Happy birthday Dunhuang Project

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:32 pm

Did you know that this is the 20th anniversary of the International Dunhuang Project? Neither did I. They grow up so quick these international scholarly projects. In honor of the occasion they are posting a lot of things from their collection

They will also let you Sponsor A Sutra. Just as patrons used to get their name attached to a sutra they had copied, you can have your name (or your organization’s name) attached to the digitization of a sutra. They don’t seem to have anything available in my price range right now, but I am definitely going to get some. I think it would make a great Chanukah gift as well.

What interested me most was that they have beefed up their educational section since last time I was there and there is some great stuff. Two that I noted from the Cultural Dialogue on the Silk Road page were

a collection of mudras


Which is neat if you want to talk about the mass production of Buddhist art and the physical dissemination of religion. These look to me a lot like models for someone doing Buddhist paintings or sculptures.


Along the same lines we have a model letter to apologize for getting drunk. As the site points out things like books of model letters or etiquette books really only make sense in a time or place of rapid social change or intercultural contact. Otherwise why bother to write down how to behave in a book? For more advanced students this will also help to show how weird Dunhuang Chinese was. Here is the text, for any of our readers who may need it.

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was so intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and course language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject, I realized what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame. It was due to a vessel of small capacity being filled for the nonce too full. I humbly trust that you in your wise benevolence will not condemn me for my transgression. Soon I will come to apologize in person, but meanwhile I beg to send this written communication for your kind inspection. Leaving much unsaid, I am yours respectfully.


What if it’s a fake? What if it isn’t?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:56 am

Jeremiah Jenne pointed me to this most wonderful bit of French nonsense: Jean Levi’s claim that the terracotta army is a modern forgery.

These famous clay sentinels, which protect the sleep of the despot eternally as is insistently and pompously proclaimed by journalists, do not date back from the 3rd century B.C., the time when the Great Emperor was buried, but from the 20th century, at the end of the Cultural Revolution when the struggle between factions was raging with the “Gang of Four”. As you’ve pointed out, it is nonetheless surprising that this “new wonder of the world”, which has crowds from the four corners of the planet gape with admiration, was inscribed on the World Heritage List without being assessed by international experts as is usually the case when a country officially asks for an artistic or architectural place or property to be listed. The Chinese authorities purely and simply refused the UNESCO experts access to the archeological site, although those same experts apparently did not take much offence as Lingtong’s buried army was added to the list anyway.



Managing History in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:10 am

Historic Preservation is the process of  preserving historic stuff, mostly building and sites. China has lots of history. 5,000 years of it, in fact. Historical Preservation, or Cultural Resources Management, or whatever you want to call it is something they have less of as shown by recent events in the Great Within. Basically, the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company has been accused of setting up a special club for rich people inside the Forbidden City.

Preserving the past is tricky, since it is sometimes hard to figure out what needs to be preserved. It is also sometimes hard to figure out what ‘preserving’ might mean. It could mean ‘don’t touch anything’ but in practice somebody has to touch things in order to maintain them, and people do have to get in to look at things, or else what’s the point?

Even at this level things are more complected that you might think. What exactly -is- this site?  Versailles would not be itself without the gardens, but the park just to the west of the Forbidden City, once considered part of the grounds, was taken over by squatters in 1949. Do they have to be driven out and the pristine park of the past re-created? 1

The big problem though is money. History and the National Essence are priceless, and thus can’t be connected to money, which is dirty. No gift shops. No tacky tourist stuff. No guards in fake old uniforms. Pure, un-commercialized history. That of course is bunk. Every historical site sells stuff, in part because they need the cash and in part because the broad masses want it and helping people connect with the past is what these places do, and buying stuff is part of that. Also, your guests are humans. They need to eat and drink, and they enjoy both of these things a lot. The more of that you let them do it while looking at the history the better they will like it. So maybe some selling things is o.k., but you need to keep it tasteful.  So part of running a historical site is making money, but making it look like you are above money.2

This is particularly important when you are running something like the Forbidden City, a Top Class #1 tourist draw and source of national pride. Some time ago they drove Starbucks out of the palace. This struck most of my students as a good thing. We would not let commerce sully the Lincoln Memorial, why should the Chinese let money into the Forbidden City? Having been there I point out that the palace is enormous, and that having a few places to get a drink or buy some postcards or get a popsicle makes it a lot better. Hiring it out to a foreign company defiles the purity of the Chinese nation, however,  so it had to go.

The current brouhaha has something to do with lack of professionalism on the part of China’s Historical Preservation Financial Asset Management Teams.  Lots of foreign museums rent out space for parties or whatever. You just need to do it with a bit of class. China has a distinct lack of old money, so this is a problem. Good Cultural Managers can help with this by providing a touch of distinction to a commercial transaction, but unfortunately the ones at the Forbidden City can’t even manage a grammatically correct press statement. Of course it also has something to do with class resentments in contemporary China. If the Forbidden City belongs to the Chinese people why are some Chinese people getting to party there and the rest being stuck making electronics in Shenzhen? Plus given what I can find out online  about the entertainment habits of Chinese rich people I’m guessing that the club does not run to dry white wine and chamber music. Massive amounts of vile booze and lots of ladies of negotiable virtue sounds more likely.

Finally, I must add that I am a little disappointed with the Beijing Forbidden City Cultural Development Company. I could forgive the   for prostituting China’s cultural heritage or being sub-literates, but their ‘vengeance’ against the whistleblowers is pathetic. Firing people and confiscating a few cellphones?  This is the Forbidden City!  Cixi plotted here, as did Wei Zhongxian, and there are such things as standards. Couldn’t they boil someone alive and serve the broth in the restaurant, or exile someone to Xinjiang, or something?

I got this from Jeremiah Jenne, who I note left Beijing just before this whole thing blew up.

  1. There are also lots of pasts in various places. Which aspect of the palace are you trying to preserve? As I recall the Forbidden City (and it’s been a few years) they seem to push a pretty a-historical view of a timeless palace, saying nothing about the Republic and running the Ming and Qing together. []
  2. Even if you could get the money out of the site that would just mean asking for more from the state or some sort of foundation. []


Monumental Histories

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:46 pm

Quite by coincidence, I ended up reading three books on Chinese monuments, but not until the third did I realize that what I was reading was a history of modern monuments. The first two books I picked up relatively recently – as my “to read” stack goes – but since they were related to my Early China course this last semester they moved to the front of the line.1 The third was a review copy sent by Cornell UP to “Jonathan Dresner, Frog In A Well Blog.”2 The books are

  • John Man, The Terracotta Army: China’s First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation, Bantam Press, 2007
  • Julia Lovell, The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC – AD 2000, Grove Press, 2006.
  • Chang-Tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic

Why do I say these are modern monuments? The terracotta warriors, while a monumental work, were unknown until 1974, and did not become “monuments of China” for several years after. The Great Wall was a fairly obscure remnant until foreign visitors, mistranslations and reporters (including Ripley himself) raised so much interest that the Chinese government refurbished and made it accessible primarily as a nationalist beacon and tourist attraction. Though they have older stories to tell as well, they actually fit quite well into the discussion Chang-tai Hung presents of the artistic and aesthetic politics in the first decade of the PRC.

  1. If memory serves, they were both bought at Daedalus Books in Maryland. Great prices, if they’ve got what you’re looking for; dangerous place for book-hounds. []
  2. Yes, the rest of the address was there, too, but that’s boring. []


Indiana Jones -Busted

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:44 am

The people in the reading room at Shaanxi Provincial Archives are really nice and helpful and professional. Unlike some archives they will let you look at things that are not directly connected to your approved research topic. They will also let you drink tea right there in the reading room while reading documents. On the downside they have taken over half of the reading room to practice their song and dance routine for China’s upcoming 60th national day. Fortunately I, like everyone else, am so excited about the celebration that it does not bother me.  I found a few documents on an American soldier who was busted for stealing cultural relics in 1945. Violation of cultural relics laws was a big problem in Shaanxi, and they have a fair number of documents on it going back to the 1930s. They don’t give his name, but apparently he was caught with an entire truckload of stuff, including 9 “Xia dynasty” bronze ding and 3 Six Dynasties Buddha images. Total value over 5 million yuan. By 1945 Americans no longer enjoyed extraterritoriality, so he was subject to Chinese law. On the other hand, members of the American military were governed by a status of forces agreement that gave them many of the same privileges. He did not cooperate or say much to his captors. I suspect if he had been caught with couple TLV mirrors in his backpack they would have just ignored it or maybe confiscated them. A truck puts him in Kelly’s Heroes territory, however, and they had to do something. Of course this guy could have regularized his actions without too much trouble. Lots of American China collections, most notably the Harvard library were built up during or right after the war by having Americans with money and official connections go around buying up everything they could get their hands on. One assumes this soldier was not digging this stuff up himself, he had Chinese accomplices (not mentioned here) who were helping him because he had lots of greenbacks. Of course that is totally different than say, Fairbank, tossing around Harvard money, since he was buying up Chinese culture in a poor and disordered country -with- official permission, and with a scholarly purpose, rather than for personal aggrandizement, and this guy was doing the opposite. Plus the soldier did not have a Ph.D. As so often happens in archives the documents end before the case is resolved. The last document is from the provincial government, asking if maybe the artifacts are fakes, perhaps as a way to sweep the incident under the rug. Too bad, since a trial might have generated more statements about what actually went down.


Modern Archaeology

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:53 pm

Gansu backyard furnacesGreat Leap Forward era backyard iron furnaces have been unearthed [via] and there is discussion about whether to preserve them as historical evidence, even a cultural heritage. The site is described thus

The backyard furnaces are located on the south slope of a hillside within the borders of Heiyaodong Village in Baiyin Mongolian Township, Sunan Yugur Autonomous County. They are situated in an east-west line and number 159 furnaces in total, most of which have crumbled. About fifty are still largely intact. The largest is 8 meters high and 14 meters in circumference; the smallest is 2.5 meters high and 2.7 meters around. Most are pagoda-shaped, with one or more chimneys. Their insides are lined with clay bricks. Some of the larger furnaces are dug into the hillside and have one or more arched entrances for feeding raw material, lighting the fire, or cleaning out slag, and multiple air vents are set into the floor. Some are made up of ten individual furnaces joined together. The whole group extends for a more than two kilometers, making for an impressive sight. The furnaces were built in 1958 during the Great Leap Forward and ceased operating in 1960. Some of them were never put to use.

That last line captures what is, for me anyway, the essence of the GLF: an immense waste of effort, resources, lives. Wu Zuolai of the journal Theory and Criticism of Art and Literature writes:

People who experienced that time recall that whole forests were cut down to make charcoal to burn, bringing immense disaster to the environment. And because some areas were unable to produce acceptable steel, the people had to break apart their cooking pots and melt them down in the furnaces, and as a result, unusable lumps of iron were all that was produced. One unforeseen consequence was that real cultural heritage was plundered during the steel production campaign. The two-storey tower at the famous Hangu Pass* was torn down, and inscriptions accumulated over the course of two thousand years were destroyed. Wuwei County,* Gansu, was an important northwestern garrison in the Tang Dynasty, and its city wall, built of large bricks, towered for a thousand years. But those thousand-year-old bricks became part of the furnaces.

The past has become a memory and a historical lesson. But has the mentality of the Great Leap Forward been entirely eradicated? Faced with this massive cluster of iron smelters, we have much to reflect upon. Public, scientific, and democratic decision making must not be merely empty words but must be put into practice in every project.

Wu goes on to suggest a “small museum” on the site, and an oral history and records collecting project. Given that this is one of the landmark events of modern Chinese history, I would hope for that much, or more. But given that this is one of the landmark events in the failure of Maoist policy and rapid modernization, I have my doubts.


Old pots

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:44 am

Rachel at AHC has a nice post up on her visit to the Hua Song Museum in Singapore, and what they are doing with one of the largerst marine archeology finds ever, a Tang period cargo of porcelin that was carried in an Arab ship that sank in what is now Indonesia in the 9th Century. If you enjoy picutres of Tang dynasty Fiestaware, accounts of shady types bickering over sunken treasure (no mention of rum is included) or discussions of how we make history out of things it is worth reading.


You are nimble in warfare!

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:16 pm

Two Western Zhou bronze inscriptions, both dating from around 850 B.C. and describing the war against the Xianyun1

It was the ninth month, first auspiciousness, wushen-day (no. 45), Boshi said:

“Buqi, the Border Protector! The Xianyun broadly attacked Xiyu, and the king commanded us to pursue to the west. I came back to send in the captives. I commanded you to defend and to pursue at Luo, and you used our chariots sweepingly attacking the Xianyun at Gaoyin; you cut off many heads and took
many prisoners. The Rong greatly gathered and followed chasing you, and you and the Rong greatly slaughtered and fought. You have done well, and have not let our chariots get trapped in difficulty. You captured many, cutting off heads and taking prisoners.”

Boshi said: “Buqi, you young man! You are nimble in warfare; [I] award you one bow, a bunch of arrows, five households of servants, ten fields of land, with which [you are] to take up your affairs.” Buqi bowed with [his] head touching the ground, [and extols the] the beneficence. [Buqi] herewith makes for my august grandfather Gongbo and Mengji [this] sacrificial gui-vessel, with which to entreat much good fortune, longevity without limits, and eternal pureness without end. May [my] sons’ sons and grandsons’ grandsons eternally treasure and use [it] in offerings.


It was in the tenth month, because the Xianyun greatly arose and broadly attacked Jingshi, [it] was reported to the king. The king commanded Duke Wu: “Dispatch your most capable men and pursue at Jingshi!” Duke Wu commanded Duoyou: “Lead the ducal chariots and pursue at Jingshi!”

On the guiwei (no. 20) day, the Rong attacked Xun and took captives. Duoyou pursued to the west. In the morning of the jiashen (no. 21) day, [he] struck [them] at Qi. Duoyou had cut off heads and captured prisoners to be interrogated: in all, using the ducal chariots to cut off 2 [X] 5 heads, to capture 23 prisoners, and to take 117 Rong chariots; [Duoyou] liberated the Xun people captured [by the Xianyun].
Furthermore, [Duoyou] struck at Gong; [he] cut off 36 heads and captured 2 prisoners and took 10 chariots. Following [the Xianyun], [Duoyou] pursued and struck at Shi; Duoyou again had cut off heads and taken prisoners. Thereafter, [Duoyou] rapidly pursued [them] and arrived at Yangzhong; the ducal chariotry cut off 115 heads and captured 3 prisoners. It was that [they] could not capture the [Rong] chariots; they burnt [them]. And it was their (the Xianyun’s) horses that they wounded gravely. [Duoyou] recaptured the Jingshi captives.

Duoyou contributed the captured, the heads, and the prisoners to the duke, and Duke Wu then contributed [them] to the king. [The king] therefore addressed Duke Wu and said: “You have pacified Jingshi; [I] enrich you and award you lands.” On the dingyou (no. 34) day. Duke Wu was in the Xian-hall [He] commanded Xiangfu to summon Duoyou, and [Duoyou] entered the Xian-hall. The duke personally addressed Duoyou and said: “I initially assigned [you the task], and you have done well! [you] did not disobey, but have accomplished [the deed and] taken many captives. You have pacified Jingshi. [I] award you one jade tablet, one set of bells made in finest bronzes and one hundred  jun of the jiaoyou copper.” Duoyou dares to respond to the duke’s beneficence, and herewith makes [this] sacrificial ding-vessel, with which to entertain friends; may my sons’ sons and grandsons’ grandsons eternally treasure and use it!2

This semester I am only teaching three classes, one section of East Asia History, one of Early China, and an Honors College class the first part of which is about ancient Chinese bronzes. So I have been going over some of the same things at three different speeds with three (mostly) different groups of students. This would seem to be a situation that is ripe for all sorts of profound insights. Sadly, I do not have too many.3 Teaching Early China has changed a lot since I was a kid, in part because of all the archeological work that has been done since 1976. Pre-Han stuff used to centered on the philosophers and their (fairly disembodied) debates, in large part because philosophical texts were about all we had. When Fairbank and Twitchett first started the Cambridge History of China project (back in the 1960’s) they deliberately left out the Pre-Qin period on the grounds that “It may well be another decade before it will prove practical to undertake a synthesis of all these new discoveries that will have lasting value. ”4 The Cambridge History of Ancient China, which came out in 1999 was intended to remedy this problem. In the last 30-odd years not only have we made a lot of progress in understanding classical texts but there has been a huge amount of progress in understanding the social and political systems of the Shang and Zhou in large part becuse of archeological evidence like the above. It used to be pretty much impossible to discuss the actual workings of Zhou feudalism with students, or to have a meaningful debate on the validity of  “feudalism” as a concept in China, or to do lots of other stuff. Textbooks have not really caught up with this, but it is getting easier and easier for even non-specialists to teach Early China.

  1. from Li Feng Landscape and Power in Early China []
  2. Zhou bronze inscriptions sound a lot like blog posts []
  3. One is that if you are teaching similar courses in the same semester you should try to at least get them scheduled for different rooms, which might reduce the number of times you end up asking the students if you have gone over this point with them before. []
  4. General Editor’s Preface []


Liveblogging, slowblogging, Mammoth Blogging?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:36 pm

John McKay, at Archy, is publishing excerpts from his work on the natural history and historiography of wooly mammoths. The latest installment is about China, particularly the Kangxi Emperor’s (r. 1661-1722) collection of mammoth-related materials and, surprisingly, personal contributions to the field. It seems that under Kangxi’s tutelage, the Chinese realized that the mammoth was most likely related to the elephant, after centuries of referring to it as a giant but uncategorized rodent. (Also, he’s looking for some help with consistent Romanizations.)

Just for fun, it inspired me to pull my copy of Elvin’s Retreat of the Elephants off my “wanna read” shelf and go through the introduction and first few chapters, including “Humans v. Elephants: The Three Thousand Years War.” The charts and diagrams in the introduction are nearly worth the price of admission. I’m not sure if I’m going to have time to get through much more of it this semester, but the overlap with my Early China class (especially using Hansen as the text, who does take environmental issues seriously) is significant, and I’m going to try to make the time.

I’ve been known to assign absurdly long books before; has anyone used Elvin in class?


Teaching about Chinese Bronzes

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:37 am

As the semester is winding down, our academic readers are no doubt very busy doing their work. If you would like to do my work, however, we have something of a tradition here of posting our syllabi and asking for advice from older and wiser heads.

This is a rough syllabus for a class segment to be called “A Gu indeed” which I will be teaching in the Spring. This is ½ of an Honors college thing for freshmen and this is for the segment on Art. I am supposed to be looking at art like a historian would. I chose to do bronzes and this is the reading list. I tried to cover all of the major ways you can get meaning out of old bronzes. Any tips on what to add, subtract, or substitute are very welcome. These are supposed to be smart kids, but not history majors, so I am using some fairly high-level stuff and counting on them to be able to deal with chapters pulled out of books.

1 Introduction

Background Just enough Chinese history to be dangerous.

-Lu Liancheng and Yan Wenming “Society during the Three Dynasties” from Kwang-chih Chang et. al. The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archeological Perspective Yale, 2005
-Wyatt, James “The Bronze Age and the First Empires” From Wen Fong, et. al. Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum. Taipei 1996

Art and Authority
4,5 Chang, K. C. Art, Myth and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China. Harvard University Press, 1988. (A bit of a golden oldie, but I want them to read a book and this one brings in a lot of different themes. Plus it is more or less before all the recent changes, so if we want to look at the development of the historiography this is good.)

6 ”The Shang Kings at Anyang” from Thorp, Robert L. China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. (More recent than Chang, and has more history of archeology)

How they (Ancient Chinese) understood Bronzes

7-Keightley, David “The Science of the Ancestors: Divination, Curing and Bronze-Casting in Late Shang China”
-Selections from the Book of Songs. Maybe something from Lewis’s Sanctioned Violence

8-Rites and music
-Xunzi 19 & 10 and Lu Buwei (transitioning into the end of the bronze age and other ways to interact with heaven)

9 -Puett, Michael “Humans and Gods: The Theme of Self-Divination in Early China and Early Greece” From Ancient China Early Greece
-“The Natural Philosophy of Writing” from Lewis, Mark Edward. Writing and Authority in Early China. SUNY Press, 2007.

Bronzes as art
10 Allen vs. Bagley (Sets up the major debates on how to look at these things)
-Sarah Allan “Art and Meaning” and Robert Bagley “Meaning and Explanation” both from Whitfield, Roderick. The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes. Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1993.

11 Taotie .(a specific question on getting meaning out of bronzes )
-Li, Rawson, Xiong and Wang, all from Whitfield, Roderick. The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes. Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1993
– Kesner, Ladislav. “The Taotie Reconsidered: Meanings and Functions of the Shang Theriomorphic Imagery.” Artibus Asiae 51, no. 1/2 (1991): 29-53.

12 Wu Hung “The Nine Tripods and Traditional Chinese Concepts of Monumentality” from Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture. Stanford University Press, 1997. (Cause you can’t do a class like this without some Chicago stuff)

13 Picture day. Slide lecture on bronzes and how to classify them (Not sure if this should be moved up, but I like the idea of doing it now when they will have some clue what is going on. I may just split them into groups and have them come up with presentations.)

Bronzes as technology
14-Li Liu “The Products of Minds as Well as of Hands”: Production of Prestige Goods in the Neolithic and Early State Periods of China
-“Casting Bronze the Complicated Way” Ledderose, Lothar. Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. Princeton University Press, 2001.

How bronzes show social change

15,16 Stuff from -Falkenhausen, Lothar Von. Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (Monumenta Archaeologica). Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, 2006.
-Rawson from CHAC (Ritual Revolution and the debates about it)

17 “The Household” from Lewis, Mark Edward. The Construction of Space in Early China. State University of New York Press, 2006.

18 “Things of the past” from Clunas, Craig. Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. University of Hawaii Press, 2004. (A ncie bit on how Chinese collectors understood these things. Could use something on modern collectors)

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