Writing Things as the History of Imperial China
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
Room 2

  • Organised by Fan Zhang
  • Yanlong Guo, Chair
  • Fan Zhang, “Transcultural Entanglement: Ceramic Pilgrim Flasks with Central Asian Musicians and Dancers in Early Medieval China”
  • Yongshan He, “What Can Miniature Artefacts Do? Granary Models in Han Tombs”
  • Fei Deng, “Constructing a Gendered Space: Scissors and Irons in Song Dynasty Burials”
  • Chen Shen, Discussant

Things entail complex relationships. In ancient China, the interplay between highly crafted objects and their beholders created entangled layers of meaning and forged social relations. Informed by this understanding, the papers in this panel evoke a historical web where different types of objects interacted with their artisans and elite owners in various periods of imperial China. Yongshan He, reflecting on the granary models in Han tombs, interrogates how miniatured architectural models empowered their living spectators by altering the beholders’ spatial perception of the world. Fan Zhang considers early-medieval ceramic pilgrim flasks decorated with Central Asian musicians and dancers in order to explore human-object relationships in a transcultural setting. Fei Deng’s paper interrogates the role two motifs, scissors and irons, play in defining gendered space in Song tombs. Ning Yao examines the incense burner in the Ming ritual context, particularly highlighting the significance of visualising smoke. Each of these papers contextualises objects in order to reconstruct their cultural biographies and make clear the interdependence of objects, their makers, and their users. We probe into questions of how small and portable things may shape individual behaviours and collective mindsets. As these studies elucidate the interactive nature of objects’ utilitarian functions and semantic meanings, they disclose the unique significance of seemingly trivial things as sites of historical and artistic knowledge of imperial China.

Fan Zhang, “Transcultural Entanglement: Ceramic Pilgrim Flasks with Central Asian Musicians and Dancers in Early Medieval China

Ceramic pilgrim flasks decorated with Central Asian musicians and dancers have fascinated scholars for decades. Objects of this type are excavated from tombs dated to the 6th century in northern China and are now collected in museums around the globe. Recent scholarship has centred on the iconographical study of the musical scene, using these artefacts to illustrate cultural interactions between China and Central Asia. This paper instead of revisits ceramic pilgrim flasks through the theoretical lens of entanglement between human and thing. It incorporates archaeological evidence of burial sites and pottery kilns, transmitted, and excavated texts, and related visual materials to shed new light on the multiplicity of human-object relationships among the ceramic vessels, their elite owners, depicted foreign performers, and local artisans working at production sites. A key aim is reconstructing the historical context to understand how the ceramic flasks were used to represent exotic performances from Central Asia and how they helped negotiate the relationship between the living and the dead. A further contribution of this paper is the identification of two groups of pilgrim flasks taken from dozens of museum collections. Comparison of the two groups reveals localised modifications of the music and dance images in different regions of China, thus illuminating processes of cross-cultural transmission.

Yongshan He, “What Can Miniature Artifacts Do? Granary Models in Han Tombs

One significant change in the mortuary practice of the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) was the increasing popularity of miniaturised architectural models in burials. Previous scholarship has generally ascribed this phenomenon to the Confucian belief of “serving the dead as if they still were alive,” thus treating these ceramic buildings as mere passive reflections of real architecture. Following this line of logic, some orthodox Marxist historians have interpreted the emergence of funerary granary models as an indicator of the transformation of the Han social structure from large clans to individual households with private properties. This paper challenges assumptions by situating the granary models in the long-standing tradition of mingqi pottery production and comparing these tectonic objects to the Han funerary vessels. I consider that the emergence of the miniature granaries in Han tombs hinged upon the existing matrix of the material, technology, and style that first developed through the production of the mingqi earthenware utensils. Through the theoretical lens of miniaturism, this paper further investigates the relationship between the granary models and their beholders. I argue that these models transformed the unmovable structures of storehouses aboveground into portable artefacts underground, whose diminished scale was able to empower their living spectators, altering the beholder’s spatial perceptions of the world. By handling and placing the miniature architectural models in tombs, the living was able to create an alternative universe for the deceased.

Fei Deng, “Constructing a Gendered Space: Scissors and Irons in Song Dynasty Burials”

Images of daily objects frequently adorned tomb murals in northern China during the tenth and eleventh centuries. In present-day Hebei and Henan provinces, a remarkable number of Northern Song (960–1127) tombs are embellished with motifs of scissors and irons. These motifs consistently appear in the same position within burial spaces, thus signalling that they play a coherent role in pictorial programs. Scholars have tended to treat these seemingly trivial motifs as stereotypical representations of family scenes and thus see no need to address their sociocultural meanings. From a sociocultural perspective incorporating gender, this paper reexamines the representations of scissors and irons in murals in conjunction with actual implements found in burials from the Song period. Situating these images and objects in their original mortuary contexts draws out the spatial and pictorial relations between the assemblage of scissors and irons and other types of everyday images and objects in tombs. This demonstrates that the objects in question were historically associated with feminine activities. As visual and material representations, scissors and irons served multiple purposes, the most significant of which was their interaction with the tomb occupants to create a symbolic gendered space in burials. Establishing this argument, the paper shows why scissors and irons were incorporated in funerary decoration, explores the ways in which they were visually composed, and reconstructs important aspects of social relations entangled with such objects in Song China.

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Room 2
Writing Things as the History of Imperial China