Bronze, Text, and State: Creating the Epigraphic Landscape in the Emerging Chinese Empire (481 BCE– 9 CE)
While research on manuscripts has become a driving force for the study of early Chinese history, epigraphy was arguably much more influential in shaping the quotidian landscape in China at the end of the first millennium BCE. Roof tiles, bricks, chariot fittings, weights, agricultural tools, lamps, incense burners, belt hooks, mirrors, clothing irons, washbasins, cups, lacquerware, ritual vessels, and other inscribed objects constituted an indispensable part of everyday life in early imperial China when the ancient Chinese “epigraphic habit” reached its peak. The increasing centralization and bureaucratization of artisan production constituted both challenges and new opportunities for workshops to exercise their agency in inscription-making, and the growing epigraphic emancipation of workshops led to unprecedented permeation of epigraphy in public and private spaces.
However, very less is known about the exact dynamics of such a shift in the epigraphic paradigm. Using the case of inscribed bronze artefacts, the aim of this project is to provide a first-ever comprehensive analysis of the strategies by which the bronze workshops created, negotiated, preserved, transmitted, and expanded their agency in inscription-making in an era of increasing unification and standardization of production, contributing to the creation of the early Chinese epigraphic landscape between the fifth and first centuries BCE.
To address this issue, roughly 4,000 inscriptions from this period, cast or engraved on various kinds of bronze objects, will be examined in a diachronic fashion from three main perspectives: 1) textual, exploring the imposition of standard structures, alteration of structural patterns, and the compositional strategies; 2) visual, scrutinizing the visual qualities of inscriptions and their relatedness to the techniques employed in inscription-making; and 3) contextual, surveying the interaction between bronze epigraphy and writing on other media, such as exemplars, repertoire catalogues, manuscripts, and other kinds of epigraphy.
On the synchronic level, the distinction between privately-owned and government-sponsored workshops will be traced to assess their level of interaction and identify patterns that helped to increase workshops’ agency in inscription-making. On the diachronic level, the transition from increasing centralization during the Warring States period (481–221 BCE) to the first fully unified empires of Qin and Western Han (221 BCE-9 CE) will be traced, with particular focus both on innovation and transmission of all above-mentioned aspects of epigraphic practice over time and space. Based on such a survey, this project aims to provide an interpretative model for the study of the epigraphic landscape during the Warring States and early imperial periods in early China.