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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Death Ritual in the Tang Dynasty (618–907): A Study of Cultural Standardization and Variation in Medieval China

  • Author(s): Yang, Yi
  • Advisor(s): Tackett, Nicolas
  • et al.

By exploiting a vast trove of underutilized original sources, including thousands of epitaphs, archaeological reports, ritual manuals, and anecdotes, and by using digital humanities tools to analyze this large pool of data from a multiregional perspective, this dissertation reconstructs funerary practices in Tang-era China, and thereby explores cultural standardization and the effect of sociocultural changes on death rituals. My research demonstrates that certain death ritual practices prevailed among Tang elites of various regions and social strata and remained stable throughout the entire Tang dynasty, suggesting the existence of a standardized way of commemorating death in medieval China. Furthermore, my research reveals significant regional variations and temporal changes, which I use to examine the mechanisms behind uniformity and variety.

This dissertation also makes an original contribution to the understanding of actual mortuary practices among Tang elites of various strata and regional backgrounds. My core research material, the many thousands of Tang-era epitaphs, allows me to get closer to the actual practices of “ordinary” elites rather than rely on descriptions of rites by the ritual specialists in charge of compiling prescriptive ritual manuals. Moreover, as each tomb epitaph text usually provides a glimpse of a person’s life, tomb epitaphs are often the most direct and personal accounts of individuals, and they offer a perspective on a greater range of elite society than do either dynastic-history biographies or the eulogies preserved in the literary collections of famous writers.

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