Realms Beyond

Half-Open Doors in Chinese Funerary Art

in Religion and the Arts
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This article explores a mysterious but well-studied pictorial subject in Chinese visual art, namely the half-open door. The scene often shows a female figure standing in or emerging from the middle of two door-leaves, suggesting a path or an access to a certain space and also indicating a view incompatible with what the viewer has already seen. This pictorial theme frequently adorns stone sarcophagi and tomb walls in northern China from the late eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. By examining the forms and meanings of the motif, this study attempts to demonstrate the ways in which the half-open door was employed in funerary art and helped people to visualize prevailing ideas about the afterlife.




For the discussions, see Wu, Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture 259; Wu, “Myth and Legends in Han Funerary Art” 75.


Rawson, “Eternal Places of the Western Han” 21–30. Jessica Rawson has shown the ways in which China in the Qin and Han periods was part of a world that was entering early phases of globalization. New objects and motifs were brought into China through the contact between China and the borderlands and further west. The import of foreign items stimulated the ancient Chinese to create new and innovative materials.


Steinhardt 397–398; Li, Xuanhua Liao mu 294–317. Su first suggests that polygonal burial chambers derived from pagodas. Han Xiaonan also points out the Buddhist influences in Song tombs. See Su 111; and Han 95–99. Other Buddhist elements in Liao and Song tombs include bronze mirrors installed in the center of a lotus coffer on tomb ceilings, symbolizing the immeasurable light of Buddhist dharma, and ornamented sumeru bases on the surface of coffin beds.


Zheng Yan, “Minjian yishu erti” 92–93; and “Lun ban qimen” 16–36.


  • Figure 1

    Brick-constructed half-open door in the M1 tomb, Baisha, Henan, China, eleventh centuryCourtesy Wenwu Press

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  • Figure 2

    Bracket sets and lattice doors constructed on the north wall of a Song tomb, Xin’an, Henan, ChinaCourtesy Luoyang Ancient Tombs Museum, Luoyang, Henan

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  • Figure 3

    Painting on the north wall of the Lincun tomb, Xin’an, Henan, ChinaCourtesy Luoyang Ancient Tombs Museum, Luoyang, Henan

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  • Figure 4

    Half-open door constructed in a Jin tomb, Jishan, Shanxi, China, c. 1200 CE. Jishan Jin Tombs Museum, Jishan, Shanxi.Photo: Xu Hao

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  • Figure 5

    Male figure standing at a half-open door carved in the M5 tomb, Jishan, Shanxi, ChinaCourtesy Jishan Jin Tombs Museum, Jishan, Shanxi

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  • Figure 6

    Rubbing of a winged female figure standing at a half-open door carved on the head panel of Wang Hui’s sarcophagus, Lushan, Sichuan, China, 221 CECourtesy Henan meishu Press

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  • Figure 7

    A scene of a woman standing at a half-open door constructed above the entrance of the tomb of Li Maozhen, Baoji, Shanxi province, China, 925 CECourtesy Kexue Press

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  • Figure 8

    A scene of a monk standing at a half-open door carved on a stone container excavated from the crypt of the Xinglong pagoda, Yanzhou, Shandong, China, Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 CE)Courtesy Shandong Provincial Museum, Jinan, Shandong

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  • Figure 9

    Pillow displaying a half-open door and a figure on the bottomCourtesy Shanghai Museum, Shanghai

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  • Figure 10

    Gilded mirror, Gushi, Ningxia, China, Song DynastyCourtesy Ningxia Provincial Museum, Yinchuan, Ningxia

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