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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Characters of Design: Writing and Materiality in Early China

  • Author(s): Wang, Michelle Hsiao-Fawn
  • Advisor(s): Berger, Patricia
  • et al.

This dissertation examines ornamental writing on bronze vessels, ceramic eave tiles, and silk textiles dated from the Spring and Autumn period (ca. 771-476 BCE) to the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 CE). These inscriptions--cast, inscribed, incised, or woven for display--provide an analytically rich site for providing a theory of writing because part of, if not all, of their identity is defined by an artisan's deliberate occlusion of their readability. I use a two-part method to study these scripts. The first approach attends to the recursive and replicatory design process of artisanal practice through epigraphical studies of extant characters and analyses of technological limitations and developments during the period in which these objects were produced. The second path explores how ornamental writing visually elaborates and conveys information. While the initial step addresses design and material technology, this line of inquiry provokes its audience in asking, "What do we see?" and "What do we read?" when confronted with ornamental script at various stages of its production. Research into excavation sites, workshop practices, and artisanal literacy informs my reconstruction of the conditions under which these inscriptions were seen.

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