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From Art and Antiquarianism to Modern Chinese Historiography

Shana J. Brown

Publication Year: 2011

Pastimes is the first book in English on Chinese jinshi, or antiquarianism, the pinnacle of traditional connoisseurship of ancient artifacts and inscriptions. As a scholarly field, jinshi was inaugurated in the Northern Song (960–1127) and remained popular until the early twentieth century. Literally the study of inscriptions on bronze vessels and stone steles, jinshi combined calligraphy and painting, the collection of artifacts, and philological and historical research. For aficionados of Chinese art, the practices of jinshi offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of traditional Chinese scholars and artists, who spent their days roaming the sometimes seamy world of the commercial art market before attending elegant antiquarian parties, where they composed poetic tributes to their ancient objects of obsession. And during times of political upheaval, such as the nineteenth century, the art and artifact studies of jinshi legitimatized reform and contributed to a dynamic and progressive field of learning.

Indeed, the paradox of jinshi is that it was nearly as venerable as the ancient artifacts themselves, and yet it was also subject to continual change. This was particularly true in the last decades of the Qing (1644–1911) and the first decades of the twentieth century, when a diverse group of cosmopolitan and science-minded scholars contributed to what was considered at the time to be a “revolution in traditional linguistics.” These antiquarians transformed how historians used literary sources and material artifacts from the ancient past and set the stage for a new understanding of the longevity and cohesiveness of Chinese history.

The history of jinshi offers insights that are relevant to Chinese cultural and intellectual history, art history, and politics. Scholars of the modern period will find the resiliency and continuing influence of jinshi to be an important counterpoint to received views on the trajectory of Chinese cultural and intellectual change. We are accustomed to think that Chinese modernity originated in the great tumult of the turn-of-the-century encounter with foreign learning. The example of jinshi reveals the significance of local transformations that occurred much earlier in the nineteenth century. Its combination of art and historiography reveals the full range of scholarly appreciation for the past and its artifacts and provides a unique perspective from which to define “modern China” and illuminate its indigenous origins.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-ix

It has been more than a decade since I was introduced to Chinese practices of collecting and studying ancient artifacts. As a graduate student in Taiwan, I was lucky to be hired as a part-time translator for the antiquities department at the National Palace Museum. For the better part of a year, I rendered into English the captions and catalog texts for ...

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pp. 1-12

The great eighteenth-century novel A Dream of Red Mansions begins with a curious episode. A monk discovers a stone dropped from heaven and, instead of feeling satisfied with its unadorned beauty, wants to “engrave some characters” on it so “people can see at a glance that you’re something special.”1 This preference animated many forms of Chinese connoisseurship...

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Chapter 1 Antiquarianism and Its Genealogies

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pp. 13-32

Since the Qing Dynasty, scholars have insisted that jinshi began with Northern Song historians, who are praised for integrating inscriptions into historical research and establishing a tradition of empiricist scholarship. Yet since its inception, the pastime incorporated many other important elements, particularly ritual studies and calligraphy. ...

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Chapter 2 Antiquarianism in an Age of Reform

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pp. 33-50

In the nineteenth century, jinshi entered a period of remarkable growth, with some nine hundred works produced before the end of the dynasty.1 This burst of enthusiasm was animatedly chronicled by the political reformer Kang Youwei (1858–1927)...

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Chapter 3 A Passion for Antiquity, in Two Dimensions and in Three

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pp. 51-72

What was it like to be a jinshi expert in the late Qing? On a daily basis, the pastime entailed three activities—shopping for artifacts and rubbings, appraising them, and publishing catalogs of their inscriptions and images—all of which gave moments of extreme, if elusive, pleasure. The greatest luxury for any specialist was time. As Liu E recounted,...

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Chapter 4 Wu Dacheng’s Paleography and Artifact Studies

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pp. 73-86

The daily activities of late-Qing antiquarianism focused on collection practices and the production and appreciation of visual culture, but one more ingredient was essential to the pastime—the methodologies used to interpret inscriptions. As jinshi techniques in general evolved in the late nineteenth century, so too did paleography. We see ...

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Chapter 5 The Discovery of the Oracle Bone Inscriptions

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pp. 87-102

Oracle bone inscriptions are among the oldest Chinese historical sources.1 Up to some four millennia old, they predate the earliest bronze texts by centuries. Carved onto a variety of surfaces—the bottom shells (plastrons) of tortoises, the scapulae of cows or sheep, and occasionally human skulls—they record the results of divination ceremonies conducted at the behest of the Shang kings...

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Chapter 6 Luo Zhenyu and the Dilemmas of the Private Scholar

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pp. 103-120

After the abdication of the last Qing emperor Puyi (1906–1967) in 1912, many talented scholar-officials lost their professional identities. For every former bureaucrat who made a fortune in banking or was admitted into bureaucratic service of the new Republic, scores more found work as editors, in the trades, or even as managers of rickshaw ...

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Chapter 7 Wang Guowei—From Antiquarianism to History

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pp. 121-140

When Wang Guowei returned from Kyoto, he entered a contentious intellectual world. On May 4, 1919, students took to the streets to protest the pro-Japan provisions of the Treaty of Versailles and to demand political liberalization. They also called for a critical reexamination of the country’s philosophical, historical, and artistic traditions, and this ...

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Epilogue The Future of a Pastime

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pp. 141-144

On October 13, 1928—a little over a year after Wang Guowei’s suicide— Dong Zuobin and other members of the Academia Sinica began to excavate a site northwest of Xiaotun village, hoping to find any oracle bones that might have eluded decades of peasant excavators. They were unsuccessful. But after Li Ji took over the digs the following year...


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pp. 145-150


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pp. 151-178


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pp. 179-210


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pp. 211-219

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860097
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834982

Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794925360
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Pastimes

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Subject Headings

  • China -- Historiography.
  • Historiography -- China.
  • Art -- Collectors and collecting -- China -- History.
  • Antiquarians -- China -- History.
  • Art dealers -- China -- History.
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