Seminars

  • Founded
    2002
  • Seminar Number
    691

The seminar focuses on early Chinese civilization from the Neolithic Age to the Han Dynasty and brings together scholars from all Early China related fields: history, archaeology, art history, literature and language, religion and philosophy. The seminar will facilitate interregional exchanges by inviting distinguished Sinologists from other parts of the country, and will publicize new archaeological discoveries.

Seminar Website


Co-Chairs
Professor Glenda Chao
gchao@ursinus.edu

Professor Ethan Harkness
harkness@nyu.edu

Rapporteur
Crismon Lewis
csl2179@columbia.edu

Meeting Schedule

09/30/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
Jerry Norman’s Ideas on the Reconstruction of Chinese
David Branner, Independent Scholar
Abstract

Abstract

Linguistic reconstruction holds a curious place in sinology and early Chinese studies. On one hand, it is hard to imagine replacing it, for use with ancient texts or in expressing etymological relationships. On the other, what goes into making reconstructions is little understood by the larger field. The matter is so arcane that most students of sinology lack the enthusiasm to inquire closely into the issues and are content using reconstruction as a sort of “Pīnyīn” for application to historical texts. Curiously, in East Asia, linguistic reconstruction of Chinese is generally the purview of students of Chinese literature, as a matter of implementation and praxis, while in the West it is a specialized and immensely technical field. It is also curious that the principal applications and sources for Chinese linguistic reconstruction are rather different from reconstruction in most other modern language families: normally comparative method (using evidence from modern languages) is the foundation, but in the case of Chinese, philological evidence has primacy, supplemented by long-range comparison. That is, the reconstruction of early Chinese is generally treated as though it is more important than the primary comparative evidence of modern languages. The late Jerry Norman, however, had an unusual outlook on these issues; his reconstruction is the first one based entirely on the evidence of living forms of Chinese rather than philological sources. This paper describes and justifies the premises he held about Chinese reconstruction and illustrates it in application to premodern literature.





10/21/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
From Gansu to Stockholm: Combining Excavations and Collections to Explore Interregional Interactions in Neolithic Northwestern China
Andrew Womack, Furman University
Abstract

Abstract

More than 2000 years before the development of the historical Silk Road trade routes, people living in what is now northwestern China were participating in networks that circulated goods and technologies between the Central Asian steppe and eastern China. These included domesticates such as wheat, barley, sheep, and cattle, as well as technologies including bronze working, jade carving, and pyromantic divination. However, despite more than 100 years of archaeological work in this region, how and why these networks were formed and functioned on a local scale has remained under-investigated. This talk will draw on two sources for mapping potential interactions: recent petrographic analysis of ceramic vessels from the Tao River Valley of Gansu Province and new work with collections from across northwestern China in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, Sweden. These analyses demonstrate that localized exchange was occurring on a regular basis between settlements in the Tao River Valley, and potentially across a much wider region. It will also address the benefits and challenges of working with both recently excavated material as well as historic collections.





11/18/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
King Wen’s Just War: The Conquest of Chong in Early Chinese Discourse
Nicholas Vogt, Indiana University
Abstract

Abstract

King Wen of Zhou, putative first king of the Zhou dynasty, is perhaps best known as a uniter of people and resolver of conflicts – especially in his role as exemplar of the wen half of the wen/wu dyad in classical Chinese philosophy. However, early sources generally agree that King Wen, in the several years before his death, launched a series of attacks on locales between the Zhou homeland in the west and the hegemonic settlement of Shang. With the benefit of hindsight, we may now understand that King Wen was securing the strategic situation of Zhou and laying the groundwork for the eventual conquest of Shang by his heir Fa, the future King Wu. From this series of campaigns emerged an image of King Wen as mighty conqueror that figured in the early Zhou state cult.

The practical strategic value of an attack on Chong, however, was of little relevance to certain later historians with a greater interest in King Wen’s moral and personal development. A variety of justifications for the attack on Chong arose in later texts, powered by particular takes on the relationship between King Zhou of Shang, his ministers (including King Wen), the populace at large, and the supernatural forces of the cosmos. While these explanations betray the diversity of early Chinese approaches to the purpose and causal system of historiography, their common points also hint at a set of shared background assumptions about the nature of just war. In this presentation, we will consider how depictions of King Wen’s attack on the locale called Chong 崇 helped set the bounds of a discursive space of moral violence in early Chinese rhetoric, before delving briefly into their later deployment as justification for violence in Han dynasty discourse.





12/09/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
Parallel Lives: Yi Yin, Fu Yue, and the Duke of Zhou
Kuan-yun (Kevin) Huang, National Sun Yat-sen University
Abstract

Abstract

Drawing on the Warring States manuscripts now at Tsinghua University in Beijing, this project attempts to uncover some of the most interesting—perhaps even controversial—aspects of three of the “movers and shakers” of early China: Yi Yin, Fu Yue, and the Duke of Zhou. Who were they? What did they do? And what is the legacy that they left behind?





01/20/2023 Zoom
4:30 PM
A Deep History of Human Activity in Jiuzhaigou National Park
Jade d'Alpoim Guedes, UC San Diego
Abstract

Abstract

China’s tuigeng huanlin or “Returning Farmland to Forest” program has been widely praised as the world’s largest and most successful ecosystem services program. It is also a major contributor to China’s dramatic increase in forest cover from perhaps as low as 8% in 1960 to about 21% today. Located on the margins of the eastern Tibetan plateau, the Jiuzhaigou National Park is home to nearly two thousand species of plants along with many animals (at least 50 of which are rare or endangered). In order to the preserve the biodiversity and the scenic lakes found in the Jiuzhaigou National Park and believing that the history of human impact inside the park was relatively short (less than 200–300 years), authorities decided to remove or minimalize human impact, re-settling nine villages of Amdo Tibetans who originally occupied the area. Since 1999, park policies have prohibited residents from farming and wood cutting, and since 2001, residents can no longer herd animals above tree line. For the Amdo Tibetans, however, these narratives are at odds with their own oral histories of occupation of the region as well the role they seek to play in maintaining the natural diversity of their home. Recent archaeological, geomorphological, archaeobotanical, and zooarchaeological evidence from the park, however, is now challenging assumptions about the shallow time depth of human occupation in the region; rather than harming local biodiversity, intermediate levels of disturbance created by small scale farming, pastoralism and tree cutting have contributed to the biodiversity of this region and have done so over the course of the past five thousand years.





02/10/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
What Were They Thinking? History Making in the “Command to Yue” 說命 Chapter of the Exalted Writings (Shangshu 尚書)
Maddalena Poli, Pomona College
Abstract

Abstract

“Command to Fu Yue” 傅說之命 of the Tsinghua University bamboo manuscript collection is one of many excavated manuscripts challenging assumptions of early China’s intellectual history and manuscript culture. Its story narrates how the laborer Fu Yue became a trusted minister of the legendary king Wu Ding 武丁 (trad. r. 1324–1266 BCE). The narrative was previously known through several transmitted sources, primarily from the “Command to Yue” 說命 chapter of the Exalted Writings (Shangshu 尚書). The “Command to Yue” is in fact a 4th century CE creation pretending to be much more ancient; it was reconstituted based on earlier material and new additions. What were the methods used by the forger, traditionally identified as Mei Ze 梅賾, in this creation? Is it possible to understand their motivations? What assumptions is the compiler, be it Mei Ze or someone else, making? This presentation will compare the manuscript “Command to Fu Yue” with the transmitted “Command to Yue” to answer these questions, with particular focus of the ruler-minister relationship. In the manuscript, the portrayal is modeled after early Eastern Zhou writings, where the king gives commands to an assenting minister. Conversely, in the 4th century CE Shangshu chapter, the minister leads the verbal exchange. In other words, the structure of “Command to Yue” suggests that 4th century scholars were uncertain about how to construct the ruler-minister relationships and thus demonstrates the merging of history and imagination. This also points to an interruption of textual transmission of ancient writings, as evidenced by the textual history of the Shangshu. While this presentation is limited to one case study, the conclusions prompt questions for understanding ancient Chinese history more broadly.





03/03/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
Art and Technology: Early ‘Animal Style’ Gold Artifacts Found in Northwest China and the Eurasian steppes
Yan (Fiona) Liu, Columbia University
Abstract

Abstract

Precious metals recently discovered from the Dongtalede cemetery in the Xinjiang Altai region and other burial sites in northwest China (dating from the 9th century to the 3rd century BCE) have attracted much attention for their artistic mastery and fine craftsmanship. This is especially true of gold ornaments rendered in animal styles, such as ibex, snow leopard, boar, deer, and other zoomorphic figures, and which are closely linked to gold objects excavated in Central Asia and Southern Siberia. Through discussing the industry and political economy of gold crafting in early China, we will look at the manufacturing techniques and ornamental details of “animal style” gold artifacts from an interdisciplinary perspective. Multispectral non-destructive analyses of tool marks and microstructure of selected samples reveal specific gold-making technologies of the time, such as double-sided carving and mould-pressing techniques. The results show that gold production was practiced under elite control and that craftsmanship varied in early Iron Age northwest China. Patterns of compositional data pertaining to the “animal style” appliqués found in Dongtalede, Balikun (Xinjiang), and Majiayuan (Gansu) sites and their counterparts in the Eurasian steppes also point to various mineral provenances.





03/31/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
Fall of the Scribes and the Rise of Han Literati
Christopher J. Foster, University of London
Abstract

Abstract

In the early Western Han, hereditary scribal families enjoyed a privileged status that provided them access to bureaucratic office. This status was guarded through a government-sanctioned examination system, outlined in the Han legal code, which tested knowledge of primers like the Cang Jie pian. Yet over the course of the Han, informal education networks, such as those fostered in the military, spread scribal primers and the unique literacy they taught extralegally to unintended audiences, even conscripted peasant soldiers. This presentation examines how the loss of control over “scribal literacy” undermined the status of scribes and incited competition over mastery of the written word in specific, as a criterion for judging who was best suited to run the empire. With the fall of the scribes, a space opened for a new form of classicism to arise during the Han, one championing the “moral literacy” of the literati, demonstrated through exegesis of classics now anchored in the authority of Confucius.





04/14/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
Yueling and Yueling Commentary during the Han in Light of Xuanquanzhi
Charles Sanft, University of Tennessee
Abstract

Abstract

The best-known text from Xuanquanzhi, a Han-era post near Dunhuang, is a set of yueling (monthly ordinances) dated to 5 CE and inscribed on a plaster wall within the site. Yueling generally are familiar from the “Yueling” chapter of Liji and elsewhere. The Xuanquanzhi set takes the form of legal statutes, but the content is close to that of the transmitted examples, which do not. The excavated set is also accompanied by internal commentary explaining the ordinances’ intended purposes. In this presentation, I will compare the Xuanquanzhi yueling with excavated and transmitted Han texts on related topics, showing points of similarity and contrast among them. I will also examine the Xuanquanzhi yueling commentary in light of transmitted exegeses to highlight how the Xuanquanzhi version changes our understanding of early commentary.





05/05/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:30 PM
Long-term Perspectives on Deer Management in China
Katherine Brunson, Wesleyan University
Abstract

Abstract

For thousands of years, deer were one of the main sources of food, antler, and skins for people in North China, but the ecological significance of this remains unexplored. People in Neolithic and Early Bronze Age China modified landscapes in significant ways through earthworks, irrigation, and other agricultural practices. Particularly, people often used controlled fires to clear agricultural fields, abandoning fields after a few years and moving on to new land. Frequent shifting of farmed lands created a mosaic of vegetation types that is the ideal habitat for deer, and the faunal remains excavated at archaeological sites in China make clear that people hunted and ate a lot of deer. This paper examines zooarchaeological, textual, and paleoenvironmental evidence to explore the relationship between humans, deer, and the landscape. Ancient people were probably aware of what types of vegetation attracted deer and intentionally managed their landscapes to make them better deer habitat. However, after domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats arrived from Western Asia, people had less need for deer. As farming intensified, human impact on the landscape grew and deer were eliminated from people’s diets and from the landscape.