Appearances Are Everything in Death as in Life

Armin Selbitschka, Assistant Professor of Ancient History, talked about his research on early Chinese notions of the afterlife, at last week’s NYU Shanghai Faculty Lunch Seminar Series. The Gazette caught up with him to talk about his work and learned about his own path to teaching.

Where did the interest in China’s ancient cemeteries come from?

Actually, my interest in archaeology initially had nothing to do with China. There is an educational book series in Germany called “Was Ist Was?” (What’s what?), which had been around for over fifty years. On my sixth birthday, I was given a volume on Germanic tribes (Die Germanen) that introduced me to the world of pots and bones. From that moment on, my future seemed pretty clear: either I would become an archaeologist or a professional soccer goalie for Bayern Munich.

Do you go into the field to look for bones and pots?

I’d love to; it is, however, very hard for foreigners to gain access to the illustrious circle of people who get to do excavation work in China. But this is one of the many beauties of NYU Shanghai and the possibilities it opens to students and faculty. In the long run I am trying to establish opportunities for our students and, of course, for myself to get some hands-on experience. I am thinking of something like an archaeological field school or regular internships at the Shanghai Museum. The thought of spending a few weeks in a pit brushing off dirt from bamboo manuscripts, swords, game boards, bronze tripods, or bones might get even more undergraduates excited in the humanities and the field of Early China studies in particular.

Aren’t cemeteries time capsules?

Yes, they are, but only to a certain extent. In contrast to settlement sites, which come to us only in bits and pieces and by pure accident, tombs were built for very specific reasons. These are social and religious in nature, although I would argue that the social aspects generally outweigh the religious ones. In death, tomb occupants – or more likely their descendants – often tried and still try to portray themselves in very distinctive roles and thus display somewhat distorted versions of reality. A person of relatively low status might have been buried with a set of nine bronze ritual tripods – according to various received texts, this particular number that was reserved for kings – simply to enhance his social standing in the process of the funerary ceremonies. Likewise, nowadays, a lot of people opt for the most expensive choice of casket for their loved ones even though they themselves or the deceased relatives can ill afford it. As the saying goes, appearances are everything in death as in life.

But wasn’t there more to it than just appearances?

We cannot neglect the fact that building a tomb always carries religious significance, especially if we take into account how much effort was put into such enterprises. The ancient Chinese tombs I am analyzing were cut into solid mountains sometimes over one hundred meters deep, or dug over forty meters deep below the surface of the earth. And, they could contain several thousands of grave items. If all of this was just for the benefit of the participants of the funerary rituals, there would have been no need to bury tons of objects or build complex structures. People surely believed that life went on; it just did so in an altered state of existence.    

What does the received material about the period you study tell us about the people of that time?

Scholars working in Early China studies (roughly the mid-second millennium through the early third century BCE) have the huge advantage of tens of thousands of pages of transmitted literary sources. We have political-philosophical writings penned by the likes of Confucius, Mengzi, or Laozi (or their disciples, I should say), poetry, and, certainly not least of all, historiography. Yet, this is but one side of the coin. The fact that all of these works have not come down to us ‘unscathed’ ought to play a much bigger role in our attempts to interpret the ancient past.

Does your work suggest a new way of understanding how ancient people thought?

The book I am currently working on is a reevaluation of early Chinese notions of the afterlife. The idea behind it grew out of a sense of frustration about anecdotal explanations when I was still an undergraduate student. To me it was – and still is – utterly incomprehensible how one can assert what ‘the ancient Chinese’ thought based on either isolated textual passages or singular archaeological finds. For this very reason, I am conducting a survey that includes data gathered from burials dating from 650BCE through 200CE. The results will be compared with those of a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the received written sources. One of my main arguments is going to be that we need to question the assumption that most people of that time mindlessly adhered to anything a few bright minds came up with.

So, ancient people had philosophical debates, Right?

Exactly. And my work is going to show that this was not only true for highly educated elite. At first glance, ancient Chinese tombs all look alike and are thus representative of a similar state of mind. Yet, a closer look reveals that they indeed yield a wide variety of finds and features. Such differences need to be addressed and we should not consider ‘the ancient Chinese’ as a homogenous unit. Instead, as my research on burials illustrates, we must figure out what smaller pockets of society with distinct shared interests might have been thinking. In my opinion it is essential for us to first understand these groups or subsets, and then work our way back up to more general explanations.    

What is a modern day equivalent of the type of social bonding you point to as evidence of a more sophisticated societal “conversation”?

For instance, I am an avid motorcyclist (even though I don’t ride a bike at the moment). This very fact instantly connects me with people from every imaginable walk of life. I might not necessarily share their political points of view, their humor, or taste in wine, but that doesn’t matter at all. When I meet a fellow biker for the first time, everything else takes a back seat. We are just two crazy guys sharing ridiculous facts about motorcycles and the joys of scratching your knee on the surface of the pavement. Our modern concept of bonding is also of clear interest to scholars of ancient societies.

Did the First Emperor’s Terracotta Army play a pivotal role in attracting you to the field of archeology?

At first, it was not so much ancient China that captured my imagination but the remains of a long gone German culture. Once infected with ‘the bug,’ seeing a postcard of Qin Shihuangdi’s famous terracotta warriors at a friend of my parents’ place sealed the deal for me. At the risk of sounding like a complete oddball, I spent hours just staring at the figurines. Their imposing physiques, their various kinds of beards, different facial expressions… and now I am part of a NYU project that looks at the army from a comparative angle! How awesome is that! Just this past May we met at the site of the First Emperor’s tomb. And, in May 2016 NYU Shanghai is going to be hosting the second workshop.   

Like most people, you did not set out from the start to become an archeological historian. What was your path?

During my teenage years, my father simply couldn’t afford to send me to university. To help make ends meet at home, I got an apprenticeship as an electronic engineer with Siemens in Munich, when I was 16 years old. To be honest, these were the dullest three-and-a-half years of my life. Every day, I would finish all the day’s work before the morning break, and I had to look busy for the next six hours! Pretty soon, I decided that there had to be more to life. So, I took on a couple of additional jobs, and when the time came I enrolled in a vocational school to qualify for the university. Once there, I had the unbelievably good fortune of being taught by a fantastic teacher, Miss Ludolph. She helped me rediscover the fun of learning new things. Coincidently, my then girlfriend, and long since wife, Tanja and I went to Hong Kong shortly after graduating from vocational school. Being immersed in a culture so different from our own changed everything. The moment we returned to Germany, I knew I had to learn how to read and write Chinese characters, I had to find out what the terracotta army was all about, and I had to become a teacher myself. So, here I am at NYU Shanghai, hoping I’ll succeed in inspiring as much joy in critical thinking in my students as Miss Ludolph did in me.