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2003-2004 Visiting Fellows

Josh Yiu
Oxford University

Thanks to the support of the Library Research Grant sponsored by the Friends of the Princeton University Library and funded by the Department of East Asian Studies, I was able to spend a fruitful month researching on the subject of my dissertation at the East Asian Library at Princeton. Also, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the East Asian bibliographer Dr. Martin Heijdra who facilitated my research by borrowing books for me from within and outside Princeton, helped me to assess other libraries, and shared his insights on the Ming period and the field of Ming studies. By way of concluding my research trip, Dr. Heijdra cordially invited me to present a paper on my current research to scholars and students who had an interest in the Ming period, and I benefited immensely from their suggestions and criticisms. This brief statement is written in the hope that my sponsors will know that their financial and intellectual support have been fully appreciated and adequately utilized.

My dissertation examines the history and functions of a set of altar vessels in late imperial China known as the wugong, which comprised an incense burner, two candlesticks, and two vases. In my application for the library grant, I stated one of my questions: "whether the altar set was also used in [the imperial sacrifices] and employed to denote hierarchy within a setting in the Ming dynasty [as opposed to the Qing dynasty] is uncertain and requires further investigation of Ming documents." That was what I set out to do-to review the extensive Ming ritual manuals in the East Asian Library at Princeton. In fact, I started out asking a more fundamental question: whether the Ming saw the altar vessels as a set, as we now see them.

The procedures of imperial rites and the use of ritual paraphernalia in these rites were very meticulous, so the procedures would normally be noted in state's statutes and annotated with precedents. Books on these matters would generally fall under the section of 'regulations of rituals' within the category of 'history' in the traditional cataloguing system. The East Asian Library maintains this cataloguing system for its old books, and I was able to locate some useful books that I otherwise would not have known. Even so, I did not limit myself to this one category. In addition to those old and rare books, Dr. Heijdra also called my attention to the 'Hishi' collection, though at first glance I did not spot anything that might shed light on the altar set. Indeed, I could not find any evidence of the significance of the altar set in other old and rare books. When the altar vessels were mentioned in those books, they were mentioned individually, but not collectively as a set. This lack of reference to the set led me to conclude that the altar vessels did not have any social significations in the Ming period.

When I presented this idea to the audience during an informal lunch gathering, reasonable objections were raised, because my conclusion suffered a methodological drawback: how can the lack of evidence ever be evidence of anything? Perhaps I was ignorant of some important sources. Although I was consulting books in all sorts of categories from rituals to treatises on things and interior decorations, I was aware that the scope of the materials that I had covered could not have been a comprehensive one, simply because one could not exhaust the East Asian Collection in one month! In this case of unintended, or unconscious, selectiveness, I would still like to explain why I thought the lack of evidence may be clues to other interesting phenomena.

This thought is inevitably based on two assumptions: 1) in a highly literate, articulate and meticulous society as Ming China, anything of importance would be written down, and 2) anything of importance related to court rituals would be included in standard historical documents. Therefore, my premise is that if the altar set was understood to be of some importance, they would have been recorded in those standard sources. Moreover, I show that the Ming had the capacity to describe the altar in detail, particularly the quantity, origin, importance, and arrangement of food and wine vessels on the other end of the same altar table where the incense burner, vases, and candlesticks were placed. In my view, this contrast in attention is suggestive, because it shows that the Ming would have written more on the incense and flower vessels if they had deemed them as significant as the food and wine vessels.

Nevertheless, this conclusion did not allow me to conveniently abandon the altar 'set' of the Ming period and move on to other research areas, because it drew my attention, again, to the understanding of the altar set in the subsequent Qing dynasty, which led me to consult the Qing ritual manuals at the East Asian Library. Intriguingly, I realized that the Qing ritual manuals and standard documents did not explain the altar set more so than the Ming documents, but the Qing did refer to the altar vessels collectively as a set, and they did specify more occasions in which the altar set was employed. Therefore, the Qing altar set had more associations than the Ming altar set. How the Qing altar set came to be construed as a set is an intriguing question. We know that the choice and quantity of food and wine vessels were rationalized without exception, but the altar set was not rationalized in the Qing period. Rather, the Qing had merely adopted the linear display of incense burner, vases, and candlesticks in the Ming period, and gave the combination a name. Therefore, the different perceptions of the altar vessels at different times show that a set of objects could be prescribed after an already existing combination. Simply put, the prescription of a set of objects did not necessarily warrant a new combination of objects. And more important for the subsequent sections of my thesis, the understanding of the altar vessels as a set was a pre-requisite for them to be used in other distinctive occasions in the Qing period. In other words, the naming of the altar vessels as a set had made them more important.

It is perhaps not appropriate to pursue this line of argument in great length and to explain its significance in my dissertation in this brief statement. Yet, I hope to show how my initial question had altered my understanding and approach through the course of my research at Princeton, after which the focus of my dissertation had been sharpened. It is no exaggeration to say that the month I spent at Princeton had been one of the most intense and enlightening periods throughout the course of my graduate studies.


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