- Sources of Han Decor: Foreign Influence of the Han Dynasty Chinese Iconography of Paradise (260 BC–AD 220) by Sophia-Karin Psarras
In her previous book, Han Material Culture: An Archaeological Analysis and Vessel Typology, Sophia-Karin Psarras (2015) focused on the relative dating of Han Dynasty tombs and their accompanying ceramic vessels in order to question historical and regional interaction [End Page 454] within Han Dynasty China (206 b.c.–a.d. 220) and the degree to which the Han looked outward when shaping their material worlds. In Han Material Culture, Psarras set aside dimensions of meaning in Han visual culture in favor of systematic, recorded chronology and dismantled any notions that tomb decor might be useful in the dating of archaeological contexts. In her most recent book, Sources of Han Decor, Psarras revisits imagery as a subject, but uses it as a lens to examine instances of direct or indirect contact with cultures far afield in space and time. Psarras argues that a close and careful study of certain figural and decorative motifs, extracted from their Chinese visual and cultural frames, reveals broader and more pervasive foreign borrowings of major visual subjects of the Han than have previously been considered. She is interested specifically in imagery that is commonly assumed germane to Han Chinese visual programs, so not treated as possibly having exotic or foreign origins. Principle motifs covered in the book are the "animal master" and its developments, "the tree of life," "animal predation," and other, secondary fantastic beasts and plant or floral motifs, all of which were ultimately combined in Han art to form images of "paradise," which the author defines broadly as "the place where supernatural or fantastic beings and creatures may be found, whatever their relationship to the human world" (p. 7). Her methodology focuses on gleaning visual parallels between these Han motifs and those from regions to the north and west, largely far beyond China's borders; in many instances, she proposes possible pathways of image transmission.
In her "Introduction," Psarras establishes the art historical and archaeological contexts of her study. She notes a major shift in ritual emphasis from bronze vessels of the Zhou (1050/1040–222 b.c.) to other material forms of status expression into the Qin (221–207 b.c.) and Han periods, when the range of decorative motifs grew more varied and visual programs were no longer confined to the vessel tradition. Radical changes are apparent by the Han Dynasty, characterized by new media becoming dominant (i.e., clay and stone replacing bronze), different objects being used as fields for representation (i.e., walls replacing vessels), and new subject matter (i.e., human activity and deities replacing mostly abstract designs and some animal motifs) (p. 1). She acknowledges that these changes took place concurrently with major shifts in mortuary practice, ideologies of death, and tomb structures and contents, thus marking the Han as an era characterized by new forms of representation and subject matter. She wishes to demonstrate, however, that components of the motifs or subjects that we have come to understand as developing during the Han Dynasty were, first, already present in Zhou visual schemes (albeit as peripheral elements) and, second, derived from foreign sources that can be traced to the Near East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean as early as the third or even fourth millennium b.c. (p. 5, p. 11).
In part 1, chapter 1, titled "Eastern Zhou Context," Psarras presents a contrasting study of two motifs in order to demonstrate the complexities and multiple possibilities for pathways of image transmission. She argues that when patterns can be observed back through China's early dynasties, as in the case of the "jagged lozenges" that appear on Shang bronzes, Late Warring States bronze mirrors, stamped hollow bricks from a Qin palace at Xianyang, and a variety of Han objects, their domestic origins, and transmission can...