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The Epitaph of Xu Yi
The Epitaph of Xu Yi (inscription on the tombstone of Meiren Xu), stone carving of the ninth year of Yuankang period of the Western Jin Dynasty (299 A.D.) that measures 90 cm in height and 51 cm in width was unearthed from the tomb of Xu Yi [1] at Wugulu Primary School to the north of the old city of Luoyang in Henan Province in 1953 and is now in the collection of Henan Museum.
In the history of mankind, Chinese civilization has been shining for its uniqueness, and continuing to this very day with vigor and vitality. Being a prominent birthplace of Chinese civilization ....>>Details
Name:Tan Shuqin
About the Writer: 

Tan Shuqin,works at museology and archaeology for twenty-five years, devoted herslf to the study of ancient stone carvings, stone reliefs, steles and epitaphs, and ancient Buddhist sculptures.

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The tombstone was carved out of a piece of caesious limestone with a Gui-shaped head and a square body. Characters of official script are inscribed on both sides of the tombstone (Fig.1). There are 23 lines, each having 33 characters, on the front, and 16 lines, each having 23 characters, on the back. The first line reads “the inscription of Meiren Xu who was the nursing mother of Empress Jia of the Jin Dynasty” and the inscription records in detail the life of the tomb owner Xu Yi, including her name, birthplace, family background, marriage, admission to the imperial palace and conferment of ladyship, and matters concerning her sickness, death and burial, relating to the fight in the court, and the private life of the nobles and imperial family of the Western Jin Dynasty.

Fig.1 The inscription on the tombstone of Xu Yi (back)

According to the inscription, Xu Yi was born to a poor family with no kin. There has been no record of his family name and she adopted the surname of her husband. “Meiren” was the imperial title granted by the emperor and was also a respectful address by the writer of the inscription. “Due to the famine and chaos, her parents and brothers died, and she fled her hometown and came to the territory of Sichuan and Henei and married to a scholar from Taiyuan by the family name of Xu.” She gave birth to and raised many children and managed her home well. She became famous in her neighborhood for her benevolence toward and favor to her fellow townsmen. As Guo Huai who was the wife of Jia Chong, the strongman of the Western Jin Dynasty at the moment, could not raise her children each time after giving birth, Xu Yi was then called to enter the palace in the third year of Ganlu period to nurse the two daughters of Jia and “built the mother-daughter relationship with them.” Later Xu Yi accompanied Jia Nanfeng, the first daughter of Jia Chong, to enter the palace when the latter was selected wife of the crown prince and had since received the treatment of the imperial family. After the death of Emperor Wu on the 22nd of the 4th lunar month in the first year of Daxi period, the crown prince Sima Zhong ascended the throne and Jia Nanfeng became empress. As a result, Xu Yi’s status was elevated gradually from the initial “Zhongcairen” to “Liangren”. In the first year of Yuankang period, Xu Yi received the imperial title of “Meiren” for her protection of Empress Jia in the palace coup. In her late years, Xu Yi returned home as her sickness prevented her from continuing serving the empress. The emperor and the empress designated people to check her physical condition every day, and sent imperial physicians to treat her disease and gave her imperial medicines. Whenever the empress had rare and precious food, she always gave some to Xu. In the eighth year of Yuankang period, Xu died at the age of 78 and was buried in the following year.

The entire article was written in a succinct but beautiful language, vividly presenting the story of a nursing mother who came from an impoverished family in the countryside, was extremely hardworking and was forced to become a servant in the imperial palace but later, with her wisdom, promoted to be a female court official and received the treatment of imperial concubines. The fact that Xu Yi was forced to leave her home and become the nursing mother of the two daughters of Jia Chong reflected the corrupt and extremely extravagant life of the noble families at the time. The special status and living environment not only built up her observant, smart and quick-witted characteristics but also involved her against her wish in the court fight and hence impacted the history. The inscription mentioned historical figures and events involved in the “Upheaval of the Eight Princes” during the Western Jin Dynasty that can be used to cross-check the content in the Book of Jin.

The inscription was written in the rigorous, stately and graceful official script and specifically enhanced the brush strokes in the curves following a horizontal line, stops and changes. (Fig.2) The tombstone inscriptions of the Han and Wei Dynasties unearthed from Luoyang and Yanshi in its east demonstrate similar styles in structure and brush strokes, creating a strong decorative effect. These works lasted for about forty years, reflecting the local calligraphic style that was then popular in Luoyang and Yanshi and was later referred to by experts as “Luoyang Style of the Western Jin Dynasty”. [2]

The fine craftsmanship of the tombstone is reflected in the fact that the calligraphy, Shudan (written in red ink) and carving technique were all completed under the supervision of the government. It was very rare in the feudal Chinese society where female status was normally inferior to that of men to build a stele to praise a nursing mother. It is a real proof of the role and status of the female in the feudal society.

Fig. 2 Detail of the inscription on the tombstone of Xu Yi in the Jin Dynasty