The Newsletter 86 Summer 2020

Things on the move: material culture and connectivity in ancient China


Objects move, sometimes across cultural boundaries. They travel as tributes, commodities and military booties. In this issue’s ‘China Connections’, we explore how things perform as active agents, linking China and its outside world from the Bronze Age to the premodern era. Writing about the transcultural biography of things, essays in this section invite readers to reconsider the connectivity of the ancient world via various routes, including but not limited to the Silk Road. Coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, contributors to this issue demonstrate the potential of material culture studies as an interdisciplinary field that integrates art history, history, and archaeology.

Following chronological order, five essays outline a broad picture of transcultural exchange in the premodern Eurasian continent through the lens of objects. Each essay highlights a particular artifact; these objects are the witnesses, products, and agents of the cross-cultural interaction happening at varied levels and in diverse forms, such as trade, tribute, and pilgrimage. By tracing the movement of things, we interrogate the routes and networks that meshed together cultures in different parts of Eurasia. A diachronic survey shows that while the early transcultural connections were mainly made via the land routes, later history saw the growing significance of the maritime network. Attention is also paid to the local response to foreign imports by studying how objects from afar were adopted and adapted in the local contexts.

Objects are the embodiment of social relations, and the objects moving across borders are the testimony of social relations at a transcultural scale. Artifacts featured in the following essays were produced during different time periods, in various locations, and from a wide range of materials, such as glass, stone, porcelain, bronze, and other precious and semi-precious metals. What links them together is their role as a cultural mediator. We hope that, from the perspective of things, our readers can embrace the connectivity of the ancient world, which is no less intricate than that of our current era of globalization.

Fan ZHANG is a Professor of Practice at Tulane University; Global Perspectives on Society Teaching Fellow, New York University Shanghai (2018-2019)