Archaeology and Antiquarianism in China

  • Phillip GrimbergEmail author
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Antiquarianism has long been intertwined with historical and historiographical narratives in China and can be understood as an attempt to bridge the divide between the present and the past through written and material sources. Harking back to the primal stages of dynastic rule in China, history and historiography played a vital role in political and philosophical thought and speculation. Thus, a concern for ancient artifacts and the material residues of the past to undergird historical scholarship has formed an integral part of Chinese historical thought.

Although we can find traces of collecting and proto-antiquarian pursuits from as early as the Han 漢 dynasty (206 BCE-220) – with a first apogee during the years of the Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 9–23) interregnum (Falkenhausen 2013) and another crucial period during the Tang dynasty (618–906) in which the preoccupation with the material remains of the past facilitated the development of an interest in antiquarian studies that laid the foundations for later antiquarian and proto-archaeological research – it was not until the Song 宋 dynasty (960–1276) that antiquarianism became both a fathomable concept as well as a past-time of the elite. Collecting and studying ancient objects became associated with the idea of comprehending and retracing the Way (dao 道), the natural order of the universe, and maintaining the order of the world and the cosmos. By collecting and studying antique objects, which were regarded as embodiments of political and moral authority, the antiquarian collector could bridge the divide between him and the idealized past. By virtue of this appropriation, he therefore gained moral gravitas, demonstrating a firm and historically recurrent belief in the moral and educative capacity of ancient artifacts (Grimberg 2019). Collectables were perceived as documents, as cultural legacy and material evidence of the past rather than objects of art. Therefore, books, but also ritual bronzes, jade objects, and other artifacts, were regarded as being the same type of objects. Their main function was not to please the senses or to inspire awe and admiration in those who looked at them, but to record events and deeds of the past. By collecting ancient objects, the antiquarian aligns himself with the (idealized) past and the (virtuous) people that owned the objects before him. Consequentially, the antiquarian collector is eager to preserve and pass on the objects he collects. Antiquarian studies and collecting thus correlate with maintaining and emulating the order of the world and the cosmos, as the cosmos is reflected in the objects collected. By collecting and studying ancient objects, the antiquarian symbolically protects the world from chaos (luan 亂).

Not only, however, were ancient objects regarded as material evidence of the past and exemplifications of cosmic forces, but also as instruments for education. Hence, antiquarian collecting was seen as a means of fostering talent and disseminating knowledge, thereby promoting learning and virtuousness which were considered to be among the guiding principles in becoming a Confucian Gentlemen (junzi 君子).

While in later centuries, especially during the Yuan 元 (1276–1368) and Ming 明 dynasties (1368–1644), the majority of scholars showed little interest in antiquarian studies per se, it was during the Qing 清 dynasty (1644–1911) that antiquarianism flourished, reaching the apex of activity in the eighteenth century. Whereas the best part of the nineteenth century witnessed a more textually and linguistically oriented approach to history and historical texts, it was during the first decades of the twentieth century that modern field archaeology was introduced to China for the first time.


Antiquarianism can be defined as the study of history through objects such as antiquities, ancient artifacts, and manuscripts, while the term archaeology describes the scientific study and excavation of material and environmental remains of past human life and activities.

In China antiquarianism or jinshixue 金石學, literally the “study of bronze and stone,” is first used to describe the activity of studying historical artifacts, mostly bronze inscriptions and inscriptions on stone stelae – hence the term, in texts of the late Tang and early Song dynasty. The modern Chinese term for archaeology, kaoguxue 考古學 or “investigating antiquity,” on the other hand, is an old term borrowed from the title of a catalogue of collectibles by Song scholar Lü Dalin 呂大臨 (1046–1092) that was only reintroduced to Chinese scholarly discourse from Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century where it had been adopted for the phenomenon of western field archaeology. Until the beginning of the twentieth century both terms have been used interchangeably (Visconti 2015).

Historical Background

The Tang Dynasty

Although collections of historical and/or precious objects, of so-called ecofacts, and curios as well as accidental discoveries of relics and artifacts by peasant-farmers, well-sinkers, or builders, antedating (proto)archaeological scholarship of later dynasties, have been documented in China since the 1st millennium BC, antiquarian interests only started to form during the Tang dynasty. With Confucianism gradually substituting Buddhism as the philosophical and social common denominator after a period of predominantly Buddhist leanings of the Chinese court, collecting ancient artifacts and objects d’art became a pastime of the elite (Demattè 2011).

The discovery of a set of drum-shaped stones engraved with archaic characters describing the hunts of the dukes of Qin dating from the late Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu 春秋, 771/770 to 481/453 BCE) or early Warring States (Zhanguo 戰國, 481/475/453-221 BCE) period, which were unearthed during the founding years of the Tang dynasty, furthered a new interest in antiquarian studies and ancient history. The so-called “Stone drum inscriptions” (Shigu wen 石鼓文) count among the earliest known stone inscriptions in China. They boast a number of poems in four-syllable verses with some 700 characters in large seal script (dazhuan 大篆). During the middle and late Tang historians commented on the stones and copies of the inscriptions were widely circulated among scholars (Mattos 1988), fuelling debates about history and historiography.

An example of what might be regarded as the earliest documented evidence of antiquarian interest during the Tang dynasty is a collection of coins unearthed from a hoard in Xi’an, dating to the year 755. It contained, among other things, coins from the Eastern Zhou to the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (Nanbei chao 南北朝, 420–589) as well as specimen from Turfan, Japan, and even Byzantium. Although Falkenhausen (2013) rightly argues that we cannot know the collector’s intention in putting together his collection we can, however, infer that it is the result of a systematic, (proto-)antiquarian approach to collecting rather than a mere bricolage of random, unrelated objects.

In the wake of the so-called guwen (old text 古文) movement initiated by the prominent Tang scholar and poet Han Yu 韓愈 (768–824) that promoted the use of pre-Han writing styles in literature and the strengthening of the Confucian orthodoxy, studies of ancient texts and antiquities alike became the nucleus of a new scholarship that evolved around ancient history, palaeography, and object studies, eventually leading to the development of antiquarian learning that unfolded during the Song dynasty.

The Song Dynasty

Antiquarian pursuits of scholar-officials and members of the social elite during the Song dynasty were based on the studies and collections of their Tang progenitors. An increase in building and engineering endeavors that was due to economic growth and a high-impact level of prosperity at the beginning of the dynasty led to more and more archaeological discoveries of ancient relics, sparking an ever growing interest in the material legacy of the past (Rudolph 1963).

While during the centuries following the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han-Empires up until the end of the Tang dynasty the court has been the driving force of collecting ancient artifacts and predominantly shaped the tastes of the elite, it was during the first century of the Song dynasty that the court gradually lost its status as the center of gravity for antiquarian studies and collecting, and affluent private scholars came to dominate the scene instead. Although the founding Emperors of the Song had seized the collections of conquered local dynasties of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (Wudai shiguo 五代十國, 906–960), uniting their treasures and incorporating them into the Imperial collection in order to demonstrate the new dynasty’s cultural hegemony, it was only during Emperor Huizong’s 徽宗 (1101–1125) reign that the court regained its former significance in collecting antique objects while at the same time reclaiming the prerogative of cultural sovereignty (Buckley-Ebrey 2014; Hsu 2013; Buckley-Ebrey 2008). Simultaneously, scholar-officials like Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007–1072) and Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101) revived the guwen movement of the Tang and advocated the strengthening of the Confucian orthodoxy and classicizing learning.

The systematic documentation of collected objects and antiquarian catalogues both private and Imperial also emerged during the Northern Song for the first time. Among the earliest catalogues of this kind are the Jigulu 集古錄 by Ouyang Xiu, dating from 1061; the Xian Qin guqitu 先秦古器圖 by Liu Chang 劉敞 (1019–1068), dating from some time before 1068; the Kaogutu 考古圖 by Lü Dalin, which was posthumously published in 1092; Zeng Gong’s 曾鞏 (1019–1083) Yuanfeng leigao jinshilu 元豐類稿金石錄 from sometime between 1078 and 1085; Zhao Mingcheng’s 趙明誠 (1081–1129) Jinshi lu 金石錄 from 1104; as well as Xue Shanggong’s 薛尚功slightly later Lidai zhongding yiqi kuanshi fatie 歷代鐘鼎彝器款識法帖 from 1144 and Zheng Qiao’s鄭樵 (1104–1162) Tongzhi jinshi lue通志金石略 from 1157 (Visconti 2015).

One of the most important precursors and patrons of antiquarian studies, collecting, and (proto-)archaeology among Chinese antiquarians, however, was Emperor Huizong, the penultimate Emperor of the Northern Song (960–1127). As one of the first collectors in Chinese history, he commissioned and published extensive catalogues of his collections. Huizong started collecting when he still was only a prince, influenced by his maternal uncle Wang Shen 王詵 (1048- c. 1103) who assembled a premier collection of books, ceramics, bronzes, and jades himself (Buckley-Ebrey 2008).

Among Huizong’s catalogues the most prominent are the Illustrated Catalogue of Antiquities of the Xuanhe-Era (Xuanhe bogutu 宣和博古圖), the Catalogue of Paintings from the Xuanhe-Era (Xuanhe huapu (宣和畫譜), the Catalogue of Calligraphies from the Xuanhe-Era (Xuanhe shupu 宣和書譜), and the Catalogue of Rocks from the Xuanhe-Era (Xuanhe shipu 宣和石譜).

The first of these catalogues, the Illustrated Catalogue of Antiquities of the Xuanhe-Era, edited by scholar-official Wang Fu 王黼 (1079–1126), was published in 1123 during the Xuanhe reign period of the Emperor (1119–1125), as were all of the other aforementioned catalogues; hence their respective titles. The Illustrated Catalogue of Antiquities of the Xuanhe-Era, however, describes some 55 categories of objects from the imperial collection, including bronzes of such types as zun 尊, yan 甗, pu 鋪, ge 鬲, ying 罌, qing 磬, jian 鑒, and ding 鼎 etc., totaling 840 objects. They date from between the Shang/Zhou dynasties through the Tang. Besides categorizations of the objects and their respective approximated chronologies and age estimates, the catalogue offers skillfully illustrated descriptions and comments on provenance and measures such as height, diameter, volume, and weight, as well as information concerning the material used and the decorations applied. Furthermore, it provides transcriptions and comments on the ancient inscriptions. It is, indeed, the very first catalogue of this kind, being a thoroughly executed scholarly assessment of the objects it lists and a demonstration of the Emperor’s keen interest in his collections and the objects he collected. In order to enlarge and enhance his collections Emperor Huizong deployed professional agents who searched the country for the most outstanding pieces and brought them back to court. Some artifacts were dug up in imperially commissioned archaeological excavations, others were given as presents to the Emperor by local dignitaries and aspiring officials. In some cases, recasts and copies of artifacts of outstanding beauty, rarity or value were made and incorporated into the Imperial collection (Buckley-Ebrey 2010).

The Catalogue of Paintings from the Xuanhe-Era describes 6396 paintings by 230 masters in the Imperial collection, dating from the Wei-Jin 魏晉 periods to the Northern Song. The catalogue specifies genres and categories by which paintings and masters are listed chronologically according to their rank, merit and quality, which were measured in descending order by the categories of “divine” (shen 神), “wonderful” (miao 妙), and “able” (neng 能).

The Catalogue of Calligraphies from the Xuanhe-Era is the catalogue of the Imperial calligraphy collection and contains chronologically arranged entries on calligraphies executed in the seal script (zhuanshu 篆書), clerical script (lishu 隸書), standard script (kaishu楷書), cursive script (xingshu 行書), grass script (caoshu 草書), and the bafen 八分-style of the standard script as well as biographies of calligraphers and masters from the Wei-Jin period up to the Northern Song, which are discussed due to their rank, merit and overall quality. In total the catalogue contains 1220 works by 247 calligraphers.

Lastly, the Catalogue of Rocks from the Xuanhe-Era, the shortest of all of Huizong’s catalogues, contains 61 entries on ancient rocks and rockeries of various origins, shapes, and sizes that were to decorate and adorn the Imperial parks and gardens. It lists the rocks’ measurements, their visual nature and qualities, their provenance, their site of installation, and, if they happened to have one, the inscriptions they bore (Buckley-Ebrey 2014).

Most catalogues of the time combine visual representations like textual transcriptions, rubbings, and printed images of the objects with a systematic, typological approach of classification that is backed by philological and historical scholarship.

During the Northern Song dynasty antiquarian approaches towards antique objects generally changed from classifying them as treasured relics or artifacts to material evidence of the past that seconded the traditional text-based historical inquiries of classical learning, while at the same time fusing notions of historicity and aesthetic concern deeply ingrained in Northern Song antiquarian scholarship with the (re-)awakening of a Chinese identity in a time of geopolitical uncertainty with foreign dynasties at the Empire’s doorstep.

While after the abduction of the Imperial court to Manchuria following the plight of the Jurchen’s siege and sacking of Kaifeng in 1127 and the reestablishment of the court in the southern capital of Lin’an (Hangzhou) shortly afterwards, collecting and antiquarian pursuits in general wavered, Northern Song catalogues were continuously reprinted and widely circulated among members of the elite. However, during the Southern Song intellectual concerns shifted from the object-driven antiquarian interests of their forebears to more metaphysically inclined philosophical debates that led to a gradual decline in the prestige of collecting and antiquarianism. Thus, antique objects, formerly venerated for their moral authority and educative capacities, were relegated to the status of aesthetic props, valued for their entertaining qualities and artistic merits only. Accordingly, archaic forms and ornaments in decorative objects were to define the taste and aesthetics in the arts and crafts for the remainder of the Southern Song, affixing the visual signatures of the past to the tastes of antiquarians and collectors alike.

The Yuan and Ming Dynasties

After the end of the Southern Song dynasty in 1276, the majority of former court officials, scholars, and Song loyalists refused to take up office under the new Mongol regime and thus retreated to retirement – some even committed suicide. In light of the dynasty’s fate, antiquarian pursuits were largely discarded in favor of more serious political and philosophical speculation about the future prospects of the realm under foreign rule. The Mongols on the other hand, while generally being rather indifferent towards Chinese cultural traditions, boasted three prominent members of the Imperial clan that fashioned antiquarian studies during the Yuan dynasty. The first, Princess Sengge Ragi 祥哥剌吉 (1283–1331), was the great-granddaughter of Kublai Khan 忽必烈 (1215–1294) and an avid collector of ancient objects of Imperial provenance. Thus, the Princess eagerly retrieved objects that formerly were part of the collections of the Song court and, specifically, personally belonged to Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song (or allegedly did so). After his demise the bulk of his collections was either destroyed by the Jurchen invaders or dispersed and sold off. Some 200 years later Princess Sengge Ragi managed to locate and retrieve a great many of objects of Imperial Song provenance and incorporated them into the collections of the Yuan court, which were later to become the foundation of the Ming and ultimately Qing Imperial collections. The second, her son-in-law, Tugh Temür (1304–1332), who became Jayaatu Khan or Emperor Wenzong 文宗 in 1328, was an accomplished poet and a dedicated antiquarian himself who established the so called Kuizhang Pavilion (Kuizhang ge 奎章閣), an academy and treasury in the palace grounds in the Mongol capital of Dadu 大都 where he kept and studied his collections of bronzes, jades, ceramics, and books. The third member of the Mongol Imperial clan who showed an interest in antiquarianism and collecting was Toghon Temür or Emperor Huizong 惠宗 (1333–1370), the last of the Yuan Emperors. Much like his predecessor Emperor Wenzong, Toghon Temür instituted an Imperial academy called Xuanwen Pavilion (Xuanwen ge 宣文閣) where he conversed with scholars and fellow antiquarians and kept his collections of antique objects, calligraphies, and paintings (Shambaugh Elliot and Shambaugh 2005).

Admittedly, his successors of the Imperial house of Zhu 朱 did not show much interest in antiquarian studies, archaeology or collecting altogether. However, the Ming dynasty in general witnessed a phase of rapid and profound socio-economic change including a considerable growth of population, an overall increase in wealth, and the emergence of a new affluent “middle class” of merchants with access to education and the time and money for leisurely pursuits. Thus, antiquarian studies and collecting became more and more common among tiers of Chinese society that were formerly barred from the exclusive circles of elite pastimes. While during the first century of Ming rule only very few antiquarian manuals were published – like Cao Zhaos 曹昭 (fl. 1370–1400) Gegu Yaolun 格古要論, a comprehensive collection of bronzes, paintings, calligraphies, stone rubbings, jades, ink stones, metalwork, ceramics, lacquer ware, textiles, and musical instruments that became very influential among fellow antiquarians and collectors of the day – it was only during the second half of the Ming dynasty that private collectors issued antiquarian catalogues and manuals of their collections in larger numbers. Among these was Gao Lian’s 高联 (1573–1620) treatise Zunsheng bajian 遵生八笺, published in 1591 as well as Zhang Yingwen’s 張應文 (1530–1600) Qingbi zang 清閟藏, published in 1595. Others, like critic and Confucian reformer of the Ming-Qing transition Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 (1610–1695), published his collections of rubbings of tomb inscriptions in his Jinshi yaolie 金石要例 in 1658, some 14 years after the demise of the Ming, while philologist and geographer Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613–1682) published two compendia of epigraphic texts on bronze vessels and stone stelae, the Qiugulu 求古錄, containing rubbings and transcriptions of texts from fifty-six stone stelae from the Han to the Ming dynasty, and the Jinshi wenzi ji 金石文字記, dealing with bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasties as well as stone inscriptions from the Han to the Tang dynasty.

Whereas during the Late Ming the elite’s interest in bronzes and antique objects generally wavered in favor of a more linguistically driven concern for the textual transmission of what was considered the original teachings of the Confucian orthodoxy of Han and pre-Han times unspoiled by Buddhist and Neo-Confucian additions – artifacts were no longer considered historical sources in their own right, rather, they were seen as “superfluous things” (zhangwu 長物) (Clunas 2004) and “ancient playthings” (wangu 玩古) that yielded no value beyond aesthetic pleasantry – reprints of Song catalogues of antiques became collectibles themselves. Rather than perpetuating antiquarian pursuits or sparking an interest in archaeological research, catalogues found their way into book collections of the Late Ming where they were grouped with other connoisseurial manuals of the time like the Pinghua Pu 瓶花譜 by Zhang Chou 張丑 (1577–1643), published in 1595, or Yuan Hongdao’s 袁宏道 (1568–1610) Pingshi 瓶史, published in 1599.

Although antiquarian and archaeological studies remained in a stalemate during most of the Ming, the more evidence-oriented approach of the philological reform movement of the Ming-Qing transition (Elman 1984) and the shift in paradigm from philosophical and metaphysical speculation to practical research and “evidential scholarship” (kaozhengxue 考證學 or kaojuxue 考據學) of the time (Hammond 2012; Elman 1984) was to prompt an increasing concern for archaeological studies and scholarly antiquarianism that first emerged during the early Qing dynasty, reaching its apogee in the eighteenth century.

The Qing Dynasty

Early precursors of Qing textual criticism like aforementioned scholar Gu Yanwu, founder of the so-called “School of Han Learning” (Hanxue 漢學), as well as Huang Zongxi, Yan Ruoqu 閻若璩 (1636–1704), Hu Wei 胡渭 (1633–1714), Mao Qiling 毛奇齡 (1623–1716), Wan Sida 萬斯大 (1633–1683), or his brother Wan Sitong 萬斯同 (1638–1702) and others advocated the use of an inductive method of textual criticism, including the use of material evidence and archaeological finds in order to adjust and re-evaluate canonical interpretations of history and to gain a firmer, more evidence-based grip on the lore of the Classics and their inherent meanings. This tide of textual criticism, ultimately aimed at improving the ruler’s capacities to govern properly through a thorough and unswerving grasp of the past, simultaneously led to an increase in antiquarian and archaeological research that was to replace traditional notions of historical scholarship as a means for comprehensively and systematically reconstructing the past (Guy 1987).

While the first two Emperors of the new dynasty, Shunzhi 順治 (1644–1661) and his son Kangxi 康熙 (1662–1722), who otherwise was rightfully considered a wise, learned ruler, did not pay much attention to antiquarianism or archaeological research, the third Emperor of the Qing, Yongzheng 雍正 (1723–1735), on the other hand, showed a keen interest in collecting and antiquarianism and was the first of the Manchu rulers to have his decorative curios and antique objects studied and portrayed in detail. In so-called “Illustrations of Ancient Playthings” (Guwantu 古玩圖) Emperor Yongzheng and his fellow antiquarians documented their collections in pictorial inventories that depict a wide variety of objects ranging from books and handscrolls to ceramics, jade and bronzes as well as exotic items such as coral, shells or rocks and other ecofacts.

It was, however, his son, Qianlong 乾隆 (1736–1796), who became the most prolific and avid collector of ancient artifacts among Qing Emperors and a knowledgeable and keen antiquarian, setting the stage for a lifelong political and artistic program that was to encompass both his roles as an absolute ruler over the at the time richest country in the world and that as an aesthete, a scholar, and a collector who dedicated part of his time and wealth to antiquarian studies and collecting (Grimberg 2019; Holtzwarth 2005; Rawson 2005). The Emperor was a major patron and important preserver and furtherer of the arts and culture of the time. For the first time in the history of antiquarianism in China Qianlong aimed at putting together a “universal” collection, including objects from Japan, India, South East Asia, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe such as furniture, clocks, automatons, technical and optical instruments, carpets, mirrors, paintings, tapestries, musical instruments, weapons, books, etc., as opposed to earlier collections that predominantly focused on particularly Chinese objects. Most “foreign” objects in his collections came as presents from missionaries or envoys or were specially commissioned for the court and shipped to the Emperors’ palaces.

The objects he collected identify the Emperor as supreme scholar as well as the guardian and preserver of China’s historical and cultural heritage and demonstrate his patronage over the cultural production of his country. Gaining the cultural prerogative and sovereignty of interpretation over the arts and culture in general was of great importance for the Manchu rulers, although none of the other nine Emperors of the Qing dynasty that ruled over China invested as much and paid as much attention to accomplish this goal like Qianlong (Wang 2018).

Much like Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty Qianlong commissioned catalogues of his collections, among which the Midian zhulin 秘殿珠林 and the Shiqu baoji 石渠寶笈, a series of catalogues of the Imperial collection of religious and nonreligious paintings, manuscripts, and calligraphies, counted for the most prodigious of his catalogues. Moreover, we find inventories of mechanical clocks, telescopes, astrolabes, European artworks of enamel and glass, as well as jewels, sacrificial objects, and jades.

As was the case with the Song Imperial collections, ancient bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties all the way to the Tang dynasty were of paramount importance with regard to Qianlong’s collecting and cataloguing practices. The Xiqing gujian 西清古鑑, published in 1749, was the first of a series of four catalogues, followed by the Ningshou jiangu 寧壽鑑古, published in 1779, and the two sequel catalogues Xiqing xujian jiabian 西清續鑑甲編 and Xiqing xujian yibian 西清續鑑乙編, published in 1794, describing, illustrating, and categorizing more than 4,000 bronzes ranging from wine and food vessels, musical instruments and bells, to coins and mirrors (Yu 2007). Yet in comparison to the catalogues Emperor Huizong had issued some 600 years earlier, Qianlong’s catalogues are much larger in scope, but limited to measures and numbers and rather demure descriptions of the objects listed than engaging in extensive descriptions, interpretations, and age determination efforts as can be found in Huizong’s catalogues, demonstrating a somewhat lesser extend of antiquarian acumen and devotion to the objects collected.

Although we see a rapid decline in Imperial collecting and antiquarianism from the reign of Qianlong’s son Emperor Jiaqing (1796–1820) onwards several private antiquarians and scholars of the time published catalogues of their collections (Bai 2013). Among them were Qian Dian 錢坫 (1744–1806) and his catalogue of bronze objects, the Shiliu Changletang guqi kuanzhikao 十六長樂堂古器款識考, published in 1796, and his catalogue of mirrors, the Huanhua baishi xuanjing ming jilu 浣花拜石軒鏡銘集錄, published in 1797, as well as Wang Chang 王昶 (1725–1806) and his Jinshi cuibian 金石翠編, a catalogue containing 1500 inscriptions from stone stelae and bronzes from the Xia to the Jin dynasty, complete with transcriptions and discussions of the texts. Another expert collector and antiquarian of the day was Ruan Yuan 阮 元 (1764–1849), who published his vast study collections of bronze inscriptions in his Jiguzhai zhongding yiqi kuanzhi 積古齋鐘鼎彝器款識 in 1804 together with a comprehensive preface. In his catalogue Ruan Yuan gives an account of the history of bronze collecting and research and provides illustrations of the objects and their respective inscriptions, all in chronological order and grouped according to a classification system based on object typologies. Moreover, he edited and published the Huang Qing jingjie 皇清经解 (1829), an anthology of Imperial erudition in “evidential” (kaozheng) learning and scholarship.

Likewise, Cao Zaikui 曹載奎 (1810–1839), a young and enthusiastic kaozheng scholar, antiquarian, and collector published his private collection of bronzes in the Huaimi Shanfang jijintu 懷米山房吉金圖 in 1839, together with measures, drawings of the objects, and transcriptions of texts.

One of the last and most prolific antiquarian scholars of Imperial China was artist, scholar-official, and collector Wu Dacheng 吴大澂 (1835–1902). His catalogue of bronzes, the Kezhai jigu lu 愙齋集古錄 with inscriptions, typology, and interpretative essays as well as his catalogue of jades, the Guyu tukao 古玉圖考 are set at the intersection of traditional antiquarian studies and a more modern approach to artifacts and material culture in general (Demattè 2011).

Overall, scholarly publications on antiquarian studies soared during the last decades of the nineteenth century, paving the way for the rise of western field archaeology and art history at the beginning of the twentieth century (Su 2004).

Key Issues/Current Debates

While antiquarianism and early forms of archaeology during the Song and Qing dynasties have been extensively researched over the last decades, Tang and pre-Tang antiquarianism remains almost completely unstudied. Contrary to the common notion that antiquarian scholarship in China only developed during the Song dynasty (e.g., cf. Visconti 2015), we find literary and historical traces as well as material vestiges of (proto-)antiquarian interests and archaism possibly dating back as early as the Late Shang dynasty (Falkenhausen 2013). Whether the documented preoccupation with and the concern for material relics from the past attests to early forms of antiquarianism, however, remains a desideratum for further study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chinese StudiesFriedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-NurembergErlangenGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anke Hein
    • 1
  1. 1.School of ArchaeologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK