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Welcome to Ask a Professor, our new series that offers an insider’s view of life in academia. This month we interviewed Kate Lingley, a Professor in the Art Department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

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How can we learn about the lives of people who lived hundreds—or even a thousands—of years ago? That is the question that Professor Kate Lingley (who happens to be the author’s spouse) tries to answer in her research. For centuries, Buddhists in China have produced amazing works of art ranging from cave temples to monumental sculpture. Kate studies what these works of art say about the donors who paid for them, revealing multivalent donors, the internal politics of donor communities, and cosmopolitan communities in touch with a wider world. Learn more about these topics—and her favorite audio books—in this month’s “Ask a Professor.”

What’s a factoid/tidbit about your field that most people don’t know? 

I work on the social history of Chinese Buddhist art in the early medieval period, which saw both the golden age of Silk Road trade and the first flowering of Chinese Buddhism, introduced from India in the second century CE. Both of these things reflect a cosmopolitanism that many people don’t associate with China—most are more familiar with the stereotype of late imperial China, which depicts a closed and insular society. That stereotype has its own problems, of course, but in the early medieval period, China was remarkably open to influences and imports from abroad. In the fifth and sixth centuries, North China was ruled by a series of non-Chinese imperial families, who were mostly descended from formerly nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples from Central Asia and eastern Siberia.

By the seventh and eighth centuries (into the Tang dynasty), the Chinese aristocracy was predominantly of mixed ancestry. Fashionable Tang aristocrats went hunting with falcons and trained leopards (a nomadic practice), played polo (a Persian game), drank grape wine (first made in the Near East), employed Sogdian grooms and entertainers, and were buried with treasured possessions that included Roman and Iranian glass, Byzantine and Indian coins, and rich silks woven with Sasanian animal and pearl-roundel motifs. Not only Buddhism, but also other Western Asian religions like Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam took root in China in this period. Though we flatter ourselves that we are the most international generation in human history, the cosmopolitan diversity of life in China in the early medieval period reminds us that we’re not the inventors of globalization.

Have you ever worked with someone in another field, and what was the nature of your collaboration together?

My most frequent cross-disciplinary collaborations are with archaeologists, and this is a product of the way in which disciplinary boundaries are drawn differently in the U.S. and China. Basically, what I do counts as art history in the North American and European academy, and belongs to the humanities; in China, work on the same materials counts as archaeology, and straddles the border between humanities and social science. Archaeologists are located in departments of history in China, not anthropology as in North America, but their methodology uses the same analytical approaches as their North American colleagues. As a result, even though I can’t conduct large-scale independent archaeological surveys in China, and despite the fact that, compared to my Chinese colleagues, I tend to ask more humanistic and historical questions of the material we both study, I still count as an archaeologist when I’m in China.

My current collaboration is with an archaeologist at Shandong University. Archaeologists in China are under tremendous pressure to conduct rescue excavations whenever archaeological materials are accidentally unearthed, which generally happens every time someone tries to sink a building foundation, dig a well, start a quarry, and so on. China’s building boom of the last decade or so means that archaeological materials are coming out of the ground and being moved into preservation storage at a tremendous rate, but there is not enough manpower or money to actually study and/or publish those materials. We would like to conduct a study of some lesser-known Buddhist sculptures excavated near a town in central Shandong. It is our hope both to learn more about the development of local Buddhism and Buddhist art in early medieval Shandong, and to make these materials available to other scholars for study as well.

What’s the next big thing in your field?

Non-Western art history has historically been rather marginalized in the field as a whole, which still maintains a pretty strong focus on the “Western tradition” (i.e. ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the early modern and modern periods in Europe and North America). With the turn toward the social history of art in the past couple of decades, art history has really come into its own as an avenue of humanistic inquiry, rather than simply an exploration of art as a phenomenon. It seems to me that some of the most innovative work in this respect is being done by scholars working on non-Western art history, possibly because methods and theories devised to explain European and later North American art often turn out to be a poor fit for artworks and practices in other parts of the world. The need to sift through existing approaches to find out what works and what doesn’t, and to create new approaches where existing ones don’t suit the inquiry, seems to encourage some scholars to really exciting innovations. I think (and hope) that non-Western art history will become increasingly central to the discipline from here on out, because it challenges our thinking in useful and important ways.

If you weren’t a professor what would you do and why?

I could be happy doing a lot of different things, I think. One thing that occurs to me is some kind of job that involves making: tailor, baker, bookbinder, carpenter. I’m an art historian because I love to explore the potential of objects, but in practice, like most professors, I spend most of my time at my computer, reading and writing, without anything material to show for it at the end of the day. It would be hard to give up teaching, which is a tremendous pleasure, but if I were to do something else I think I’d choose something hands-on.

What’s on your bedside table?

I wish I had time to read in bed!! Professional books I’ve just gotten hold of, which would be on my bedside table if I had one, include Victor Xiong’s Capital Cities and Urban Form in Premodern China; Jeehee Hong’s Theater of the Dead; and the edited volume The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture, edited by Eugene Wang and Jerome Silbergeld. I’m really looking forward to all three. For pleasure, I’m an avid listener to audiobooks during the walk to work, gym time, laundry, etc. I’ve recently enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which is a wonderful sci-fi character study, and particularly The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which follows the lives of a Jewish woman in Restoration London and the contemporary scholar who uncovers her papers. Its portraits of women scholars in different time periods are generous and incisive.


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Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 56 (2006), pp. 11-30
Duke University Press
Asia Major, THIRD SERIES, Vol. 23, No. 1, THE BIRTH OF EARLY-MEDIEVAL CHINA STUDIES (2010), pp. 127-172
Academia Sinica
Freer Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian Institution and Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan