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Death in Dunhuang and Central Asia : Material Culture, Discourse and Ritual Practice (4th to 11th century)

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Directors : Pénélope Riboud (INALCO, ASIE)

Permanent Members : Jean-Pierre Drège (EPHE), Sylvie Hureau (EPHE), Christine Mollier (CNRS), Costantino Moretti (EPHE), Eric Trombert (CNRS), Françoise Wang-Toutain (CNRS)
Associate Members : Catherine Despeux (INALCO), Nathalie Monnet (BNF), Pénélope Riboud (INALCO), Kuo Li-ying (EFEO) 

Doctoral Students : Arnaud Bertrand, Henriette Deleuze, Diane Zhang-Goldberg.
External Partner : Dunhuang Academy

While funerary rites have been the subject of numerous studies and publications with regard to discourses on death and the organization of funerary sites, the late Chinese medieval period (220-589) and Sui and Tang periods remain so far largely unexplored. Yet the profound social, economic, political and religious changes that characterise these periods raise the issue of the transformation of individual or collective discourses and attitudes with regard to death. The polymorphous developments of Buddhism and Taoism resulted for instance in a redefinition of the eschatological landscape and ritual conduct. The political instability and the coexistence of peoples of different ethnic origin also led to a redefinition of the criteria determining social elite membership. Sinicized Central Asia, owing to its complex cultural stratification and the abundance of documentation discovered in the region, represents an ideal field for investigation. The aim of the project is to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the various discourses on death (written, oral or depicted) and funerary practices within multi-cultural and religious environments. The unique proximity of sepulchres, liturgical or canonical texts, ritual objects and images related to death found in Dunhuang and Turfan has led the various experts involved in this project to conduct a collective analysis of the different steps that define an individual’s or a social group’s relationship with his/her/its post-mortem fate. The research focuses on three main areas :

The symbolic and ritual dimension of texts in funerary space : Why are religious texts found in tombs ? What do these texts tell us about the world in which a person projects himself or herself after death ? What do they reveal about the ritual funerary programs characterizing each religion or their adaptations ? Research in this particular area will be based on written material (manuscripts, inscriptions and talismans) discovered in the tombs and will aim at highlighting their specific function within funerary space through a comparative study with other types of funerary objects and similar items found in Central China.

Death and its exemplary dimension : How are different representations of death and the deceased, written, oral or depicted used for pedagogical purposes or moral edification ? The researchers involved in this particular line of enquiry will focus on the didactic impact of divinatory recitation and representations of hell, as well as on the moral and edifying function of funeral orations and the biographical account of a monk’s death.

Economic and social importance of funerary rites : What was the economic importance of funerals ? Were there specific social categories associated with funerary rites in Sinicized Central Asia ? What type of social organization does a cemetery reveal ? In this study both the internal organization of individual tombs and the dynamics involved in the organization of the tombs in relation to one another will be examined in the light of economic and socio-cultural criteria. A study of the social categories involved in funerary rites will also be carried out to determine for instance whether contact with death stigmatised certain social classes, and also to identify the different artisans that manufactured the items discovered in the tombs. This study will rely on an analysis of the archaeological data yielded by the excavations of cemeteries in Central Asia as well as on written sources (economic and legal documents) discovered in Dunhuang and Turfan. Several activities leading to the publication of a collective work will be organized : seminars in which members of the project and specialists from outside will be invited to give talks, translation workshops and a conference.