井底之蛙

1/9/2007

The uses of the past

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:36 am

I have been thinking about public history and the uses of the past a bit lately, and reading Craig Clunas’ Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. Like all of his work it is very good, but I was interested in his discussion of the uses of the antique in Ming culture. He quotes Matteo Ricci, who was impressed with the level of interest in the antique, but pointed out that the Chinese were not interested in “statues nor medals” but rather in bronzes, jades, and paintings. Ricci was of course an Italian, and was aware of the role of antiquities in the Renaissance relationship with the past, but that relationship was centered on marble statues and coins (nuministics was an important field of study in a way it never was in China.) The difference is in part because the past society produced different things, but more importantly because the uses of past things have as much more to do with the present society than with the past. The Ming connoisseurs were pretty knowledgeable, and had been generating knowledge about old items for a long time at this point. They had managed to connect existing bronzes to the bronze types mentioned in the (unillustrated) classics, and they were aware that these vessels were windows to the past. Many of them were inscribed, and some scholars, like Zhao Mingcheng understood their value

When archeological materials are used to examine these things, thirty to fourty per cent of the data is in conflict. That is because historical writings are produced by latter-day writers and cannot fail to contain errors. But the inscriptions on stone and bronze are made at the time the events take place and can be trusted without reservation Clunas p.95-6

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