China and Inner Asia
Brown University, United States
The expanded use of reprographic technologies like rubbing and printing over the course of the eighth through the eleventh centuries fostered new sensitivity to the materiality of inscriptions. For the first time, writers began talking about stone as an impermanent medium prone to erosion, delamination, and other forms of degradation. By the eleventh century, we have clear evidence that at least some literati were thinking about rubbings not simply as mechanisms for preserving and disseminating written forms, but as devices for recording what Wu Hung has memorably characterized as the inexorable “ruination” of stone inscriptions. As literati became increasingly attuned to the impermanence of stone, some sought inspiration from the oldest of all inscriptions known in Song China—the commemorative texts inscribed on Western Zhou ritual bronzes. Amid the cultural tumult of the late eleventh century, ancient bronze inscriptions simultaneously encouraged recognition of the inherent material limits of all forms of visual and textual preservation and provided a model for overcoming those limits. This inspiration led to the emergence of a new practice—"antiquarian inscription”—which creatively adapted the visual and textual forms of ancient bronze inscriptions to recreate the culture that originally brought those inscriptions into being. Using the inscribed stone and bronze vessels recovered from the cemetery of the elite Lü family in Lantian, Shaanxi as a case study, this paper examines the artistic forms and ideological underpinnings of this new practice, and considers the question of why it did not prove to be more enduring.