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The Material Manifestations of Regional Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 December 2018

Susan Naquin*
Princeton University
*Corresponding author. Email:


This essay explores the non-luxury materialities through which most people experienced the world, argues for the possibilities of a geographically based view of Ming and Qing material history, and demonstrates some methods for approaching hard-to-find sources. It is my contention that not only will learning about and paying attention to such regional materialities open up new areas of research, but historians will also become better equipped to assess what we think we know about “China.” Here, I will concentrate on the geologically homogeneous region of the Greater North China Plain and focus on temple buildings, ritual vessels, and images of gods.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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1 This paper is part of a book in progress on North China, its religious history, and its material culture; its generalizations apply only to the period and place under consideration. Because of my fragmented sources, I make many unsubstantiated assertions about how things were and were done for which concise citations are not possible. Sensible readers will take them as claims to be demonstrated in my longer work to come. I have also chosen not to fill out footnotes with arbitrarily selected references to a fast-changing secondary literature on Ming and Qing history.

2 Including all or parts of modern Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui, Hubei, and Liaoning. (For convenience, I will use the contemporary names as indications of location.)

3 Grimmer, J.C. et al. , “Cretaceous-Cenozoic History of the Southern Tan-Lu Fault Zone: Apatite Fission-Track and Structural Constraints from the Dabie Shan (Eastern China),” Tectonophysics 369: 3–4 (2002), 29, Figure 1 (Left)Google Scholar.

4 Named after two cities along the fault-line: Tancheng 郯城 (Shandong) and Lujiang 盧江 (Anhui). The date of this protracted fusion is still the subject of debate, and there is a large active secondary literature. In English, for example, see Zhang, Jiaodong, et al. , “The Structural and Tectonic Relationships of the Major Fault Systems of the Tan-Lu Fault Zone, with a Focus on the Segments within the North China Region,” Journal of Asian Earth Sciences 33 (2015), 85100CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I first learned about this fault from Kerr, Rose and Wood, Nigel, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology Part 12 Ceramic Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 4955Google Scholar.

5 The north lacks the clays that made Jingdezhen 景德鎮 (in the south) a porcelain center, but Korea, parts of the Northeast, and the tip of the Shandong peninsula (all east of the Tan-Lu fault) are geologically part of southern China and have their distinct material regimes and ceramic histories.

6 Cha'ersi Lan Fulier 查尔斯·兰·弗利尔 [Charles Lang Freer]. Foguang wu liang: Fulier yijiu yiling nian Longmen jixing 佛光無盡 : 弗利尔一九一0年龙门纪行 / A Thousand Graces: Charles L. Freer's 1910 Pilgrimage to Longmen Buddhist Cave Temples. (Shanghai: Shanghai Shuhua, 2014), 52–53.

7 Locally pronounced Huailu (recorded as “Why-loo” or “Khavailu” by nineteenth century foreigners who recognized its importance), it is not nearly as well known today as it should be. It was one reason that modern Shijiazhuang 石家庄 (just to the east) was created where it is.

8 See, for example, Sun Tingquan 孫廷銓, Yanshan zaji 顏山雜記. 1666.

9 Agricultural industries (brewing, preserving, fermenting) were, however, of major importance on the Plain. Modern deep-mining technology has opened up the Plain's underground resources (and the Bohai Gulf's underwater ones).

10 The distinction between Buddhist and Daoist religious establishments is not relevant here. My concern is with the community-funded temples that housed only a few clerics, not either the monasteries that were far fewer in number or the standardized and state-monitored Confucian temple-schools.

11 The influential work of Liang Sicheng 梁思成 concentrated on early buildings, Qing palaces, and the rediscovered text of the Song dynasty Yingzao fashi 營造法式. In North China, ordinary temple buildings of modest size and recent (Ming, Qing, Min-guo) date have survived poorly and are rarely studied.

12 I developed this idea in a presentation, “Is It Finished? Problems in the History of Chinese Buildings, With Some Thoughts on 修,” at the 14th International Conference on the History of Science in East Asia. Paris, July 9, 2015.

13 Haiming, Xiao 肖海明, ed. Zhenwu tuxiang yanjiu 真武圖像研究 (Beijing: Wenwu, 2007), 350–51, #81Google Scholar.

14 Taishan da quan 泰山大全 (Jinan: Shandong Youyi Chubanshe, 1995), 922–24Google Scholar. I will have a good deal to say about Mount Tai in my forthcoming book.

15 Wenxian congbian 文獻叢編 (1930–1937; reprint ed. Taipei: Tailian Guofeng, 1964), 2:842.

16 Built-in stoves and sleeping platforms of similar materials and technology were common features of homes in this region.

17 Many hundreds of iron altar objects survived to be surveyed in Beijing in the 1920s (some 700 altar-set elements, 1,000 chime-bowls). Beijing simiao lishi ziliao 北京寺廟歷史資料 (Beijing: Zhongguo Dang'an, 1997)Google Scholar, passim, my count.

18 They were the objects of traditional research by many scholars who were concerned with ritual rectification, and they were sometimes treated in detail in local histories.

19 A few generously spent their salaries to commission bronze replacements. E.g. Changyuan xianzhi 長垣縣志 (Hebei province) (1810; reprint ed., Taipei: Chengwen, 1976), 6:462–63.

20 Selections from a series of photographs in Shanxi Fojiao caisu 山西佛教彩塑 (Beijing & Hong Kong: Zhongguo Fojiao Xiehui, 1991), 354–56Google Scholar.

21 Early Western observers sometimes called this medium “mud” or “plaster,” although it has been dignified in the collecting world as “stucco” or “terra-cotta.” Scholarly interest in clay statue manufacture has been minimal until quite recently (Liu Xun 劉 迅 has been doing fieldwork in Henan on this technology) and criteria for dating Ming and Qing images are not well established. Even accounting for the likelihood that statues in other media were removed, the god-images surveyed in Beijing temples in the 1920s were overwhelmingly of clay (more than 90 percent). Beijing simiao lishi ziliao, passim, my count and calculations.

22 I here include a short description of the production process. Space does not permit similar detail for the other technologies discussed in this paper.

23 See, for example, Lingyun, Qin 秦嶺云, Minjian huagong shiliao 民間畫工史料 (Beijing: Zhongguo Gudian Yishu, 1958)Google Scholar.

24 The technology was different from that used in Taihang lead-glazed statues; comparisons with stoneware figures from the south (e.g. Shekwan ware 石灣窯) could also be instructive.

25 Twentieth-century destruction was extensive; most surviving examples are in Shanxi.

26 Iron-workers often cast inscriptions on their work, and so we know that many of the god-images in museums outside of China date from the Ming.

27 The histories of Qing copper coins, mining in the Southwest, and the Japan trade are complex but not usually directed to the objects I have studied. Far less has been written about tin and zinc, although a revolutionary technology that separated zinc from its ore was transforming the domestic and world market in this metal. See Chen, Hailian and Souza, George Bryan, “China's Emerging Demand and Development of a Key Base Metal: Zinc in the Ming and Early Qing, ca. 1400–1680s,” Journal of Material Culture 22.2 (2017), 173–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Very large bells tend to be noticed, but I have also seen examples of hundreds of medium-sized ones.

29 Rostoker, William and Bronson, Bennet, Pre-Industrial Iron: Its Technology and Ethnology (Philadelphia: Privately published, 1990), 1719Google Scholar.

30 As we can see by noting how few temples listed in any county gazetteer had even one.

31 Virtually all of the statues of this god known to me (none provenanced to the North) were also made of (painted) wood.

32 Dozens survived into the late 1990s, including flagpoles that still stood when the temple was entirely gone. For one well preserved example in Henan see Sheqi Shan-Shaan huiguan 社旗山陜會館 (Beijing: Wenwu, 1999)Google Scholar.

33 I combined texts with objects and travel, and did so at a time when political and economic change in China was only just beginning to speed up and before the most recent exponential increases in digitized data. The situation in China has been transformed since the 1990s and early 2000s; travel is easier but finding pre-1900 objects and buildings is as challenging but in different ways. Digitization has made museum collections more accessible, opened up the auction market worldwide, and provided the tempting but dangerous power to search through masses of texts.

34 Ko, Dorothy, The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017)Google Scholar.