- Pastimes: From Art and Antiquarianism to Modern Chinese Historiography by Shana J. Brown
The study of ancient bronze vessels and of steles (jinshi 金石) had its first great flowering in the Northern Song dynasty, as scholars sought to recapture a ritually pure, pre-Buddhist past. Bronzes in particular promised a kind of access to ancient ritual (and ultimately to the Way) through their materiality as much as through their inscriptions. They were also valuable art pieces. A second great flowering occurred in the late Qing, which, Brown argues, remains relevant today: “Its influence includes persistent attitudes towards the uses of history, the meaning of pictorial images and the value of material artifacts, and the complex relationship between public institutions and private scholars” (p. 9). After all, “In China as well as in many parts of the world nothing was so modern as antiquity” (p. 9). With the rise of modern archaeology and the other scholarly disciplines of the human sciences — particularly anthropology and historical linguistics, as well as history — jinshi studies are perhaps more ancestor than living presence today. But certainly jinshi studies fed into the great construction of national identity that took place in the late Qing and early Republic, not merely providing artifacts for study but also, through its own scholarly traditions, shaping China’s relationship with the past. Brown’s work enriches our knowledge of Republican culture, which is still too often equated with thoroughgoing radicalism, throwing into sharper relief the sheer variety and volatility of the political and cultural currents of the early twentieth century.
Brown’s decision to translate jinshi as “antiquarianism” has obvious disadvantages but captures, I think, something essential. The English connotations [End Page 464] are of amateur and somewhat fuddy-duddy connoisseurship, of manic collectors, and of worldviews that might be labeled traditionalist, conservative, and reactionary — or even decadent. This misses the long use in China of jinshi in the practice of orthodox scholarship and pursuit of the Way that Brown outlines in her first chapters. Nonetheless, the term captures “a complex emotional valance … the proud mastery of syntactically difficult documents, as well as a bittersweet longing for the vanished past they represent” (p. 4). On the one hand, certain scholars appreciated ancient objects for themselves and enjoyed seeking them out, looking at them, fondling them, smelling them, and hiding them away where only selected friends would be allowed access. On the other hand, these objects were also signposts helping to find roads to understanding the past in a more or less scientific way.
During the rise of modern scholarship in the West, antiquarianism helped foster archaeology and ancient history, art history, numismatics, philology and literary studies, and numerous other fields and subfields. In China as well, starting in the late Qing, knowledge of material artifacts and their ancient inscriptions informed the emerging discipline of archaeology, revolutionized understanding of ancient history, rebuilt philology, and ultimately gave Chinese nationalists a new sense of the roots of their civilization. All this Brown shows convincingly, and she highlights the relationship between the particular stresses of the late Qing and the revival and development of jinshi studies. As well, Brown incisively but sympathetically delineates the personalities of collector-scholars such as Wu Dacheng 吳大澂, Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉, and Wang Guowei 王國維. However, a related argument about the relationship between antiquarianism and political reform is less convincing (discussed below).
Brown traces the more or less continuous history of jinshi studies to the Northern Song dynasty. Scholars like Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 displayed a new interest in the materiality of the past, such as the clothes worn in antiquity and especially ritual vessels. Song scholars produced new research into the types and uses of bronzes from much earlier periods. Not least important were their publications with illustrations of the bronzes in their collections. As Brown emphasizes, these line-drawn illustrations were deliberately simplified, representing a kind of political-ritual ideal rather than the actual tarnished and cracked objects. Song scholars also turned to stele inscriptions as at least a...