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Tablet epigraphs benefit historical studies of middle-ancient China

QIANG HUITING | 2018-08-31
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

On Oct. 29, 2017, epigraphs of some renowned poets from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) were displayed at the Forest of Stone Steles Museum in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, to commemorate the 930th anniversary of the birth of Xi’an Forest of Steles.   Photo: XI’AN DAILY


As a large number of newly unearthed tablets with epigraphs are made public through printing, research focused on these epigraphs has become a hot topic in middle-ancient Chinese history.


The large number of newly unearthed tablets featuring epigraphs of the life stories of tomb owners brings new challenges to collection and analysis efforts. Currently, there are multiple decentralized channels for publishing these epigraphs. Most of these newly unearthed epigraphs are published by public or private collectors, or compiled by scholars who travel around seeking rubbings in antique catalogs or journals of historical relics, archaeology and calligraphy.


Qiu Luming, an associate professor of history at Fudan University, said that this multiple and decentralized way of publishing epigraphs brings quite a lot of problems. First, some epigraphs are published repeatedly, which is a waste of resources and easily leads to repetition in scholarly study. Second, the connections between some epigraphs are broken, increasing the difficulty of studying those epigraphs. Last of all, the delay in publishing some of the epigraphs makes it difficult for the scholars to draw a general picture of the unearthed tablets.


The tomb-robbing and trade of tablets of epigraphs troubles researchers in this field, and it is also the basic reason why the channels for publishing epigraphs are so multiple and decentralized, said Wang Su, a research fellow at the Palace Museum. Generally, those who rob tablets from tombs first sell the rubbings of the tablets, then fabricate more tablets based on the authentic ones, Wang said. They would sell the authentic ones last, and during this process, rubbings of the fabricated tablets also flow into the market, he said. All these lead to the situation of collecting a large number of repeated epigraphs. It is also difficult to distinguish between the originals and the forgeries.


Wang suggested that the biggest problem for sorting out and analyzing these epigraphs is the lack of a uniform set of regulations. Scholars adopt their own way, as they please, of naming, explaining, punctuating and annotating the epigraphs. The publishing institutions should set regulations for sorting, editing and publishing epigraphs, and they should apply the rules for editing ancient books to the newly unearthed literatures, Wang said. Just like the Manual for the Compilation of Ancient Books, it is necessary to write a manual for the compilation of unearthed literatures, he suggested.


Qiu proposed improving the compilation of epigraphs in three aspects. First, the quality of epigraph tablet catalogs should be improved to record as much information about scattered tablets or relevant cultural relics as possible. Second, mistakes in the names and other information on the tablets should be reduced during the compilation of epigraph catalogs. Last of all, it is necessary to make a systemic investigation of the original tablets regarding where they go and where they are preserved. We should also edit an epigraph catalog with richer information, he said.


The newly unearthed tablets provide new materials for the study of the history of the Southern and Northern dynasties as well as the Sui and Tang dynasties. Ye Wei, a professor of history at Peking University said the custom of writing epigraphs matured approximately in the middle period of the Northern Wei Dynasty, which was one of the Southern and Northern dynasties, and the custom became popular in the Tang Dynasty.   


The number of unearthed and recorded tablets with epigraphs today is five times the historical number recorded in the Old Book of Tang and the New Book of Tang. Ye explained that official historical books like the New Book of Tang provide biographies of royal families, their relatives, and senior officials, most of who were male. Contrary to official historical books, the owners of the tablets of epigraphs were mostly middle and lower officials, even ordinary people, and female owners also account for a larger proportion than as shown in the official books, he said. Hence, the tablets of epigraphs will provide valuable materials for a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the bureaucracy and society of middle-ancient China.

 

(edited by CHEN ALONG)