Week 5: The (sometimes exotic) material world of Tang China

Sept. 21- Sept. 27


Check you have completed your assignments for Week 4 I’m more than happy to grant extensions, but communicate! I occasionally notice somebody hasn’t collected their points in the Canvas declarations but overall I hope you can do your bit of the “household chores”, and I’ll do mine!

Table of Contents


We jump forward in time to the seventh century and beyond, shift away from the strong focus on funerary goods (though it is still present) and move further west than we have done so far in the course, to look at objects and texts that were buried in the deserts of modern Xinjiang autonomous region in northwestern China for centuries, and the presence of foreign people and the exotic goods they brought to the country, and how this affected the material culture of China.

The Tang period (618-907) is often portrayed as a highlight of Chinese history, literature, and art. But what does “Chinese” mean, when the imperial family has Central Asian as well as ethnic Han blood running through its veins, and much of the urban population of the capitals Chang’an and Luoyang is enthralled by Hu (Central Asian) culture, from food, to music and fashion, and when much of what we know about Tang’s daily life comes from a frontier area like the Western Regions?

We are extremely lucky to have a lot of information about this time period, thanks to “time capsules” found in the desert in the Xinjiang autonomous region, in the Mogao caves near Dunhuang and other locations known during the Tang period as the “Western Regions”. But the story of the find in the early twentieth century, and the dispersion of the collection of materials across the globe also speaks to the issue of Western imperialism and its influence on early twentieth century China. Check out the slide deck for more background, read the materials in the basic set to get a glimpse of the Tang’s position in the early global economic system, and then pick one of the two options to dive deeper into the topic that speaks most to you.


Basic set: every body reads this

  • Slide deck (Gdrive link)
  • Useful background: if the jump is too big from last week to this week, this may help a bit:
    • D’Haeseleer, Tineke. “Tang China (618-907).” In Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, edited by Erik Hermans. Arc Humanities Press, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. (PDF)
  • Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire : A History of China to 1800. Second ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.(PDF)
    • Shortly after the year 1000, a niche on the side of a man-made cave in Mogao, near Dunhuang, was sealed off. Its contents was not revealed until the early years of the twentieth century. This brief excerpt gives you a mini-introduction to the Library cave of Dunhuang.
  • Video: (13min): Justin Jacobs, Indiana Jones in History: From Pompeii to the Moon. “Episode XV: The Guardians of Dunhuang” (Youtube)
    • More on the “discovery” of the Library cave, and how its treasures ended up spread out across the globe.
  • OPTIONAL EXTRAS: Dunhuang Foundation lectures:
    • Feng, Anne. “Buddhist Art at Dunhuang” (Youtube)
    • Nugent, Christopher. “China’s Golden Age: Imperial Chang’an.” (Youtube)

Pick Option A OR Option B

Option A: Exploring the Library Cave

  • Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road : A New History with Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.(PDF)
    • “Chapter 3: Midway between China and Iran”
      • Note: Aurel Stein was a Hungarian born British civil servant who collected many documents from the Western Regions, which are now in the British Library.
      • Question: How do the material remains of this area help us understand the complex culture of Western Region? And the culture of Tang China?
  • Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road : A New History with Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
    • Women’s Lives at Dunhuang in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (PDF)
    • The Real World Legal System in the Turfan Documents (PDF)
    • Questions: How do these documents connect to the previous big themes we covered (state, values, religious ideas,…)? How can we use physical objects to understand more about the world in which they were produced? What differences do you see between “theory” and “practice”?

Option B: Foreigners and their culture in Tang China

  • Schafer, Edward H. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. (ebook Trexler library)

Do both of the follow tasks for this option:

  • Task 1: Read Chapter 1 (“Glory of T’ang”)
  • Task 2: Look through the Table of Contents, select one chapter based on the title, and read through it. Pick one item (object, creature, person) that intrigues you most within that chapter, and introduce it to your colleagues.


Feedback on the Tombs reflections

2 points, due by Tuesday Sept. 22, 11.59PM.

Read through the reflections from others and get a sense of what they feel they learned!
Remember that learning and writing is a collaborative process; be open for new insights and ideas.
Read more and become a better reader and writer.

Here are two students’ Reflection posts on the tombs of early China

[Coming on Monday morning!]

  • Comment using Hypothes.is group HST137
  • Content: draw the writer’s attention to something they missed, or point out how they highlight something you weren’t aware of
  • Style: do you have tips how the writer can make their reflection pack a tighter punch? Does the writer have great sentences or choice of words? What would you like to emulate? Share it!
    • Note: Spelling and phrasing are not the most important, but if you notice a pattern, it is helpful to point it out.

When you’re ready, head over to Canvas and fill out the Declaration Quiz to claim your points.

– I commented on two fellow students’ end of week reflections on the tombs of early China readings, using the Hypothes.is group HST137.
– I made sure to leave substantial comments that help the writer to improve the post, or to identify their strengths.
– I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

Initial post on Tang period foreign culture

3 points, due by Tuesday Sept. 22, 11:59PM, but start reading earlier so you have time to digest.

You will read and watch the materials in the Basic Set in the reading list, and then pick either Option A for a deeper exploration of the Library Cave OR Option B for a chance to investigate how we can use objects to learn more about the Tang period.
Then write an initial post of appr. 200 words. (As always: more is fine if you have things to say.)

Look through the slide deck, and use the guiding questions as starting points, but you can also begin from your own observations of what is strange, remarkable, or interesting. If you’re using option B, please introduce us to the item of your choice, and share why you thought it fascinated you!

This post is your “opening salvo” in a discussion of these course materials.
This is also the place where you can ask questions about things you don’t understand: perhaps there are contradictions in or between the texts you read, or you can’t make head or tail of something?

  • Include the bibliographic references for the materials you choose, so we know which ones you picked.
    • Top tip: copy-paste from the list, they are (hopefully) correctly formatted in bibliography format for Chicago Notes and Bibliography style.
  • Add an image that illustrates the topic of your post, with a caption and credit for the image (e.g. a hyperlink to the source).
    (Memes, if relevant, are welcome!)
  • Include the word Tang in the title of the post
  • Add it to the category hst137 on your blog.

When you’re done, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Declaration in the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I wrote a post of about 200 words in response to the readings about Tang dynasty material culture.
– I included the bibliographic references for the materials I used for my post.
– I included an image, and provided a caption and credit (source) for the image.
– I use the word Tang in the title, added the post to category hst137

Discussion and comments in Hypothes.is

2 points, due Thursday Sept. 17, by 11.59pm.

There are two options this week, so to help you cover more ground without doing all the reading, looking at other students’ posts may help.

Below you find links to four blog posts from your fellow students.
If one of the websites is your own, or it is twice the same person’s, refresh the page, and you should get new sites.

  • Post 1:
  • Post 2:
  • Post 3:
  • Post 4:

Leave feedback, questions, thoughts, insights about the contents of the posts of your fellow students, using Hypothes.is group HST137.
You can ask for clarifications, point out similarities and differences with the material you covered, or with your interpretation.
This should encourage you to nose around in the other materials you did not read in the first round.

Use the “Architect’s Model” of giving feedback, and engage with concrete issues.
Go beyond “Yeah, I agree,” “I like” or “I think the same”, and instead
explain why you have that reaction, or if you disagree, you can try to persuade the original poster of your idea or interpretation.

Remember that Hypothes.is allows for hyperlinks, e.g. to materials that support your argument, or you can include pictures (memes! [yes, there she is again]), videos etc. that help the original poster to learn more.

When you’ve commented on four posts, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I commented on four fellow students’ initial posts on the readings about Tang period foreign culture, using Hypothes.is group HST137.
– I made sure to leave substantial comments that move the discussion forward and help to create better insights, and go beyond a “nice” or “great”.
– I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

End of week reflection

3 points, due on Sunday, Sept. 27 by 11:59pm.

If you really engaged with the topic of the Tang period’s connections with the wider world this week, your insights have changed: you know more about the way foreign culture was perceived, documents were preserved, or how we can use them to catch a glimpse of daily life, and the ways archaeologists and historians try to interpret these materials.

Just like last week, in your post you will also include three bullet points “Things I learned this week” — what do you know now about burials in early China that you did not know at the start of this week?

  • Write a blog post of appr. 200 words (more is fine if you have Ideas), include the bibliographic details of the texts you refer to or engage with.
    • How have your ideas changed?
    • How do you now think about Tang period China’s engagement with the world, the library cave, foreigners in Tang China, …. ?
    • What new research questions can you ask, that you never thought about before?
  • Add your three bullet points with “Things I learned this week”.
  • Use the word Reflection in the title, and use the tag week5, and add to category hst137.

Then read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I wrote a blog post of appr. 200 words to demonstrate my changed/enhanced understanding of the Tang period’s connections with the wider world, through material culture in early Chinese history.
– I included a list with the bibliographic references of the texts I used to create my post.
– I added three bullet points under the heading “Three things I learned this week”.
– I use the word Reflection in the title, used the tag week5, and added the post to category hst137 .

Extra Credit

EC 1: Follow that Footnote!

3 points, due by Sunday, Sept. 27, 11.59pm.

Read the instructions on this separate webpage (that’s to keep the weekly schedule manageable). You’ll also find the link there to the declaration quiz. It’s not difficult, but it was complex to explain if you’ve never really thought about footnotes.

EC 2: Change the theme on your WordPress site

2 points, due by Sunday, Sept. 27, 11:59pm Note: this is a repeat task. If you have already done it, you cannot collect the points again.

The standard theme for WordPress blogs at this moment is the so-called “Swedish Museum of Modern Art” or “Twenty-Twenty”. Maybe you like it well enough. But did you know there are thousands of free themes out there to make your blog look nice? For instance, my course website runs on “Catch Starter”, the Daily Course Announcements site uses the theme “Noto Simple”. Here’s how to have some fun with your site:

  1. Spend ± 30 mins. exploring different themes, and pick a new one that fits your personal taste better, and customize it. You can find more information in the videos linked on this help page (scroll down).
  2. Write a brief blog post explaining why you picked your new theme, and why you like it better, or how you customized it. If you stuck with the original Twenty-Twenty theme, remove extraneous links and information (so it looks nice), and then explain in the post why it’s still the best theme for you.
  3. In the title of the post, include the words WordPress Theme, add the tag extracredit (one word) and add the post to category hst137.

When you’re done, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points. The title of the Quiz is “EC-week 2-2”, this is correct.

– I explored different themes for WordPress and customized one for my site.
– I wrote a blog post explaining my choice of theme, and how I customized it.
– I included the words WordPress Theme in the title, added the tag extracredit (one word) to the post, and added the post to category hst137


Where to ask questions?

Remember that it is highly likely that you are not the only one with that question. Save me time, and help your fellow students by asking questions where others can see them. If you know the answer to a question, jump in! I can’t be everywhere all the time.

Missing link? Wrong information? Email me!

On to week 6 (coming soon!)