An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

beiming 碑銘 or beiwen 碑文, inscriptions on stone steles

Jan 20, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Stone slab inscriptions (beiming 碑銘 or beiwen 碑文) are texts incised into the surface of (mostly) standing stone slabs. The content of beiwen texts might be a biography, a laudation, or a quotation from a literary text. According to use, historians discern between laudatory steles (songbei 頌碑), commemorative steles (jibei 記碑, jigongbei 紀功碑) and tomb steles (mubei 墓碑).

Concerning the texts of the inscription, there are also stone slabs incised with texts of the Confucian Classics (the so-called shijing 石經 "Stone Classics"), legal texts, religious texts, or communal or political conventions.

The literary critique Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (ch. Leibei 誄碑) explains that bei 碑 meant pi 埤 "wall", meaning a kind of artificial mountain slope on which the heroid deeds of a ruler were incised. While square and oblong stones were called bei, a rounder or slightly conical type of stone slab was called jie 碣. It might be that these stone were at first a kind of sundial or served in temples to tie sacrificial animals at. This argument can be found in Zheng Xuan's 鄭玄 commentary on the Confucian Classic Yili 儀禮.

The transferral of the use of bronze vessels for inscriptions to that of stones was not only caused by considerations on cost, but also by the simple fact that stones were much more visible than bronze tripods, and also murch more durable.

The oldest known inscribed bei stone slabs date from the reign of the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE), who had commemorative stones erected on Mt. Tai 泰山, Mt. Yi 嶧山, the Langya Terrace 瑯邪臺, and other places. These inscriptions are often called "stone inscriptions" (keshi wen 刻石文).

Another early example of stone inscriptions are the "Drum Stone Inscriptions" (shiguwen 石鼓文) written on roundish stones. They probably date from the early 3rd century BCE.

Both bei and jie stones were erected all over the country from the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) on. Bei stones actually consisted of three parts, namely a base, a body, and a head stone. The inscription was incised into the surface of the body stone, some also on the head stone. Often, the text was not restricted to the wide surface of the stone, but extended to the sides and the back side of the stone. The front side mostly showed a prose text, the rear side a rhymed text (poem or hymn). From the Tang period 唐 (618-907) on it became fashionable to give the head stone the shape of a dragon or a turtle, and the wide surface of the body stone became the exclusive area to apply an inscription.

After that time inscribed stones were erected in temples and shrines, at tombs, bridges, on mountains, at riverbanks, and they did not only report of glorious deeds, but also of natural disasters, rebellions, and so on. In monasteries or guild halls, for instance, stones were erected displaying the names of donors and the sums they had contributed.

Stone inscriptions are important sources for the social and political history of the Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386-581) period, and count among the rare fragments of the Kitan and Jurchen scripts used in the Liao 遼 (907-1125) and Jin 金 (1115-1234) empires.

Stone inscriptions from the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) were often written in extraordinary writing styles which shows that they served as a means to display marvellous calligraphy. Some famous stone inscriptions were formed by a trinity of writer, calligrapher, and stone carver, and were called sanjue bei 三絕碑 "stones of triple perfection".

The inscriptions might consist of three blocks: main text (wen 文), praise (ming 銘), and introduction or afterword (xu 序). These were combined in various ways, but many inscriptions just consist of one text block (wen).

Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 44.
Yan Jinghan 閻景翰, ed. (1990). Xiezuo yushu da cidian 寫作藝術大辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 1258.
Zhao Xiangbiao 趙向標, ed. (1998). Zhongguo wenshu dadian 中國文書大典 (Beijing: Zhongguo jiancai gongye chubanshe), Vol. 1, 641.