Often subsumed within narratives of political “transfer of power” from colonial empires to postcolonial nation-states, decolonization was a longue durée sociocultural process that traversed the long 20th century. Its trails were global and intertwined with parallel metapolitical processes like the Cold War, and it cast long shadows that revealed the afterlives of political decolonization beyond the events that marked the arrivals of independence. South Asia is a particularly fertile ground for studying such expanded temporalities, sociocultural structures, and shadows of decolonization. While the late 1940s saw the retreat of the British Empire from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972), as well as the climactic partition of India and creation of Pakistan, decolonization itself remained an unfolding process. It manifested in continuing struggles around cultural sovereignty and the liberation war of 1971 that birthed Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan, and continued in unresolved ethnic conflicts and regional struggles for autonomy and social democracy. The cultural field offers a unique lens for reading the more quotidian and less spectacular sites where such longue durée trails of decolonization were experienced, negotiated, and imagined via artistic forms. Aesthetics of decolonization can be read as the sensorial, imaginational, and ethical negotiations of postcolonial freedom, as well as the micropolitical and contradictory dynamics that lay therein. It can loosen the metaframe of the nation-state and the nation-form to reveal both locational and subnational differences, as well as the multiple ways in which the global itself was filtered, invoked, or negotiated from below. Aesthetics of decolonization, in other words, is the imagination of a new historiographical modality for thinking through how freedom was visualized in the postcolonies, how such visions produced new cultural modernities unique to such transitional polities, and how such modernities can be read in their transnational trails in the long 20th century.
The Aesthetics of Decolonization in South Asia
Buddhist Art and Architecture
Sonya S. Lee
The art and architecture of Buddhism has shaped the physical and social landscape of Asia for more than two millennia. Images of the Buddha and other Buddhist deities, alongside the physical structures built to enshrine them, are found in practically all corners of the continent, where the religion has enjoyed widespread dissemination. India boasts some of the earliest extant works dating from the 3rd century bce, whereas new images and monuments continue to be made today in many countries in East and Southeast Asia as well as in North America and Europe. Spanning across diverse cultures, Buddhist material culture encompasses a wide range of object types, materials, and settings. Yet the Buddha represented in anthropomorphic form and the stupa that preserves his presence through either bodily relics or symbolic objects remain the most enduring forms through time and space. Their remarkable longevity underscores the tremendous flexibility inherent in Buddhist teaching and iconography, which allows local communities to adapt and reconstitute them for new meanings. Such processes of localization can be understood through close analysis of changes in style, materials, production techniques, and context. The ubiquity of Buddhist art and architecture across the globe is made possible chiefly by a fundamental belief in religious merits, a concept that encourages believers to do good in order to accumulate positive karma for spiritual advancement. One of the most common forms of action is to give alms and other material objects to the monastic community as well as make offerings to the Buddha, thereby giving rise to active patronage of image-making and scripture production.
Chinese Ceramic Production and Trade
Ceramics are the most abundant types of artifacts made by human beings in the last 12,000 years. Chinese potters discern two types of products: earthenware (tao), which is porous and does not resonate when struck, and wares with vitreous bodies (ci), which ring like a bell. Western potters and scholars differentiate stoneware, which is semi-porous, from porcelain, which is completely vitrified. The earliest ceramics in the world are thought to have been made in China around 15,000 years ago. By the Shang dynasty, potters in China began to decorate the surfaces of their pottery with ash glaze, in which wood ash mixed with feldspar in clay to impart a shiny surface to the pottery. The first ash-glazed wares were probably made south of the Yangzi in Jiangnan. In the 9th century, China began to export pottery, which quickly became sought after in maritime Asia and Africa. Pottery making for export became a major industry in China, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and stimulating the development of the first mass-production techniques in the world. Much of the ceramic industry was located along China’s south and southeast coasts, conveniently located near ports that connected China with international markets. Chinese merchants had to adapt their wares to suit different consumers. For the last 1,000 years, Chinese ceramics provided an enormous amount of archaeological information on trade and society in the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, contributing a major source of data to the study of early long-distance commerce, art, technology, urbanization, and many other topics. Statistics are presented from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.
The Concept of the Silk Road in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Justin M. Jacobs
The concept of the Silk Road first attained prominence in the latter half of the 19th century as part of European attempts to impose economic and political claims upon the lands and peoples of Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan, Chinese Central Asia, or Chinese Turkestan). These claims were given cultural substance at the turn of the century by a series of expeditions undertaken by Western explorers and archaeologists, who ventured into the deserts of northwestern China in search of Greco-Indian art and antiquities. The study and display of such artifacts were motivated primarily by a desire to highlight the eastward migrations of Indo-European speakers into Central Asia. When these same expeditions began to reveal the presence of ancient Chinese ruins and antiquities as well, Chinese scholars and officials joined their Western counterparts in the field, using the material proceeds of their excavations to construct competing narratives of the westward influence of Chinese civilization. In the decades since the end of World War II, the concept of the Silk Road has come to dominate popular and scholarly associations with the region, monopolizing everything from the advertising of Central Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine to the names of academic monographs and international string ensembles. The elusive and malleable idea of “the Silk Road” has provided an attractive ideological platform over the past 200 years for major political, economic, and cultural actors throughout Eurasia to assert their imagined historical importance across both time and space, often with a highly romanticized gloss. In that sense, it is a purely modern intellectual construct, one that would have been utterly unfamiliar and likely incomprehensible to those historical agents it purports to describe.
The Culture of Travel in Edo-Period Japan
The expansion of travel transformed Japanese culture during the Edo period (1603–1867). After well over a century of political turmoil, unprecedented stability under Tokugawa rule established the conditions for men and women from all levels of the hierarchical society to travel safely for purposes as varied as the cultural consequences of a country increasingly on the move. Starting in the first half of the 17th century, institutionalized forms of compulsory travel for the highest-ranking samurai and a limited number of elite foreigners made for conspicuous political spectacle and prompted the Tokugawa shogunate to develop and maintain an extensive system of roads, post-towns, checkpoints, and sea routes. Prompted by the economic prosperity of the Genroku era (1688–1704) in the late 17th century, an ever-growing portion of the population, including commoners from cities and villages, took advantage of newfound leisure to embark on journeys for pilgrimage, medical treatment, and sightseeing. This change was accompanied by the expansion of tourism, which grew into a sophisticated commercial enterprise in the 18th century. Poets, writers, painters, performers, and scholars took to the road throughout the Edo period for artistic and intellectual pursuits, often as teachers or students, generating and spreading culture where they went. With an astonishing output of travel literature, guidebooks, maps, and woodblock prints featuring landscapes, a thriving commercial publishing industry, which first blossomed in the Genroku era, used woodblock printing technology to popularize travel in increasingly diverse ways. Together with such influential forms of print, the things that people wore, packed, bought, enjoyed, and rode while traveling formed a rich body of material culture that reveals the lived experience of travel for the duration of Tokugawa rule.
Museums and Exhibitionary Culture in Twentieth-Century China
Denise Y. Ho
From the first establishment of a museum in 1905 to the early-21st-century drive to build local museums, Chinese elites and officials have recognized the role of exhibitions in shaping the modern nation. Across this long 20th century, China’s exhibitionary culture has reflected three themes: the deployment of antiquity and tradition to inculcate national consciousness, the creation of revolutionary narratives to model political participation, and the presentation of modernity to inspire a vision of national “wealth and power.” During the Republican period (1912–1949), the Nationalists protected the imperial collection and established revolutionary memorial halls, and elites built local museums while businessmen championed native goods in national product fairs. The Communist Party, which came to power in 1949, created a Museum of the Chinese Revolution while also developing a cultural bureaucracy to preserve cultural relics. During the Mao years (1949–1976), exhibitions were part of everyday life, from rural exhibits about agricultural production to propaganda displays that justified class struggle. Since China’s period of “reform and opening-up” in 1978, exhibitions have played a central role in cultural diplomacy while also serving national aims of domestic tourism and “patriotic education.” The enterprise of the Chinese museum has always had a dual aim: to make the modern nation and to serve the pedagogical state.
Objects and Material Cultures in Afghanistan, c. 100–1500 CE
During the first 1.5 millennia of the Common Era (c. 100–1500 ce), the multiple cultural geographies constituting the contemporary nation-state of Afghanistan were collectively a place of significant and enduring encounters among traditions and lifeways from across Eurasia. Just as migrating and settling populations contributed new ways of believing and making to Afghanistan’s already rich socio-religious tapestry, objects that arrived through trade and pilgrimage also acted as conveyors of ideas originating elsewhere, often combining with existing traditions and resulting in innovative iconographies (visual content) and styles (methods of depiction, visual languages). An examination of Afghanistan through its objects and their material cultures during these centuries is especially rewarding, as this approach illustrates the multidirectional connections between Afghanistan and its Eurasian neighbors near and far. In turn, these transregional connections came to shape religions, languages, political systems, and other cultural aspects not only of Afghanistan but also of other contiguous areas throughout the first 2 millennia ce.
The term Rajput kingship designates the sociocultural ideals and practices that inform sovereignty among the erstwhile kingdoms of northern India. Originating from the mixture of South Asian peasant societies and Central Asian invaders in the second half of the 1st millennium ce, the Rajputs (literally, “sons of kings”) propagated a composite image of sovereignty that conjoined the autochthonous beliefs of agro-pastoralists with Brahmanical (Sanskritic) mores. By the early modern era, Rajput kingship came to be embodied in the image of the heroic warrior-king. This ideal manifested in martial valor, attachment to territory, fidelity to kin and allies, and was epitomized through the notion of self-sacrifice. Having played an integral part in the administration of the Mughal Empire, Rajput rulers adopted additional tastes and customs from the Persian cosmopolis. The consolidation of Rajput kingship in the modern era saw the assimilation of local rulers into the framework of the British Indian Empire as autonomous subjects, becoming the emblematic icons of Indian kingship familiar today.
Visual Culture in Imperial China
Julia K. Murray
The study of visual culture in imperial China is a young and heterogeneous field that encompasses a large and shifting array of visual materials and viewing practices. Because of the many political and social changes over the course of roughly two millennia, scholars have generally focused on specific forms and shorter periods, often defined by dynasty, instead of proposing comprehensive theories or all-inclusive overviews. The most recent dynasties, Ming and Qing, have received the majority of the scholarly attention to visual culture as such, but much research on earlier periods also sheds light on the roles of the visual and visual experience. In contrast to scholarship on modern and contemporary Chinese visual culture, which typically draws upon European and American theoretical models, studies concerned with the imperial era more often use methodologies and interpretive frameworks from art history and anthropology. Major foci of interest, whose relative importance varies by period, are the imperial court and its projects to perpetuate and project imperial authority, concerns with and techniques for creating auspicious environments in earthly life and in tomb contexts, structures and practices associated with Buddhism and Daoism within religious institutions and in lay communities, uses of writing and representational images to embody the values of the Confucian-educated elite, woodblock illustration and consumerism in urban culture, rural forms of visual culture, vernacular images and erotica, and the assimilation of elements of foreign visual culture.