Art and Ornament in Early China


Spring 2010


4th Floor Classroom


François Louis

In China, visual art in the traditional sense of calligraphy or painting produced by renowned masters came into existence only after the 1st century CE. Earlier Chinese “art” is recognized by modern art history almost indiscriminately as any refined object with pictorial designs found in ancient tombs, bronze and lacquer utensils and furniture, jewelry, weaving, embroidery, ornamental fittings for weapons, chariots, furniture, funerary painting and sculpture, and so on. Since such archaeological material constitutes one of the prime resources for the study of early Chinese culture, scholars from a great variety of academic fields (anthropology, art history, history, literature, religious studies, linguistics, and conservation) have commented on it. As a result, early Chinese artifacts have become one of the most vibrant, but often ideologically charged, testing grounds for interdisciplinary approaches and theories about almost any aspect of early Chinese culture. This seminar has two aims. The first is to provide an overview of elite material culture in Bronze Age and Early Imperial China as revealed by major, often sensational archaeological discoveries of the past century. Emphasis is placed on exploring changing ritual, political, and societal functions of artifacts from various, usually culturally distinct, regions. The second aim is to critically review recent art-historical approaches to the visual qualities of early artifacts, particularly their ornament and design, in order to assess the merits and limitations of those methods. Case studies focus on material from the late Shang period and from the Eastern Zhou and Western Han periods. The course includes museum visits. 3 credits.