Over the Spring and Fall semesters of 2021, the On Altars of Soil initiative is presenting ten virtual lectures by scholars of early Chinese archaeology, history, and literature. All lectures take place at 12 noon EST via Zoom. For registration information, please contact onaltarsofsoil(at)gmail.com.
Our Fall schedule has now been finalized as follows:
September 17: Sarah Allan, Dartmouth College (emerita): "On the Origin, Development, and Significance of Square ding (fang ding 方鼎)"
This talk will discuss the origin, development, and significance of monumental and smaller fang ding 方鼎 (square or rectangular ding vessels). It will propose that the earliest bronze fang ding were modelled on wood vessels that were decorated or reinforced with strips of metal. It will also argue that although the ritual role of fang ding changed from the Erligang to the Yinxu periods of the Shang dynasty, the archeological evidence does not support the commonly accepted theory that monumental fangding signified kingship or royal power per se in either the early or late Shang periods. The primary significance of the square shape was most likely cosmological. Moreover, as the earliest square bronze vessels, they introduced a cosmological dualism into the forms of ritual bronzes, which then spread to other vessel types.
SarahAllan is Burlington Northern Foundation Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Dartmouth College. She is also the Chair of the Society for the Study or Early China and the editor of its journal, Early China. Among other books, she is the author of The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China (1991) and co-author, with Li Xueqin and Qi Wenxin, of Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (1991). She iscurrently working on a book on "Art and Religion in China's Early Bronze Age," in collaboration with Han Ding 韓鼎 (Henan University).
October 1: Nick Vogt, Indiana University: "Narrating Self and Lineage through Western Zhou Bronze Vessel Sets"
The bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou periods of Chinese history seem always to have been used together in groups, as befits the various needs of a (more or less) ritual feasting event. Partway through the Western Zhou period, however, sets of near-identical bronze vessels became, if not commonplace, at least a recognized part of the archaeological record. Models of the history of Western Zhou ritual, including the “ritual revolution”/”ritual reform” argument, have sought reasons for this innovation in the changing demographics of elite lineages and the demarcation of relative status in ritual contexts. Though the logic of these suggestions is sound, they do not exhaust the possible explanations for the interest of individual users in bronze vessel sets. This presentation will look at groups of bronze vessels, including these graduated sets, through the narrative theory of collecting. Considering the visual and psychological effects of grouped objects, it will outline how bronze vessels could serve an editorial function in the depiction of lineage histories, bringing the distribution of tangible and intangible resources within lineages in line with each other in the process. On this basis, it will argue for the efficacy of bronze vessels in constructing and mediating between corporate and individual identities among Western Zhou elites.
Nick Vogt is Assistant Professor of Early Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington. His work explores the Western Zhou era (ca. 11th-8th c. BCE) as both historical milieu and cultural construct. Nick’s book Kingship, Ritual, and Royal Ideology in Western Zhou China, which explores the royal ritual of that period based on contemporary bronze inscriptions, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. He is currently working on a second monograph treating with the ideological, literary, and aesthetic concerns behind tales of Western Zhou history in both transmitted texts and ancient manuscripts.
October 22: Elizabeth Berger, University of California, Riverside: "Porous Boundaries: Embodied and Material Identities in Warring States Period Shaanxi"
This talk discusses the contributions of bioarchaeology to an understanding of ancient Chinese identity and group affiliation. Textual records and material culture remains recovered in archaeological investigations provide ample but complex evidence for both the perception and enforcement of ethnic group boundaries in ancient China. The evidence embodied in human skeletal remains—of diet, daily activities, and genetic relatedness—adds another layer of information on how these boundaries were enacted in individuals’ lives. This talk presents an analysis of over 100 skeletons from two Warring States period (771-476 BC) cemeteries in Shaanxi, China. Some of the skeletons and their associated remains show a close cultural and biological affiliation with archaeological groups to the northwest, suggesting they were some of the historically attested migrants to the region, while others appear to be local Huaxia people. However, differences in their diet and daily activity do not correspond to these archaeological groups. By examining biological and cultural evidence together, I demonstrate that while subsistence practices spread through the porous boundary between groups, Warring States inhabitants of Shaanxi still maintained that boundary through their material culture and mortuary practices.
Elizabeth Berger is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside. She received her BA in Archaeology from Columbia University, and her PhD in Anthropology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a bioarchaeologist whose research focuses on prehistoric human-environment interaction and adaptation, especially the transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age subsistence and settlement patterns in Northwest China and its impact on human demography and epidemiology. She also examines historic period gender and identity through her work on foot binding and individual osteobiographies. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and edited volumes in both Chinese and English.
November 5: Lai Guolong, University of Florida: "The Diagram of the Taiyi Incantation from Mawangdui: the Interplay between Text and Image in Early China"
Focusing on one of the archaeologically excavated silk diagrams (“tu” in Chinese) from the famous Mawangdui No. 3 Tomb (c. 168 BCE), the diagram of the Taiyi Incantation, this presentation is part of a larger research project that explores the cultural history of visual thinking in the Warring States and Qin-Han periods, investigating the dynamic interplay between text and image in the production and transmission of proto-scientific knowledge in early China. The text-image relationship has long been a subject of scholarly inquiry in literary studies and art history, in this study, instead I show that how correct understanding of that relationship can help us reconstructing the diagram and better understanding its nature and function. Diagrams played an important role in the production of technical manuals, the circulation and spread of knowledge among both the specialists and non-specialists in early China. The goal of this research project is to place the Mawangdui diagrams into the intellectual and art historical development of early China.
Guolong Lai is Associate Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at the University of Florida. His research interests include early Chinese art and archaeology, Chinese paleography and excavated manuscripts, museology, collecting history and provenance studies, and cultural heritage conservation in modern China. He has worked at the National Museum of Chinese History in Beijing (now the National Museum of China), the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art in Washington DC, and received various fellowships and grants from the Smithsonian Institution, the American Council of Learned Society, the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Henry Luce Foundation. He was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (2014-15), a Getty Scholar (2018-19) and a Visiting Fellow at the IKGF at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg (2020-21). He is the author ofExcavating the Afterlife: The Archaeology of Early Chinese Religion(2015), which won the Society for American Archaeology’s Honorable Mention-Book Award in the Scholarly Category (2016). He is the founding Associate Editor of the Zhejiang University Journal of Art and Archaeology(Hangzhou) and the associate editor of Bulletin of the Jao Tsung-I Academy of Sinology(Hong Kong). He organized several conferences and symposiums both in China and the US and co-editedOccult Arts, Art History, and Cultural Exchange in Early China: A Festschrift for Professor Li Ling on His Seventieth Birthday(English and Chinese, 2021),New Philology and the Studies of Early China(Chinese, 2018),Unmasking Ideology in Imperial and Colonial Archeology: Vocabulary, Symbols, and Legacy(2018),Collectors, Collections, and Collecting Arts of China: Histories and Challenges(2014). Recently he co-translated William Baxter and Laurent Sagart’sOld Chinese: A New Reconstructioninto Chinese (Shanghai 2021).
December 3: Glenda Chao, Ursinus College: "Exploring Regionally Based History in Early China: The Xiang-Yi Plain as Case Study"
In the spirit of collaboration and discussion across sub-disciplines that this lecture and workshop series aims to achieve, this talk proposes that a regionally-based approach to the study of early China may provide a fruitful framework for interweaving archaeological and textual sources. In arguing for this approach, I lay out my definition of what regionally-based work means theoretically in an early Chinese context, drawing on methods used in both regional archaeological survey in China as well as regional history from later periods. Then, taking my region of research interest—the middle Han River valley in northern Hubei—as a case study, I survey types of source materials that can and ought to be analyzed in order to construct a regionally-based history. I finish with a discussion of some of the major benefits and challenges of my approach as I currently see them.
GlendaChao is an Assistant Professor of History and East Asian Studies at Ursinus College. Her research focuses on the cultural history of the middle Han River valley and surrounding environs during the first millennium BCE. She is interested in interweaving archaeological and textual materials to write fresh narratives of the early China that point to potential new avenues of research on the history and archaeology of early empires, regionality in the ancient world, and the role of mortuary and daily rituals in the creation of local identities. She is also interested in the history of archaeology in China and its relationship with modern cultural memory and historical imagination. Her work has been published in the Proceedings of the International Conference on Chu Culture and Early Development of the Middle Reaches of the Yangzi River(2020), and she is currently working on manuscripts about methods for approaching the study of first millennium BCE cemeteries in the Han River valley and the ethics of using unprovenienced archaeological materials in research about early China. Her book project focuses on the early regional history of the Xiang-Yi plain in northern Hubei; in this project, she seeks to explore the long-term processes by which this region became integrated (and also perhaps resisted integration) into the Qin and Han empires.
The Spring 2021 talks were:
March 5, 2021: Lothar von Falkenhausen, UCLA: “Ancient Chinese Bells and Tripods: The Texts vs. the Archaeological Finds”
Texts and archaeological finds offer complementary evidence for the study of ancient China; for that reason, they are often considered in conjunction. But the study of these two bodies of material requires different methods and skills, and their integration is often problematic. Even when texts and archaeology seem to agree, closer analysis may show subtle inconsistencies; rather than explaining them away, researchers should sound them out carefully as this will offer opportunities for an improved understanding of both kinds of evidence. This lecture focuses on one example for such an investigation: the constellation of Zhou-period (ca. 1046-256 BC) ritual vessels and bells as discussed in ritual texts and revealed by archaeological investigations.
Lothar von Falkenhausen is Distinguished Professor of Chinese Archaeology and Art History at UCLA and Changjiang Visiting Professor at Xibei University (Xi'an, China). Educated at Bonn, Peking, Kyoto, and Harvard Universities, he received his PhD in anthropology from Harvard in 1988. His research concerns the archaeology of the Chinese Bronze Age and related topics. He has published extensively on method and theory in East Asian archaeology. He is currently working on a monograph that will foreground the archaeological evidence for economic developments in 1st-millennium BC China, a sequel to his award-winning Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (Los Angeles, 2006). Falkenhausen is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society, and a Full Member of the German Archaeological Institute.
April 2, 2021: Christopher Foster, SOAS, University of London: “Reimagining Textual Identity in Early China: A Case Study”
Recent manuscript discoveries have challenged scholars of early China to reimagine the nature of texts and textual identity. Eschewing traditional visions of discrete authors composing massive treatises in singular moments of literary genesis, a greater appreciation has arisen for the fluidity inherent in textual production during the Warring States and early imperial periods. In such an environment, what does it mean to refer to a text by title? How do we meaningfully group together textual materials, at the exclusion of others, as the legitimate subject of our own studies? How can we grapple with—or embrace—ambiguity in our datasets, to tell new narratives about the distant past? In the following talk, I treat textual identity as a potentially shifting constellation of constitutive characteristics and present a case study that applies this approach to the identification of newly unearthed manuscripts as belonging to a Cang Jie pian title. Beyond addressing problematic strips and presenting insights related specifically to the study of the Cang Jie pian, my goal is to raise broader methodological implications for the field and suggest a few ways we may continue to move forward.
Dr. Christopher J. Foster, currently British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS University of London, specializes in the intellectual history of China, focusing primarily on canonization processes and primary education. Chris received his A.B. from Dartmouth College, and both his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. His dissertation, "Study of the Cang Jie pian: Past and Present,” introduces the Cang Jie pian 蒼頡篇 – a foundational primary education work – and discusses the role it played in the spread of literacy during the Western Han period. His British Academy Postdoctoral project examines the use of native Chinese classical exegesis in the medieval Buddhist Yiqiejing yinyi 一切經音義 glossaries. Other interests include pre-modern Chinese manuscript culture, textual forgery and concepts of authenticity in East Asia (both in antiquity and today), and the archaeology of the Han frontier.
April 9, 2021: Guo Jue, Barnard College: “De-centering Zhou Historiography: History of the Jiang Han Region in Excavated Sources (1st millennium BCE)”
Zhou (ca. 1045-256 BCE) historiography, as represented by the received textual corpus from the pre-imperial era, has a notable northern perspective. In this study, Professor JueGuo proposes a de-centering and regionalizing approach to analyze one highly idiosyncratic bamboo manuscript text from the acquired Qinghua University collection, which was given the title “Chuju” (“Dwellings of Chu”) by the editors. By situating this text in the Jiang Han Region and its local chronology that are informed by the archaeological finds, Guo argues that the “Chuju” text provides the perspectives for writing a new kind of history of the Jiang Han Region that both problematizes the traditional Zhou historiographical narrative of Chu and enables a fuller understanding of the first-millennium BCE world in early China.
JueGuo is an Assistant Professor at Barnard College and a social and cultural historian of Early China. Her scholarly work lies at the intersection of history and archaeology. She uses both historical sources and archaeological materials including settlement data and material culture, entombed objects, and excavated manuscripts to understand past complex societies (terminus ante quem ca. 3rd century CE), with a geographical focus on central-southern China. Her broad research interests include regional history, cultural identity formation, complex society and state formation, environment and historical ecology, social and cultural memory, history writing, as well as religious and ritual practices. She is currently finishing her first book, entitled Becoming the South: A Deep History of Region and Identity Formation in Early China.
April 30, 2021: Camilla Sturm, Barnard College: “From guguo to gucheng: Revising the Role of Neolithic Walled Towns in the Story of Chinese Civilization”
Models of sociopolitical change in early China envision the rise of states and the development of civilization as following a neat evolutionary trajectory. One popular such model describes this trajectory as having three stages – guguo, fangguo, diguo (archaic state, regional state, empire) – with each stage characterized archaeologically by larger and more stratified walled sites. Viewed through this lens, the emergence of walled towns across China during the late Neolithic ushered in the subsequent rise of Bronze Age states. Despite the strong progressivist quality of such narratives, these models are often conceived of in reverse. In practice, archaeologists and historians work their way backwards through the material and archival records, tacking not from Neolithic walled towns to Bronze Age states but from states to walled towns, from guguo to gucheng. This approach risks a teleological rendering of the past, where more recent histories shape the deeper past and obscure its wide-ranging diversity.
This presentation focuses on a very different (pre)history of walled towns in early China. I draw on multiple lines of archaeological data to chart the specific, local histories of two Neolithic walled towns in middle Yangzi River valley. With this data, I argue that these communities were structured around collective action and not the hegemonic rule that has long been assumed. These findings break with conventional understandings of sociopolitical life in early China and challenges us to rethink broad narratives of the rise of Chinese ‘civilization’.
Camilla Sturm is an anthropological archaeologist with interests in craft production, political economies, social learning, and identity. Her research combines traditional archaeological field practices with geochemical and experimental analyses and is primarily focused on the production, exchange, and use of pottery in China and Mongolia. Her work focuses on three interconnected aspects of craft economies: how people learn and share the specialized knowledge of their crafts, how decisions at grassroots and at institutional levels shape economic networks, and how resilient these networks are to social, political, and environmental changes. Dr. Sturm is currently a Term Assistant Professor at Barnard College. Her work has appeared in such journals as the Journal of Archaeological Science, American Antiquity, the Journal of Archaeological Research, and中央民族大学学报, or the Journal of the Central University of Nationalities in China.
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