Monday, September 25, 2023

[Dissertation] Art of Changes: Material Imagination in Early China, c. Third to First Century BCE

Liu, Ziliang


Harvard University

This dissertation examines the efficacy of material and its impact on early imperial Chinese art. Focusing on a selection of important artworks in jade, bronze, glass, and mercury, I explore how the re-conceptualization of the materials in the Qin (221–206 BCE) and the Western Han (202 BCE–9 CE) profoundly shaped the design and the production of the innovative artworks in the period, while setting new expectations for the relationship between the object and the body. In particular, I highlight the great convergence of artisanal practices and the fangshu 方術 “technical arts” or “occult methods” in the context of court art production. I argue that this body of specialized knowledge played a vital role in the artisanal effort to evoke and harness the power of materials, either through a theoretical re-interpretation of the material’s physical qualities or through symbolic encryptions of the craft process. In doing so, I scrutinize art in early imperial China as a fundamentally intellectualized effort that at once discovered, imitated, and challenged the workings of nature, the process of the zaohua 造化 “Great Transformation.”
The first chapter examines the jade burial suit of Liu Sheng 劉勝, the King Jing of Zhongshan 中山靖王 (d. 113 BCE), which paradoxically mimics his naked body. In the context of the re-imagination of the hardstone as a fluid, ethereal matter capable of corporeal morphing, I uncover the deep ties between the suit’s peculiar design and important ideals in period medical theory, particularly the concept of the “jade body.” Focusing on an oversized bronze dressing mirror excavated in the tomb of Liu He 劉賀 (d. 59 BCE), the Marquis of Haihun 海昏侯, the second chapter demonstrates how methodological encryption of bronze metallurgy, from the selection of raw metals to the process of casting, transformed the alloy into a cosmic matter capable of summoning spirits and healing the body, while also developing a “human dimension” of the material. In light of new findings in conservation science and technical studies, the third chapter scrutinizes a group of translucent glass artifacts from the second century BCE to explore the connection between lead-barium glassmaking and early Chinese alchemy and pharmacology, which imbued glass with cosmic and macrobiotic potencies that in turn inspired the rise of glass vessels and a unique ancient color technology. Following the lead on alchemy, the fourth chapter reveals how a set of fire-gilt metalwork, in evoking the touch of mercury, visually enacted the evolution of the liquid metal toward solid, incorruptible gold in early Chinese imagination, a powerful allegory for corporeal immortalization that enchanted their royal patrons.

The four case studies offer insights into aspects of ancient Chinese culture unavailable through the study of texts alone, while sensitizing us to the materially-based, fangshu-driven artisanal practices and the body-centric modes of perception. In this way, this study aims to contribute to the broader discourses on the efficacy of material in the art of the ancient world, especially how materials mediated ideas — philosophical, religious, political — and in the case of early China presented in this study, the formless cosmic change itself.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Fan Ye's Book of Later Han (Houhanshu): Military History and Ethnicity. Volume 1: The Twenty-Eight Yuntai Generals of the Eastern Han

Shu-Hui Wu &David Curtis Wright


Publication Year: 

The Book of Later Han (Houhanshu) by Fan Ye (398-445) is enormously important as China’s most complete work on Eastern Han history in biographical form. For the first time in any Western language, the author introduces Fan Ye’s magnificent writings in lively translation with rich annotation and informative and insightful commentary.

This first volume covers its early military history and highlights the lives and achievements of the twenty-eight generals who helped Emperor Guangwu unify China and establish the Eastern Han dynasty.
Also included are images of these twenty-eight founding fathers, maps, and information related to early Eastern Han systems.

Table of Contents:
Brief Individual Introductions to Each of the Twenty-Eight Yuntai Generals, Including Illustrations, Fan Ye’s Conclusion, and List of Their Ranking Orders in HHS 22
Chapter 1 HHS 16: Biographies of Deng and Kou 鄧寇列傳 6
Chapter 2 HHS 17: Biographies of Feng, Cen, and Jia 馮岑賈列傳 7
Chapter 3 HHS 18: Biographies of Wu, Ge, Chen, and Zang 吳蓋陳臧列傳 8
Chapter 4 HHS 19: Biography of Geng Yan 耿弇列傳 9
Chapter 5 HHS 20: Biographies of Yao Qi, Wang Ba, and Zhai Zun 銚期王霸祭遵列傳 10
Chapter 6 HHS 21: Biographies of Ren, Li, Wan, Pi, Liu, and Geng 任李萬邳劉耿列傳 11
Chapter 7 HHS 22: Biographies of Zhu, Jing, Wang, Du, Ma, Liu, Fu, Jian, and Ma 朱景王杜馬劉傅堅馬列傳 12
Chapter 8 HHS 15: Biographies of Li, Wang, Deng, and Lai 李王鄧來列傳 5
Chapter 9 Commentaries 論曰 and Rhymed Summaries 贊曰 by Fan Ye in Chapters 1–8

Appendix 1 The Twenty-Eight Yuntai Generals and the Twenty-Eight Lunar Lodgings, with Notes and a Table of the Twenty-Eight Yuntai Generals and Their Corresponding Lunar Lodgings

Appendix 2 Ban Gu’s Description of an Emperor’s Funeral and Images of the Burial Chamber Built with Yellow Cypress Wood 黃腸題凑

Appendix 3 Analysis and Translation of Texts on Seals and Seal-Ribbons (yin shou 印綬) in HHS zhi 志 30 B Chariots and Clothing 輿服下

Appendix 4 Metadata and Models for Eastern Han Warships, as Reconstructed and Exhibited at the People’s Military Museum in Beijing 中國人民軍事博物館

Appendix 5 An Iron Charter 鐵券, with Introduction, and an Ancient Chinese hu 斛 Measuring Device

Glossary 1: Titles for Military Leaders and Civil Servants (1) English–Chinese
Glossary 2: Titles for Military Leaders and Civil Servants (2) Chinese–English
Glossary 3: Chinese Military Idioms, Proverbs, and Special Terms in the Book of Later Han

Saturday, September 9, 2023

[Dissertation] Gifts from afar : the creation of an imperial lapdog in Tang-Song China

Granger, Kelsey


University of Cambridge

This thesis directly addresses a significant gap in the fields of sinology and pet studies by exploring pre-modern Chinese pet-keeping practices in detail for the first time in either discipline. More specifically, this thesis centres on the social and economic practice of lapdog-keeping across the seventh to twelfth centuries, i.e. the Tang and Northern Song dynasties. Not only does this study provide an adapted framework for identifying pets in medieval China, but the formation of a definitive corpus of lapdog references from this timeframe closely defines what a lapdog was and what it did, moving beyond prior cursory research into these diminutive trick-dogs. Analysis of how humans talked about, with, and through the lapdog further asserts the relevance of pets in the study of human history - revealing the lapdog to be a potent metonym for women and a medium for articulating male sexual desire. In sharing intimate human spaces and emotions as a living treasure, childhood playmate, and female companion, the lapdog thus uncovers nuanced insight into medieval elite culture. When considering the later trajectory of the lapdog in the Song period, we see an entire industry dedicated to producing and selling ornamental animals and animal accessories. Pets were not just emotional beings but economic products, shaped by the shifting socioeconomic dynamics of commercialisation and commodification. The lapdog, China's first systematic pet, was both a physical creature and an abstract site of complementary, contradicting, and competing meanings. With relevance to the study of medieval Chinese animal studies; early childhood; the male gaze; female isolation; animal commodification; aesthetic connoisseurship; and the writing of official historiography, this thesis reaffirms that the history of humanity cannot truly be written without including the animals which shared their most intimate lives.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

[Dissertation] Les registres divinatoires et sacrificiels du royaume de Chu au IV e siècle avant notre ère (The divinatory and sacrificial registers of the kingdom of Chu in the fourth century B.C.)

Liang Zhong

École Pratique des Hautes Études


This dissertation focuses on Chu divinatory and sacrificial records, and more precisely on one category of practical documents from the 4th century BC’s Chu Kingdom. This unique collection of written records was found in tombs. Since 1965, 12 tombs occupied by individuals from different social origins have brought light to these documents. These mantic and sacrificial activities were conducted to ensure the improvement of the client’s career or health. Firstly, after examining the archaeological context, we analyze the composition of the divinatory and sacrificial records. Then we focused on historical actors such as diviners, persons in charge of sacrifices, scribes and clients, after which we examine divinatory and iatromantic knowledge and skills, as well as ancestors and divinities. Finally, we trace the production procedure of some divinatory registers coming from the best preserved corpus. This study intends to contribute to a better understanding of divinatory practices without direct link with the Yijing (Book of mutations). To a lesser extent, our research is a systematic review of the evolution of one type of practical document produced by a community of diviners without official organization before the unification of China in 221 BC.

You can download his dissertation here:

Thursday, August 17, 2023

New DH website: "Religious Itinerancy: Travel Narratives in the Biographies of Eminent Monks"

We are excited to announce that our website is now officially online! 

The website represents an interactive and searchable database encompassing travel narratives found within the biographies of Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns, spanning from the fifth to the seventeenth century CE. 

There are several distinct ways to access the information stored within this repository:

"Events": This feature allows users to identify and peruse travel narratives using various filters, such as person, location, book title, dynasty, and motivations and outcomes of the journeys.

"Maps":  This functionality enables users to locate every place visited by Buddhist monks and nuns, identifying their points of departure and arrival, as well as tracing their travel routes. This is facilitated through three different types of maps and corresponding filters, including person, location, book title, dynasty, and motivations and outcomes of the journeys.

"Search": This option enables users to read comprehensive biographies of itinerant monks online and conduct keyword searches.

Find out more at our website:

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Art of Terrestrial Diagrams in Early China

Michelle H. Wang

Publication date:
November 23, 2023

University of Chicago Press

This is the first English-language monograph on the early history of maps in China, centering on those found in three tombs that date from the fourth to the second century BCE and constitute the entire known corpus of early Chinese maps (ditu). More than a millennium separates them from the next available map in the early twelfth century CE. Unlike extant studies that draw heavily from the history of cartography, this book offers an alternative perspective by mobilizing methods from art history, archaeology, material culture, religion, and philosophy. It examines the diversity of forms and functions in early Chinese ditu to argue that these pictures did not simply represent natural topography and built environments, but rather made and remade worlds for the living and the dead. Wang explores the multifaceted and multifunctional diagrammatic tradition of rendering space in early China.