Beyond Meaning

The Form, Substance, Color and Pattern of Shang Things

Roderick Campbell


The mesmerizing yet enigmatic zoomorphic motifs found on Shang and Western Zhou bronze ritual vessels have captivated the imaginations of generations of scholars and generated interminable debates as to their meaning (or lack thereof). Less often appreciated is the fact that these ancient Chinese bronzes were only part of larger assemblages of ritual paraphernalia or tomb offering and their décor was an instantiation of a wider visual culture. Even more radically, I would argue that they are but one manifestation of an alternative, relational ontology of representation and being. I will use the concept of skeumorphy to open a window into the sets of relations between representations and things at the Shang capital in the last centuries of the 2nd millennium BCE, proceeding through the play of form, substance, ornament and writing across of an array of Shang material culture.

Rod Campbell is Associate Professor of East Asian Archaeology and History at ISAW. He is an archaeologist and historian focusing on the Chinese Bronze age, especially the Anyang period (ca. 1250-1050 BCE). Thematically, Campbell’s research has ranged from theorizing violence and early complex polities to historiography and more recently visual culture and ancient economy. Professor Campbell held a number of post-doctoral appointments after graduating from Harvard with a dual degree in anthropology (archaeology) and East Asian Languages and Civilizations (Chinese history), including the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (NYU), the Joukowsky Institute (Brown University), and Merton College (Oxford University) and won grants and fellowships from numerous sources including from the Canadian Social Sciences and Research Council, Luce-ACLS, the Chiang Ching-kuo foundation, and the Wenner Gren foundation. Publications include Archaeology of the Chinese Bronze Age (Cotsen Institute, 2014), Violence and Civilization (ed. Joukowsky Institute, 2014), Violence, Kinship and the Early Chinese State: the Shang and their World (Cambridge UP, 2018), an article on early complex polities for Current Anthropology, a study of a gigantic Shang bone workshop at Anyang for Antiquity, as well as numerous papers on topics ranging from Shang ontology to Early Chinese economies. Professor Campbell’s field work consists of a network of archaeological collaborations across regions and site types with different institutions in China, aimed at reconstructing the Shang political economy (currently focused on zooarchaeology and bone working).

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The reception following this lecture will celebrate recent publications by ISAW community members, including Roderick Campbell's book publication, Violence, Kinship and the Early Chinese State: The Shang and their World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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