Art of Changes: Material Imagination in Early China, c. Third to First Century BCE
Much as ancient Greek philosophers imagined solid marble to be watery in its origin and weighty metals as condensed cousins of wind, Chinese thinkers in the Warring States period (476–221 BCE) conceived of the world as a giant furnace, one in which cosmic energies of yin and yang smelted and fused like molten copper alloy, ceaselessly casting and spontaneously manifesting themselves in a myriad of materials. In this liquid and animate universe, material entities were no longer viewed in isolation, but as varied states within a continuum of cosmic transformation—at one end, the hard and solid jade and metal; at the other end, the soft and fluid water and body. Thus, the material world was the physical and allegorical reflection of cosmogenesis, or zaohua—“the Great Transformation.”
In this context, my dissertation examines the efficacy of materials in ancient Chinese art, circa third to first century BCE. Whereas materials are often seen as a factual matter, a constant in interpretive discourses on ancient art, my study historicizes the shifting imagination of materials to consider how it shaped the evolution of art and its perception. Through case studies on four prominent materials in ancient Chinese art, including jade, bronze, glass, and mercury, I uncover how the new cosmic vision not only fundamentally altered understandings of materials, but also opened up new possibilities for artisanal intervention in the metamorphosis of matters. This shift brought art closer than ever to alchemy and extended to the conceptualization of the human body, mandating a structural symmetry and ontological fluidity between the microcosm of the body and the macrocosm of the external world, in turn empowering materials with potencies to affect the body. These developments, I argue, account for the emergence of some of the most innovative artwork in the period.
The first chapter begins with a reexamination of the jade burial suit for King Liu Sheng (d. 113 BCE), which paradoxically mimics a nude body. Uncovering jade’s identity as an earthly sediment capable of corporeal morphing, I illustrate the manner in which the figural suit sought to visualize the concept of the perfect “jade body,” which gained currency in period medical literature. In addition, I demonstrate how the physical qualities of jade served as metaphors for key concepts in macrobiotic cultivation, and further explore aspects of corporeality in how the hardstone was imagined.
The second chapter explores the reconceptualization of bronze as a cosmic matter. Focusing on a rectangular bronze mirror recently excavated from the tomb of the Marquis of Haihun (d. 59 BCE), I reveal a tripartite conceptual parallel among the cosmic diagram painted on the mirror stand, the conceptualization of the symbolism of bronze metallurgy, and the microcosmic structure of the body. Through the act of reflection, the mirror acquired the power to mediate divinity and restore the viewer’s macrobiotic balance.
In the third chapter, I focus on a set of glass belt plaques that belonged to King Zhao Mo (d. 122 BCE). Tracing the adoption of glassmaking, originally a foreign technology, into ancient Chinese alchemical theory, I demonstrate how glass was perceived as a man-made miracle stone imbued with cosmic and medical potencies. Glass technology also inspired the invention of an artificial purple pigment, whose profound impact on color symbolism in ancient China I assess through the case of a purple altar constructed by Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE) and dedicated to the deity Taiyi (“Supreme Unity”) in 112 BCE.
Finally, the fourth chapter scrutinizes the invisible art of mercury. Mostly used as a technical medium for fire gilding, mercury evaporates and leaves no physical trace after its application, but is nevertheless considered to have transformed the object it touched. Focusing on a group of exceedingly rare gilt silverwares in the Harvard Art Museums’ collection, I argue that the gilding, in evoking the mediation of mercury, visually enacted the natural evolution of materials toward incorruptible gold in the early Chinese imagination, a powerful allegory for the attainment of corporeal immortalization.
The four case studies offer insights into aspects of ancient Chinese art unavailable through the study of iconography or ritual alone; they sensitize us to materially based artisanal practices and body-centric modes of perception. In this way, my dissertation aims to contribute to broader discourses on material agency in ancient art and archaeology by highlighting a vital source of material imagination in early China—the formless cosmic change itself.
Ittleson Fellow, 2019–2021
During the 2021–2022 academic year, Ziliang Liu will complete his dissertation at Harvard University.