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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Destruction as Construction: Theorizing Demolition in Premodern China
1: Destruction as a Way of Connection: A Case Study of Intentional Fragmentation in Burials of Bronze Age Lower Yangtze (ca. 1000 - 400 BCE)
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Columbia University, Taiwan (Republic of China)
The fragmentation of objects is a curious phenomenon because destroying things people devoted effort to possess requires strong motivation. Archaeological discoveries of Bronze Age China also show remains pointing to such an event. Scholars borrow the conclusion drew from studies in the Central Plains and suggest that like cases in the Central Plains, breaking or defunctionalizing objects in the lower Yangtze serves to separate the living and the dead. However, as studies in other parts of the world show, breaking objects have different meanings in different cultures. Since the funerary customs in the lower Yangtze differs significantly from that in the Central Plains area, the fragmentation in the region deserves another closer look. By examining the placement of the ceramic sherds in burials, this paper argues that, instead of being a way to remove the utility and turn objects into “spiritual goods,” the destruction of ceramics, mainly large jars, might have been a part of the food offering happening during funerals. The widespread geographical distribution and the rarity of such remains, on the other hand, indicate that object destruction was not a necessary step of a funeral but a shared “unofficial” way for people to pay respect to the dead. This shared practice therefore further implied that the region’s various subcultural units were connected through a dynamic network of information exchange, which is materialized by the circulation of ceramic products, including those jars smashed in funerals.