visual interest are full of energetic motion, powerful momentum and a tremendous feeling of speed. Simply put, they are infused with the artists’ love of life and pursuit of everlasting happiness. Some small bricks, while not as elaborate as the larger ones, have a vigor that leaves a lasting memory giving rise to imaginative musings. Later generations gasp in admiration and regret that those artworks can scarcely be surpassed.
The stone reliefs of the Han dynasty have the unadorned simplicity, profundity and grandeur of their time. At the same time, they all have clear regional features which can be seen in themes, carving techniques and styles. Pictorial bricks were used in the tombs of aristocrats, who were the only people that could afford them. This means that pictorial bricks have been discovered mostly in affluent areas throughout the valleys of the Yellow River, southern and western Shandong province, the city of Nanyang in Henan province, the valleys of the Min River in Sichuan province, Hebei province, Anhui province, and northern Jiangsu province. A large number of pictorial bricks date back to the Eastern Han (25–220) dynasty. They were popular in the Central Plain region, the southwest of China, and the Jiangnan area. Henan and Sichuan provinces have the largest number of them.
The art of heavy and rustic stone reliefs and pictorial bricks is powerful. Their crudeness complements the tender and elegant style of Han dynasty fu, and thus, shows another side of the Han—boldness and resoluteness. This collective power and momentum that the bricks reveal is unmatched by later generations. The Han dynasty stone reliefs and bricks not only play an important role in art history, but also provide precious visual material for the studies of the economy, social system, customs, and aesthetics of the Han dynasty.