The Landscape of Words
Stone Inscriptions from Early and Medieval China
Robert E. Harrist Jr.
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- Published: 2008
- Subject Listing: Asian Art, Asian Studies, Chinese History
- Bibliographic information: 424 pp., 153 illus., 20 in color, 3 maps, notes, bibliog., index, 7 x 10 in.
Winner of the Levenson Prize sponsored by the Association for Asian Studies
Shortlisted for the 2009 ICAS Book Award
Silk and bamboo are easily ruined,
But metal and stone are hard to destroy.
Placed on a high mountain
[The writing] will be passed down without limit.
- from Stone Eulogy, Mount Tie
To look at the mountains is like gazing at a painting, and roaming in the mountains is like reading history.
- Chen Yuanlong (1652-1736), commentary on inscriptions in and near Longyin Cave, Guilin
In this fascinating and meticulously researched book on the Chinese landscape as a medium for literary inscription, Robert E. Harrist Jr. focuses on the period prior to the eighth century C.E. to demonstrate that the significance of inscriptions on stone embedded in nature depends on the interaction of words with topography. Visitors do not simply climb inscribed mountains, they read them, as the medium of the written word has transformed geological formations into landscapes of ideological and religious significance.
The widespread use of stone as a medium for writing did not begin in China until around the first century C.E. - later than in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, the Near East, Greece, and Rome - but by the twentieth century, more inscriptions had been carved in natural stone in China than anywhere else in the world. The Landscape of Words is the first study in a Western language devoted to these texts, moya or moya shike, carved into the natural terrain on granite boulders and cliffs at thousands of sites of historic or scenic interest. Like the writing system itself, moya are one of the distinguishing features of Chinese civilization. Carved in large, bold characters, they constitute a vast repository of texts produced continuously for more than two thousand years and are an important form of public art.
Harrist draws on insights from the fields of art history, social and political history, literature, and religion to present detailed case studies of important moya sites, such as the Stone Gate tunnel in Shaanxi and Cloud Peak Mountain, Mount Tie, and Mount Tai in Shangdong. The inscriptions analyzed represent a range of literary genres and content, including poetry, Buddhist sutras, records of imperial rituals, and commemorations of virtuous conduct in public life.
Robert E. Harrist Jr. is the Jane and Leopold Swergold Professor of Chinese Art History at Columbia University. He is the author of Power and Virtue: The Horse in Chinese Art and Painting and Private Life in Eleventh-Century China: Mountain Villa by Li Gonglin and co-author of The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection.
"The massive scale and ubiquity with which the Chinese have inscribed words onto the physical landscape is perhaps unparalleled by any other culture. Robert Harrist's book is the most in-depth study of this curious cultural phenomenon and a remarkable accomplishment. It explores alternative ways of explaining the 'magic' of words in topographic settings and the enduring appeal of calligraphy in Chinese culture." - Eugene Wang, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art, Harvard University
"Relying on the most up-to-date scholarship in China and current methodologies in the West, as well as his own arduous explorations of remote mountain sites, Harrist has produced a book that joins the best of Sinological tradition with a discriminating art-historical sensibility." - Amy McNair, University of Kansas