Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

2011 Arthur O. Lovejoy Lecture: The Gold Seal of 57 CE and the Afterlife of an Inanimate Object

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

2011 Arthur O. Lovejoy Lecture: The Gold Seal of 57 CE and the Afterlife of an Inanimate Object

Article excerpt

This essay operates on the assumption that objects can inspire thought, and thought can generate debate, and the consequences of that debate can be of ontological importance. Thus, the inanimate object plays no "conscious" role in engendering ideas, but humans invest in it a range of meanings which can reach levels of great cultural and historical significance. The object in question is a golden seal, presently on display in the Fukuoka City Museum in Japan.

According to the official Hou Han shu (History of the Later Han dynasty), in the year 57 CE an emissary from the statelet of Nu in the kingdom of Wo ("Wa" in Japanese, somewhere in what is now "Japan") arrived at the court of the Guangwu Emperor of the Later Han. The emissary was seeking investiture, as had other foreign states, within the Later Han's ritual system for his homeland in the Wa federation, and the court awarded him with a seal and a ribbon. This one-line entry in the massive Hou Han shu would doubtless have remained just one among many unprovable items from the Chinese dynastic histories had not something utterly extraordinary occurred over 1,700 years later. In 1784 a rice farmer in Fukuoka domain (Kyushu) was repairing an irrigation ditch in his rice paddy when he happened upon something shiny lodged between some rocks. He pulled it out, washed it off, and found that he had discovered some sort of inscribed seal. Unaware of just what it was or what value it might possess, by various hypothesized routes it was brought to the local magistrate who showed it to a local scholar, Kamei Nanmei (1743-1814), a famous Confucian teacher in his day. Nanmei looked at its inscriptional face (see below - its meaning remains debated till this day), and he knew immediately that this was the very seal mentioned in the Hou Han shu.

Before more than a small handful of people knew of its existence, Kamei Nanmei penned a lengthy essay explaining the meaning and defending the authenticity of the seal - an utterly brilliant piece of writing - and in so doing launched a debate that continues unabated till today, over two centuries later. Every aspect of this small piece of gold, roughly one inch to a side, with a small handle in the shape of serpent or snake has been debated over the years - who received it, the meaning of the inscription, what the snake-shaped handle signifies, the significance of its gold composition as opposed to some other metal, how it might have ended up where it did, and its overall importance (or irrelevance) in Sino-Japanese relations - altogether over 350 books and articles. In what follows I would like to outline the contours of that debate as a series of four historiographie waves, looking at how it has changed and, more importantly, why. It offers in microcosm a look at the changing nature of Japanese commentary on the relationship of Japan with Mainland culture.

Whatever may have been the interactions between the proto-Chinese and the proto -Japanese in the centuries before the launching of diplomatic interactions, we now generally accept the fact that the year 57 CE marks the first state-to-state meeting of the two (though it was certainly an unequal one). This fact is attested in the Hou Han shu, and even those who may have serious doubts about the gold seal do not as a rule question the testimony of the Chinese historical record. For example, writing shortly after the conclusion of World War II, the famed scholar Tsuda Sökichi (18731961) was hesitant about claiming this meeting as the "first time the king of Na ["Nu" on the seal's inscription] had paid tribute" to the Han court, but the weight of subsequent scholarship confirms that is surely was.1 The gold seal given by the Later Han emperor to the emissary from the "Japanese" archipelago stands as the first material object of significance exchanged between the two lands, and the fact that it remains extant (despite seventeen centuries of being hidden in the ground) should not be underestimated. …

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