King, Tiger, Artist, Author: Methodological Perspectives on a Shang Bone Artifact


While archaeology and epigraphy are indispensable aspects of the study of the early historical period in China, much of our interpretation of these societies and people may be unduly influenced by an emphasis on literary content and ritual function. Resting on the cornerstone works of Clifford, Baudrillard, Elkins and McLuhan, and in light of new evidence from Anyang, persistent questions regarding the process of textual development or origins are addressed. More than this, the expression of individual desires and anxieties through art and text is seen to complicate our understanding of ancient peoples and their artifacts, and allows for the existence of fine art in the ancient world.

The emergence of the authoritative or artistic voice is a poorly studied topic. While the emergence of text in China is well-documented, we have yet to adequately track changes in cultural attitudes toward text between the period of its emergence on oracle bones, and its eventual deployment by self-conscious authors. That is, a deep engagement with the nature of authorship in the very early historical period may call our familiar notions regarding the relationship between people, objects and texts into question.

Focusing on an inscribed Shang Dynasty tiger bone spatula, this study deals with the issue of artistic creativity in the ancient world by adopting art historical methods. Such methods are only too rarely employed for the study of artifacts whose author remains uncertain. Yet, by broadening the scope of both art history and archaeology, this unique artifact is seen to be engaged in the creation of a new kind of text, in the assertion of a new kind of personal authorship. Using a single artifact as lens, insight into the artistic value systems of ancient viewers, owners and craftspeople is pursued.

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