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>  News Releases >   2003 >   March

Scholars of Chinese debate ancient text

Posted 03/22/03, by Kathleen McDermott '03

This bronze vessel, which was probably stolen from a tomb, is from about 900 B.C., and the writing on it is key to unlocking Chinese history, says Sarah Allen, who hosted a conference to discuss the meaning of the writing.
(photo courtesy of Sarah Allan)
Writing on vessel could shed light on Chinese history

If the conclusions reached by a team of scholars gathered at Dartmouth on March 1 prove true, many of our assumptions about ancient Chinese history will be fundamentally undermined.

Sarah Allan, the Burlington Northern Foundation Professor of Asian Studies, organized a one-day workshop in which 18 scholars in Chinese history, language and art from across the world met and discussed the implications of a newly discovered ancient bronze vessel.

The vessel, recently acquired by The Poly Museum in Beijing, had been discovered on the Hong Kong market. Unlike most ancient artifacts, it was not excavated by scientific researchers. Rather it was likely stolen from a tomb.

As a result, Allan explained, its authenticity and historical background were immediately contested. While in Beijing last fall, she ran across the vessel and heard of the debates among researchers concerning its authenticity and place in Chinese history.

While it was estimated to be from approximately 900 B.C., unlike other vessels of the era, its inscription gives no clues to its date or ancestral origins.

Because the vessel was so unusual, upon returning to Dartmouth Allan contacted Liu Yu, the head curator of bronzes at the Palace Museum in Peking, who was working with Constance Cook as a visiting professor at Lehigh University.

Drawing scholars from Harvard, Columbia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Beijing's Institute of Archaeology, Allan organized a forum in which researchers could debate the vessel's inscription and its impact on our understanding of ancient Chinese history.

"It's not just this one vessel. It's a mass of new excavated literature that is causing our understanding of ancient China to be re-evaluated."

-Sarah Allan

Much of the debate concerning the history of the vessel and its inscription, Allan explained, are compounded by the difficulty of translating its 9th-century Chinese script.

At Dartmouth, however, with 18 researchers gathered in the Treasure Room of Baker Library, the inscription was carefully read line by line, with the experts debating competing and contradictory interpretations.

"Each sentence, people had different responses to, and were able to bring their expertise together," Allan said, noting that the interdisciplinary team of scholars with expertise in Chinese calligraphy, art history, and philosophy provided a high-level training and discourse.

By the end of the day, after examining the vessel's inscription, language, and calligraphy, however, the researchers concluded it was authentic, Allan said.

"We couldn't find anything wrong with it…. It's very odd, but its oddity makes it more likely to be authentic," because forgeries tend to be more conventional, Allan said.

Accepting its authenticity, however, means re-examining many previously accepted notions of Chinese history.

"We have to re-examine the dates of a number of ancient texts," Allan said. The vessel's inscription, containing a detailed story of the ancient Chinese flood myth, does not follow the conventional pattern for inscriptions of its period. The tale, however, would mark the earliest reference to the Chinese flood myth, opening new debates about the age of other texts and historical artifacts, as well as debates over which aspects of Chinese history and mythology are history and which are mythology.

Sorting myth from history, Allan explained, is a difficult process for scholars of ancient history, and as new artifacts are discovered, previous assumptions must be re-examined.

Since the advent of modern research techniques in the 1920s, much of the Chinese historiographic tradition has been challenged, she said. Even today there remains a great deal of debate over ancient Chinese history and re-examination of some of our basic understandings of it, she added.

With modern research techniques, "many things that were said to be very ancient were then re-evaluated, and determined to be not as early as previously thought," Allan said.

The vessel and our understanding of it, however, remain "just one piece of the puzzle," she said. "It's not just this one vessel. It's a mass of new excavated literature that is causing our understanding of ancient China to be re-evaluated."

With the researchers now back at their respective institutions, they plan to publicize and publish their conclusions about the controversial piece in an upcoming Chinese newsletter. Each researcher will write a short piece on his or her own views concerning the vessel, Allan said, ensuring the debate continues.

- Kathleen McDermott '03

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