Fame as Durable as Stone: Yu Xin’s (513–581) Inscriptional Literature in the Chinese Cultural Memory

Fame as Durable as Stone: Yu Xin’s (513–581) Inscriptional Literature in the Chinese Cultural Memory
Chao Ling


This dissertation studies the inscriptions Yu Xin 庾信 (513–581), a native of southern Liang, wrote in the Northern Zhou court after he was detained there. Most famous for his rhapsody “Lament for the South,” in which he recounts his biography and the dynastic history of the Liang, Yu Xin has historically been perceived as a nostalgic poet longing for his return to the south. This dissertation challenges this incomplete and biased view. Through an extensive close reading of his inscriptions, which are usually overlooked by literary historians, I argue that Yu Xin actively contributed to the northern courtiers’ literary and political construction of their legitimacy. Yu Xin was, in fact, also a poet who wrote for the north.
This dissertation also explores the relationship between literary texts and their ritual context, the materiality and textuality of poetry, and inter-genre influence. Inscriptions were usually produced for specific events (i.e., court rituals, Buddhist projects, and funerary rituals). Through an interdisciplinary approach that combines the perspectives of literature and art history, I argue that his inscriptional writings used the northern topos of understanding landscape, Buddhism, and ritual, which are object and detail based. The northern topos was in sharp contrast to the southern Dark Learning (xuanxue玄學) and metaphysical approach. Yu Xin successfully combined the south’s ornate and allusive style of court poetry with the north’s politically oriented style.
The first chapter deals with landscape inscriptions composed by Yu Xin and explores the northern method of relating to landscapes in order to construct northern political legitimacy and manifest political power. The second chapter focuses on Yu Xin’s Buddhist inscriptions and how he used them as a means for political administration. In the third chapter, I trace the etymological and historical development of entombed epitaphs (muzhimng墓誌銘) to argue that their most important ritual function was to call back the souls. The fourth chapter argues that Yu Xin transformed tomb inscriptions—a genre that is ritualistic and whose content is for deceased individuals—to construct a collective identity and to reveal personal feelings. In Chapter 5, I challenge the traditional view about “The Lament for the South” as merely a personal and lyrical response to the lost Liang dynasty and argue that it was also written for the Northern Zhou community.
This dissertation is the first English project to extensively study Yu Xin’s literary career in the north and the first to study the literary quality of inscriptions. Scholars of Yu Xin are used to contextualizing him within the Liang court elites or within the category of detained southerners, and they fail to recognize his contributions as a northern poet-official. Such misunderstanding is partially caused by overlooking his inscriptions. Often treated as formulaic, the inscriptions actually foresee many of Yu Xin’s ingenious literary skills that are later used in his rhapsody, “Lament for the South.” Inscription became the medium for Yu Xin to adopt the northern poetic style. My research on entombed inscriptions also adds to our knowledge about their ritual function and origin.
My research enriches our understanding of Yu Xin, the court culture in the north in the sixth century, and the genre of inscriptions. It also attempts to show a new way of reading poetry—within its material context. This dissertation concludes that understanding the nature of the stone material used for inscriptions inspired Yu Xin’s originality in creating the rhapsody “Lament for the South,” which could and should be read as a self-epitaph written to fashion his image within Chinese cultural memory.


Chao Ling

Defended in


PhD defended at

Yale University