Abstract

Funerary jars called hunping were only produced within a short time frame (250s–320s ce) and in one specific region (southeastern China). Their function, the reason for their emergence, and the nature of their Buddha-like images have been controversial. By analyzing the basic structure and pictorial programs on hunping, this essay argues that they embody a binary structure comprising “heaven atop the axis mundi of Mount Kunlun” and the “underworld at the Yellow Springs.” In the third century, beliefs about “binary souls” changed. People in the south started to believe that the spiritual soul of the deceased (hun), traditionally worshipped at a family shrine, could instead be buried in a tomb. Moreover, they also worried about the haunting by the ghosts turned from the bodily souls whose corpuses decomposed too fast. This essay considers hunping as vessels to send binary souls each to their own place, heaven or the underworld. To better preach Buddhism with the approach of “match meaning” (geyi), early clerics adapted the cosmological theme of heaven and axis mundi by associating Mount Kunlun with Mount Sumeru and the Chinese heaven with Trāyastrimsa. They peopled Mount Sumeru with Buddhist arhats to replace the immortals on Mount Kunlun. Most of the Buddha-like images that appear on hunping depict those arhats.

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