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Art history benefits from integration with archaeology

ZHANG JIE | 2022-05-19 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Dunhuang murals copied by painter Zhang Daqian, exhibited at the Xi’an municipal museum in Shaanxi Province, April 11 Photo: CFP

In recent years, the discipline of “archaeology of art” has attracted increasing attention. 
Development process 
Archaeology of art is a modern discipline formed by the interdisciplinary study of art history and archaeology. According to Li Song, a professor from the School of Arts at Peking University, the term “archaeology of art” is still controversial. It seems to refer to a branch of archaeology, but the relationship between art history and archaeology has differences, commonalities, as well as overlaps. Art history and archaeology share many similar research objects, both of which focus on concrete and visible materials, and solve some similar or even identical problems—objects’ or artworks’ eras, functions, creators, composite structures, meanings and attributes, and significance. 
In recent years, Chinese archaeology and art history have drawn closer to one another, Li continued. Archaeologists not only write excavation reports, but also extend their work to the interpretation of history and culture. Meanwhile, newly unearthed material is also very attractive to art historians, who are on the heels of every major archaeological dig. Archaeologists, of course, focus more on the first half of the whole activity, looking for “raw” material and addressing its “hard” properties, while art historians focus primarily on the second half, approaching its “soft” properties. 
The study of Chinese archaeology of art was born out of traditional epigraphy, which mainly examines surviving ancient bronzeware and tablet inscriptions. Huang Houming, a professor from the School of Arts at Nanjing University, said that in the early 20th century, with the application of field archaeology in the investigation and excavation of cultural remains, traditional epigraphy was transformed into the study of archaeology of art in the sense of a modern discipline. 
In Huang’s opinion, the rise of archaeology of art in China has a special historical background and a specific cultural mission. In the early 20th century, given the large-scale outflow of China’s cultural relics and the resulting concerns about Chinese cultural security, Chinese scholars, as they paid attention to and studied these cultural relics, launched a series of activities to rescue and protect cultural relics, including “the Sino-Swedish expedition of 1927–33” and “the expedition of northwestern art cultural relics.” In the 1940s, in order to protect excavated fine art archaeological materials, visionaries set up a “group of fine art archaeological data” in Shanghai, which specialized in compiling art archaeological data surveyed and excavated at that time. This was an academic practice of Chinese scholars in the name of “archaeology of fine art” to protect and study Chinese historical and cultural heritage. 
Entering the 21st century, Chinese archaeology of art has made great progress in depth and breadth. Constantly emerging academic achievements have fundamentally changed the field of Chinese archaeology of art in which Western academia had long dominated. 
According to Huang, over the past decade, with the expansion of topics of Silk Road archaeology of art, Hu-Han [ethnic minorities and the Han people] archaeology of art, and Han-Tibetan archaeology of art, Chinese scholars have actively lent their voice to international academic arenas, and contributed to restoring China’s academic discourse power, enhancing national cultural soft power, and safeguarding national cultural security. For example, in the field of Han-Tibetan archaeology of art, Xie Jisheng and Liao Yang, among other scholars, strongly advocated for the “Han-Tibetan art” theoretical system, reversing the Western bias that placed Tibetan art into “Indo-Tibetan” or “Indo-Nepali art.” This has laid an academic foundation for the accurate understanding and construction of Chinese multi-ethnic art history. 
Art heritage and unique value 
The continuous emergence of archaeological discoveries vividly demonstrates the strong cultural vitality of this multi-ethnic country and the dynamic historical process of China’s cultural pattern developing from plurality to integration, said Li Qingquan, a professor from the School of History and Culture at Shandong University. For instance, from the bronzeware unearthed at the Dayangzhou site, Xingan County, Jiangxi Province, and in the Yin Xu site in Henan Province, we can see the exchange and interaction of bronzeware casting technology between the north and the south of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th–11th century BCE). 
The Longmen Grottoes and the tomb murals of the Northern Dynasties (386–581) have witnessed the admiration of northern ethnic minorities, with the Xianbei people as the main group, for the culture of the Southern Dynasties (420–589), and the gradual integration of the Hu and Han people. The stylistic characteristics of Buddhist statues in Qingzhou, Shandong Province, reveal that China maintained close contacts with India through neighboring countries around the South China Sea in the 6th century. In addition, numerous murals of the Song (960–1279), Liao (907–1125), Jin (1115–1234), and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties reflect the close interaction and integration of different ethnic cultures in the 10th century, as well as their efforts that helped shape and construct a modern China. 
In contrast to historical documentary materials, archaeology of art focuses on visual art materials. Visual art has its own cultural logic and formal structure. The analysis of its formal system and meaning system is a major representation of how Chinese archaeology of art is distinct from general history. 
Huang believes that the historical narrative framework of Chinese archaeology of art is mostly classified and described according to the physical form of artworks, still lacking sufficient analysis and grasp of the visual language, visual logic, and visual mechanism within them. 
With the use of image media and the theory of perception, Huang suggested incorporating visual archaeological materials, together with music, dance, and drama materials, into image context for a general view, so as to construct the complete shape of Chinese art history. Audio-visual art is the most important representational form of Chinese art archaeological heritage. The study of audio-visual correlations can deeply explore audio-visual synesthesia, the mechanism of empathy, and its existence, and provide an opportunity for exploring the unique value of Chinese art archaeological heritage from the standpoint of ritual and musical civilization.