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mubiao 墓表, tomb inscription on stone tablets

Mar 10, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Mubiao 墓表 are tomb inscriptions incised into stone tablets or steles standing in front of a tomb. They are a sub-type of stele inscriptions (beiwen 碑文, beiming 碑銘). The word is derived from the function of "presenting" (biaozhang 表彰) to the public the achievements of a dead person. A similar expression is the word qianbiao 阡表, qian being another word for the grave path (mudao 墓道) or "soul path" (shendao 神道) leading to a grave. Such inscriptions could also be incised on stones imitating gates leading to a grave or to a tomb chamber (mumen shi 墓門石, shi mumen 墓門石).

The inscription is a kind of laudatory biography of the tomb owner, explains his origins, lists the positions in official career, and praises his achievements in social and scholarly life. The word mubiao< is sometimes used in the same way as inscriptions on steles placed along the "soul path" (shendao bei 神道碑). Because of their historiographical value and the literary quality, a huge number of tomb inscriptions is preserved, even if the objects are long lost. The oldest ones date from the Eastern Han period, like the inscription Yezhe Jing jun mubiao 謁者景君墓表, but they flourished during the Tang and Song periods. Most famous are the inscriptions Shi Manqing mubiao 石曼卿墓表, Longgang qianbiao 瀧岡阡表 and Taichang boshi Zhou jun mubiao 太常博士周君墓表 written by Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072), Baowenge daizhi Chang gong mubiao 寶文閣待制常公墓表 by Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086), Wang you Fang Sizheng mubiao 亡友方思曾墓表 composed by Gui Youguang 歸有光 (1506-1571), Zeng Guofan's 曾國藩 (1811-1872) piece Wuchang Zhang fujun mubiao 武昌張府君墓表 or Huang Kan's 黃侃 (1886-1935) Tong xiansheng mubiao 童先生墓表.

Tomb inscriptions of the type mubiao are written in prose, and could be used for high-ranking officials as well as for commoners. This was the main difference to mubei 墓碑 and mujie 墓碣 the use of which was restricted to office holders.

Before the interment, laudatory tablets were placed in front of a coffin. They were known as lingbiao 靈表 "spirit tablets" or binbiao 殯表 "tablets commemorating persons laid out". The text might be identical to those incised into stone later on, but some commemorative texts are preserved with titles including the expressions lingbiao or binbiao. A special expression for texts presented during the wake is quancuo 權厝.

Figure 1. Mubiao 墓表 tomb inscriptions
Rubbing of two grave tablets from empire of Later Qin. From Lu 2001.
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