In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Material Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Chinese Studies Material Culture
Anne Gerritsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0098


Material culture is a broad and interdisciplinary field that explores the cultural meanings objects acquire in context. It does not impose a hierarchy on what is included; anything that is made from a particular material can be seen as material culture. The implication, however, is that raw materials and natural commodities are, on the whole, excluded, and that there is a certain emphasis on the ways in which things have been made. In the case of tea, for example, the plant itself is perhaps not seen as part of material culture, but its methods of cultivation, the ways in which tea is brewed, the various attributes required in the preparation and consumption of the beverage, and all practices surrounding tea are all part of the material culture. There are fruitful overlaps with numerous other fields: with art history, where that discipline explores the so-called decorative arts; with history, where objects form a supplement and/or alternative to written documentation; with anthropology, where objects are part of social practice; and with (prehistoric) archaeology, where objects often are the only available source in the absence of written materials. The emphasis on objects has been useful in a number of areas, especially where written sources are difficult to access. In the field of women and gender, for example, the study of material culture has allowed a different kind of access to the experiences that shaped the lives of men and women who did not leave documentation in writing. In global history, material culture and the use of objects provide ways of overcoming the challenges of materials written in different languages. While material culture has become an important part of numerous academic fields in Europe and North America, in Asia the transition has been slower. The main developments in this area have come from Taiwan, where a number of scholars have made important contributions in this field. This bibliography includes not only materials conceived specifically from within a material culture context, but also work produced within disciplines such as archaeology and art history. Methodologically, they may differ from the study of material culture, but in terms of the source materials they present for the scholar interested in material culture, they are indispensable.

General Overviews

The pieces listed below shed light on the general topic of material culture in China from a variety of perspectives. Lion, et al. 1960–1963 and Hearn and Fong 1974 show how material culture used to be studied: from the perspective of the museum world, and as a rather secondary branch of art history, ranked below fine art. Rawson 2007, also written from the perspective of the museum world, shows how the collections of a museum can be used for fruitful research in numerous disciplines, and Gillet, et al. 2006 provides examples of the use in research of more recently discovered objects. Ebrey 2010 shows how important visual and material culture is for telling the story of China’s past. Wang 2012 adds the perspective of the art market; Rujivacharakul 2011 the history of collecting; and Nietupski, et al. 2011 the use of Chinese material culture in teaching.

  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    First published in 1996, this book has been reprinted and translated numerous times. It still provides a very useful first look at China’s past and present with well-explained visual material integrated fully in the text. Also highly regarded by its Chinese readership.

  • Gillet, Martine, Alain Thote, and Géraldine Hue, eds. L’autre en regard: Art et culture matérielle de la Chine: Volume en hommage à Michèle Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens. Paris: Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, 2006.

    Articles in French and English that cover a wide range of topics through time and space. Contains a full bibliography of Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, who herself has written in disciplines such as art, architecture, and archaeology; on subjects such as periods from Han to Qing; and on spaces from China to the Middle East and Africa.

  • Hearn, Maxwell, and Wen Fong. “The Arts of Ancient China.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 32.2 (1974): 231–280.

    DOI: 10.2307/3258584

    Introductory overview of the arts of ancient China, based on the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The article begins with the Neolithic and then covers what it calls the Age of Ritual (the Shang), the secularization of art in the Zhou, and the establishment of the imperial order, ending with Buddhism and the Tang.

  • Lion, Daisy Goldschmidt, Jean Claude Moreau-Gobard, Soame Jenyns, and William Watson. Chinese Art. London: Oldbourne, 1960–1963.

    Old-style overview of decorative arts. Volume 1 covers bronze, jade, sculpture, and ceramics; volume 2 precious metals, cloisonné, enamel, lacquer, furniture, and wood; volume 3 painting, calligraphy, stone rubbing, and wood engraving; and volume 4 textiles, glass and painting on glass, carvings in ivory, rhinoceros horn and hardstones, snuff-bottles, inkcakes, and inkstones.

  • Nietupski, Paul K., Joan O’Mara, and Karil J. Kucera. Reading Asian Art and Artifacts: Windows to Asia on American College Campuses. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2011.

    This introductory volume looks at Chinese art and artifacts in the context of objects from east and south Asia and asks fresh questions about their meaning. The objects and images are drawn from collections in colleges throughout the United States, and the emphasis is on what they can teach us about understanding Asia.

  • Rawson, Jessica. The British Museum Book of Chinese Art. London: British Museum Press, 2007.

    Authoritative overview of Chinese art and material culture, with illustrations drawn mostly from the British Museum collections (cited under Museum Collections). Particularly relevant are the sections on jades and bronzes, sculpture for tombs and temples, decorative arts, and luxuries for trade. Useful appendices include chronologies, glossaries, and bibliographies.

  • Rujivacharakul, Vimalin, ed. Collecting China: The World, China, and a History of Collecting. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2011.

    Wide-ranging exploration of the history and practices of collecting in China and the wider world. Includes chapters by Lydia Liu, Stanley Abe, and Wen-hsin Yeh, and covers the period from oracle bones to the modern era.

  • Wang, Audrey. Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

    This illustrated book is intended as a guide to the growing market for Chinese antiquities, and aimed at current and aspiring collectors and investors. There is a chapter on historical trade in Chinese material culture and on the global art market today.

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