Woman opening a phoenix-painted door, tomb of Zhang Shiqing by Unknown Chinese artist

Unknown Chinese artist

Woman opening a phoenix-painted door, tomb of Zhang Shiqing, c.1093–1117, Painted wood, Xuanhua, Hebei, Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images

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Standing at the Threshold

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Zhang Shiqing was a devout Buddhist and senior official who lived in north-western China during the later years of the Liao Dynasty (c.907–1125). His tomb consists of a square antechamber connected via a short-arched hallway to the main (rear) chamber, where his remains were housed. It is part of a family cemetery in the village of Xiabali, and it is decorated with lime plaster and mineral pigment murals, inscriptions, and celestial maps.

As is common within the tombs of this period and place, the interior is a microcosm of the universe, with signs of the zodiac painted on the ceiling, and scenes from everyday life adorning the walls. Activities associated with the rising sun are depicted on the eastern walls, while those that take place in the evening can be found on the western walls. Women are commonly included within the images in the rear chamber, and they may have represented the domestic servants who were to take care of the deceased. When these women are portrayed opening or closing a door, they are always painted with their back to the viewer, looking out rather than in.

While the story emerges from a very different time and place, the events of Acts 12 are also structured around boundaries and thresholds. Peter is angelically ushered out of his prison and through ‘the iron gate leading into the city’ (v.10), which opens miraculously before him. The maid Rhoda—a servant in the house to which Peter hastens—joyfully identifies him on his arrival at their threshold and proclaims his escape to the whole household.

The Buddhist tombs of north-western China encapsulate the borderland between living and dead, and between life and afterlife. In performing their imagined domestic duties, the women painted within these murals stand at the boundary between inside and outside space, and perhaps also between one world and another. They are the ones who are able to glimpse what is beyond the threshold.

Rhoda too has a privileged insight into what is on the other side of the door: Peter, who has himself moved from one condition to another; from the confines of his prison to a new liberty. She is the one who opens the gate for Peter, and she is the one who joyfully identifies him.



Qingquan, Li, and Fei Deng (Trans.). 2010. ‘Some Aspects of Time and Space as Seen in Liao-dynasty Tombs in Xuanhua’, Art in Translation 2.1: 29–54

Shen, Hsueh-Man. 2005. ‘Body Matters: Manikin Burials in the Liao Tombs of Xuanhua, Hebei Province’, Artibus Asiae 65.1: 99–141

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