Ceramic analysis sheds light on xenophobia, 1300 years too late | Georgetown College

Sancai ceramics analyzed by Zheng as part of his research.

June 7, 2022

Posted in News
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Tagged Art & Art History, History Department, Research, Student

How do you know what people in the 7th century thought of foreigners? According to Xin Zheng (C’23), you should examine their pottery.

This spring, Zheng, a double major in art history and history, presented her paper on the representation of ethnic minorities in Tang Dynasty (618-907) pottery at the SUNY New Paltz Undergraduate Art History Symposium. Zheng began his research in a class on Chinese art taught by Michelle Wang, a professor in the Department of Art and Art History.

From class to colloquium

Zheng analyzed the artwork adorning the tricolor glazed pottery, or sancaito understand cultural attitudes around those depicted in ceramics.

Xin Zheng (C’23)

“Chinese pottery has always captivated foreign and domestic audiences,” Zheng said. “With the inclusion of foreign dancers, musicians, and animals in the design of sancai wares, it feels like foreigners were welcomed in the Tang Dynasty.”

During the 6th and 7th centuries, foreigners were an integral part of Chinese life, with some living and working in cities like Chang’an and Luoyang. Foreign goods were sold in markets and foreign fashions were worn. Although their presence can be understood as acceptance, Zheng argues that their representation in sancai was anything but a party.

“We know that many foreigners have gone to China as doctors, military advisers, lawyers and scholars,” Zheng said. “But they weren’t included in sancai. Instead, portrayals of outsiders emphasize their inferiority. You see foreign characters shirtless, drunk or dancing. You don’t see any government officials or military personnel included in the ceramic design”

Art as an educator

The sancai adorning the tombs are more than a treasure trove of artifacts, the expanse of surviving samples provides a fantastic lens through which to view Tang China. These wares not only represent first-hand accounts for an art historian, they are a phenomenal entry point for a beginning researcher.

“Works of art and architectural sites shape and are shaped by the historical moment in which they were created,” says Wang. “Like historians, art historians are also interested in questions of chronological succession and historical periodization. What distinguishes art history is that art historians treat works of art and architectural sites as primary sources in their own right.

For Wang, empowering undergraduates to engage in independent research is key to developing an enduring love of scholarship.

“I find that students really enjoy engaging in independent research because they appreciate having the freedom to follow their own interests and gain confidence in mastering a certain topic,” says Wang. “I helped students develop their research by emphasizing interdisciplinary research methods, encouraging the use of non-English language scholarly literature, introducing scaffolded paper assignments, essays, learning activities, peer review and seeking opportunities for students to present or publish their research.”

After graduating next year, Zheng plans to pursue a doctorate. in art history in Chinese or European art.

by Hayden Frye (’17)

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