Japan > China #worldinterview #3

Japan > China

Interviewee: Lia Wei

What role does ‘world heritage’ play in local communities where you are?

Part of my effort while surveying and researching rock-cut sites in Southwest China was directed at challenging false information and demystifying the identity of the tomb builders, often made to appear more exotic than they probably were, for touristic purposes.

Touristic projects insist on disguising the sites as “barbarian” tombs. The danger of such attempts at the local level of heritage management is evident in the setting of the Qigedong site, where the height from ground of the caves has been enhanced by dangerously digging out the foot of the cliff, then hastily covered in cement, and a “barbarian-style” suspended bridge was added to access the site from the motor road across the river. Following this trend, the press newly disseminates the denomination “caves of the Lao people” (Lao dong僚洞), reflecting the efforts of county level institutions who wish to exoticize their local heritage. Ethnonyms associated with cliff tombs south of the Yangzi  River such as the Bo僰, the Lao僚, or wider families of ethnic groups such as the Pu僕, the Yue越, can all be included in the wider denomination “south-western barbarians”. Such attributions have led to strong claims in the context of nation-building and the writing of national histories in Southeast Asia, as well as in the context of patrimonialisation in the area where I conducted fieldwork.

Please share a strategy that you have developed to approach, consult, mitigate, and resolve a challenging issue in your community.

Creative practices in Archaeology are just starting to be investigated, and the 8th edition of the World Archaeological Congress (WAC8) has inaugurated a new section entitled ‘Art and Archaeology’, with several sessions dedicated to cross-fertilization between artistic practice and archaeology.In mainland China, public archaeology is being promoted as an instrument of vulgarization at an institutional level, but private or small scale enterprises that propose alternative narratives for archaeological material are almost nonexistent.

In parallel to my research on cliff burials, a collaboration with cultural geographer and artist Rupert Griffiths entitled “Site_Seal_Gesture” created the opportunity to question research methods, heritage and interpretation. The project departed from the idea of proposing alternative ways of to re-imagine unwanted heritage, or heritage considered “without value”, such as the cliff burials I was investigating south of the Yangzi River. The county-level archaeological administration of Banan district, Chongqing municipality, allowed the experimental replication of a life size rock-cut cave in sandstone. The experiment was set in a protected heritage area featuring a former residence of general Chiang-Kai shek. The archaeological administration agreed to lend us two of the stonemasons then working under their supervision on a restoration project.  The experiment lasted for two weeks and included sound recordings, interviews and two inscriptions were left in situ commenting the replicas. We were able to involve villagers neighbouring the rock-cut sites, migrant workers hired as masons on a local heritage restoration project, the local archaeological administration and future visitors to the heritage park in a piece of work that combined the needs of my research and a reflection on attitudes to the past in Chinese culture.

The study of art history and archaeology, as well as heritage and museum studies are rapidly blooming in Chinese academic institutions today. They face a situation where art academies are the places where theory, critique and the history of art are taught, while departments of history and archaeology have a privileged access to both sites and artefacts stored in museums. Attempts are made to build bridges between schools and departments, and fill the gap between art and archaeology. The idea of fine arts archaeology (meishukaogu 美术考古) is but one of the hybrid offshoot of these attempts. The rise of cultural heritage as a major is another potential disciplinary bridge.

What is the relationship between politics and archaeology in your community?

The archaeology of Chinese frontiers is a growing concern today, with the One Belt, One Road (Yi Dai Yi Lu一带一路) directives implemented by the current government. My research has been awarded by institutions that are traditionally concerned by the question of Chinese frontiers, such as the Chiang-Ching Kuo Foundation. However, it has also received strong logistic and financial support from academic institutions in mainland China that are increasingly committed to the study of frontiers, such as the Archaeology department in Renmin University. Recent research orientations promote transnational collaborations with Mongolian or Kazakh archaeologists for the study of sites located in Inner Mongolia or Xinjiang. The presence of international researchers and students in Chinese academic institutions, albeit in its incipient stage, could also lead to progress in a more multivalent view of frontiers.

Concomitantly to these transnational views, political and academic moods in mainland China are more than ever focused on imagining a future for Chinese national archaeology and national heritage, or the archaeology and cultural heritage of China as a nation. In the field of Historical Archaeology (or the archaeology of periods for which written history is available, which in China goes back to the early first millennium BC), a strengthening of methodologies with ‘Chinese characteristics’ is encouraged. This can be challenging when dealing with frontier areas, which are only partially integrated in historical discourse.

How does the archaeological administration contributes to archaeology as an academic discipline and vice versa in your community?

Much of my work in the field has been to share basic recording methods and techniques of lighting and photography, promote awareness of the cultural value of the sites, and exchange experience of the area and topic with local archaeological administrators. 

County-level and provincial-level archaeological offices or heritage centres are the prime referents when it comes to the middle ground between publications and the actual sites. While provincial-level institutions usually possess a higher level of expertise, and are in charge of excavations, their advice is often insufficient when it comes to rock-art or open-air sites at the local level: such unmovable sites remain accessible only through local guides. Therefore, collaborating with county-level archaeological administration is unavoidable. Each of these local offices has its own practice, its main duty being to compile forms on the sites and monitor changes. Long-term, locally hired members of staff possess an impressive gazetteer-like knowledge of the area: they are familiar with the geography of the area, its ethnography, and collaborate tightly with local villager communities who live next to the sites. Most of them, however, who led the 2nd national-level cultural relics survey back in the late eighties and often personally discovered or first recorded the sites, are now on the verge of retirement. Since data collected during earlier survey is usually not edited or updated, these local officers remain an essential reference, since no further work has been done on previously recorded locations during the 3rd and last national survey. Without an experienced officer available, the main source of data held by any official institution is the 3rd national level cultural relics survey forms, despite the impressive amount of newly discovered material since 2010. The national survey’s format is standard across counties and provinces: it contains GPS coordinates, a discursive description of sites, a map of immediate surroundings with contour lines at a resolution that would not be directly available for researchers otherwise, scaled CAD drawings of the digs or sites, and photographs.

To collaborate with local archaeological administrators, Chinese language remains a prerequisite, as well as establishing relationships with Chinese academic institutions.

About Lia:

I studied Calligraphy, Seal Carving and Landscape Painting at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, and Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Chongqing (2007-2010). I took part in a collaborative experiment in contemporary ink painting – ‘Biface Graphy/Open Scroll’ (2009-2013) and in a China Ministry of Education funded research project on Buddhist epigraphy in Shandong Province – ‘Great Vacuity Buddha-King : Sutra Engravings and Visual Culture under the Northern Dynasties’ (2012-2016).

In 2010, I started my studies in Prehistory, Protohistory and Non-European Art and Archaeology at Brussels Free University, Belgium. After a MA in Religious Arts of Asia at SOAS, University of London, I am now conducting my PhD research on rock-cut burials along the Upper Yangzi River.

In 2014 and 2015, I lectured at the Art Theory department in Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Chongqing, for a one-term BA class on the ‘History of Sinology : The Study of East Asian Art in the West’, and at the Archaeology department at Renmin University, Beijing, for a two-terms MA class on ‘Comparing Values in Cultural Heritage : Landscape, Identity and Authenticity’. I am currently teaching the MA class ‘Art and Archaeology of the Silk Road’ at SOAS.

My research focuses on rock-cut burials on the Han empire Southwest frontier. Inscriptions date the man-made caves and carvings South of the Yangzi to the end of the Eastern Han empire (late 2nd to 3rd century CE), a moment of transition in political geography and of reconfiguration among cultural identities.

Although technologically related to earlier rock-cut ensembles in the neighbouring Sichuan Plain and along the main course of the Yangzi, in the Three Gorges area, the caves and carvings produced in this frontier region demarcate themselves in terms of their location in the landscape, their layout and iconography.

Survey in the Qi River valley conducted in 2014-2015, which connects the Sichuan Plain and the Guizhou Plateau, is here combined with case study comparisons accross several other Southern tributaries of the Upper Yangzi from Southern Sichuan to Western Hubei. Several of the burial ensembles which had been misattributed to later periods and labelled as non-Han practices, are in fact datable by both epigraphy and iconography to the late 2nd century CE, but they retain their specificity.

My thesis investigates this specific tradition of handling the dead as highly visible statements rooted in local landscapes, opening a window in the thousand years’ long process of culture change in the area.



Questions from Yumiko Nakanishi in Japan

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