The Problem of Commemorating: Epitaph Writing and Filial Expression in the Northern Song (960-1125)

The Problem of Commemorating: Epitaph Writing and Filial Expression in the Northern Song (960-1125)

Cong Ellen Zhang - Associate Professor & Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of History, University of Virginia

Friday, February 27, 2015 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Room 202, Henry R. Luce Hall See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511

The Northern Song saw major changes in the rhetoric and performance of filial piety. Compared to earlier times, a proper epitaph (muzhiming 墓誌銘) for one’s parents was increasingly seen as one of the most crucial filial obligations of the son. The son also occupied a more visible place in his parent’s muzhiming, routinely being portrayed as having braved extreme physical, emotional, and financial obstacles in order to secure a biographer for his father or mother. These developments did not necessarily mean that muzhiming writing was free of contention and negotiation between the filial son and the biographer. On the contrary, epitaph-writing could be a major source of anxiety for both parties. While the son’s ability to find a desirable and willing epitaph writer largely depended on his social connections, the epitaph writer constantly dealt with “unreasonable and excessive” demands from the mourning son. Unable to articulate the tension between immortalizing the words and deeds of the deceased and maintaining his authorial voice and credentials in the epitaphs they authored, Northern Song writers expressed their anxiety over the phenomenon of “flattering epitaphs” in voluminous private correspondence and formal writing. Based on hundreds of muzhiming, letters, and essays, this study will illustrate the growing complexities in filial expectations and performance as well as the intricate realities of elite social networking.

Cong Ellen Zhang is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the political and social elites, travel culture, miscellaneous writing (biji) and funerary biographies (muzhiming), and women and the family in the Song Dynasty. She is the author of Transformative Journeys: Travel and Culture in Song China (University of Hawaii Press, 2011). Her current research examines changes in the discourses on and practices of filial piety (xiao) in the Northern Song.