British Art Historian Deciphers the Language of Objects at 2022 Masters’ Forum for Sinology

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The 2022 Tang Prize Masters’ Forum for Sinology was held on September 21 at National Taiwan University. Speaking on the topic of “Bronze, Jade and Gold: The Language of Objects and Their Context” and engaging in discussions with scholars in Taiwan and abroad, 2022 laureate Professor Dame Jessica Rawson examined everyday and ritual objects found in tombs, combed through inventories of items made of these three precious materials, explored the social contexts and cultural norms hidden behind, and revealed the traces that chronicle the encounter between the East and the West. It is hoped that this event can serve as a starting point that will spark further interest in the world inhabited by these artifacts and deeper explorations of China’s history. 


Currently Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at Oxford University, Professor Rawson has spent decades immersing herself in the study of Chinese bronzes and jade, focusing especially on the exchange between ancient China and its neighbors across Eurasia. The forum also featured Professor David Der-wei Wang, academician of Academia Sinica and chair professor at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilization of Harvard University, as moderator, and Professor Fang-mei Chen, adjunct professor at the Graduate Institute of Art History of National Taiwan University (NTU), Professor Ching-fei Shih, professor at the Graduate Institute of Art History of NTU, and Professor Yung-ti Li, associate professor at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilization of the University of Chicago, as panelists.


While history is often narrated through words, Professor Rawson’s research centers on “the language of objects” so ingrained in us that we are often unaware of its existence and narrates the stories told through these silent objects. This language helps us understand the objects we see and use as well as the social fabric interwoven into them. If we contrast a Chinese kitchen with a Western one, we will find divergent sets of kitchenware and utensils. These varying sets in turn reflect very distinct diets, habits, cultures, traditions, and geography. By conceptualizing the language of objects, Professor Rawson encourages us to pay more attention to objects and their settings not just in our daily lives but also how ancient peoples have attempted to give objects meaning and how cultures have used these objects to order the world they live in.


Studying under the supervision of Professor Rawson when she was at Oxford University, Professor Shih described how she was deeply inspired her mentor’s book, Chinese Ornament: The Lotus and the Dragon, when coming across it the first time. It opened up a new perspective she was not aware of, being at that time a student learning about Chinese ornaments in Taiwan who was taught to interpret images of the lotus and the dragon as mere auspicious symbols and felt frustrated by the lack of more in-depth discussions. In this book, Professor Rawson expands the readers’ horizons beyond China to reach places as far as Egypt, Europe, and Central Asia; tracks the transformation of similar patterns across a long stretch of time and space; and applies an innovative approach to the examination of the evolution of the visual system underpinning these ornaments. As a young researcher, Professor Shih found in this masterpiece a new research direction that became the focus of her academic career.


Much of the history of ancient China remains a mystery and inaccessible to us today. Yet, where written records are sparse and unavailable, objects allow us to enter a society that is otherwise difficult to penetrate. Therefore, Professor Rawson stressed the profound influence taking part in archaeological excavations has had on her and suggested that young scholars find the opportunity to handle objects in their hands, observe them closely, and search for evidence in historical texts to understand the related social and historical contexts. For her, studying tombs is an excellent way to carry out such research. Groups of objects discovered in burial chambers function like a biography and provide a window into the life, experience, and culture of ancient peoples dwelling on the varied terrain that makes up China. After perusing and contrasting the inventories of weapons, ornaments, and vessels found in Chinese and Steppe tombs, Professor Rawson realized that the distinct inventories belong to multiple languages of objects, each with distinct associations built upon specific functions, customs, and beliefs. While we are unable to experience these associations, we are able to envision them through the language of objects to gain a glimpse into the societies, cultures, and networks to which the owners of the tombs belong, and sketch the multiple identities that these inhabitants assumed and presented in their lives and afterlives.


Professor Chen thinks that one of Professor Rawson’s main contributions is to provide a conceptual framework that encapsulates what she discovered in her research and to infer the “retro style” some objects evince. Professor Chen also shared the experience she had in Taiwan, pointing out that some ritual vessels from the Qianlong era of the Qing dynasty she saw in the Confucius Temple in Tainan bear much resemblance in shape to the bronzes from the Shang and Zhou periods dating back three thousand years ago. Further research is needed to explain how these shapes and ornaments endured for such a long time and even managed to cross the Taiwan Strait to arrive on this island, so as to tell the stories that they carried with them.    


Professor Li was curious about how Professor Rawson could always come up with original research ideas and hoped that she could give budding scholars some advice on how to “develop such an eye or mindset for new research topics.” In her reply, Professor Rawson talked about how being a foreigner has prevented her from taking China for granted. The geographical distance between Chinese culture and that of her own prompted her to pursue a thorough investigation into things deemed as commonplace by many, thus enabling her to build her own castle of knowledge. Moreover, she spent decades working at the British Museum, where she walked through galleries of different civilizations every day, and was constantly challenged to ponder over the differences and to make comparisons. She also reminded us that China is the birth place of the culture of East Asia, whose culture, tradition, and ways of thinking contrast sharply with those that characterize the West. For example, “China did not have the possibility of building the stone sculptures of Egypt. Egypt did not have the possibility of making the great ceramics of China. So we need to see the difference due to historical but also geological and geographical situations,” Professor Rawson remarked. More importantly, seeing the difference would encourage us to contemplate the social circumstances where these cultures were fostered, and studying these differences comparatively would also help us learn to respect each other.


The 2022 Tang Prize in Sinology was awarded to Professor Dame Jessica Rawson, “for her gift and mastery of the craft of the visible to read the art and artefacts of Chinese civilization. By giving voice to the ancient world of objects, she has taught generations how to see when they look at things, and her acuity and vast visual learning have given new insight into the world of lineages, transformations, and migrations of mute things.”


To watch the forum again, go to:

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