Lia Wei, Chinese studies researcher, from calligraphy to stamping

14 June 2023

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Lia Wei, a researcher in Chinese studies at IFRAE (Inalco-Université Paris Cité-CNRS) talks about her personal career and her areas of research. She sheds light on some of the stamps found at BULAC and on the exhibition "Pratique de l'estampage en Chine : images et objets inscrits" (Stamping practice in China: inscribed images and objects), which will be held at Inalco in March 2023, co-organized with the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO).
Lia Wei
Lia Wei © Inalco / Sonia Leconte‎
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Could you introduce yourself? What was your background before Inalco?

I came to Chinese language and culture through calligraphy, seal engraving, printing techniques and painting, spending a few years in Hangzhou and Chongqing, right from the end of high school. These practices led me to further research into epigraphy in funerary settings - in particular, the cliff tombs of the upper reaches of the Blue River in the south-west of the country, which were the focus of my thesis - or in religious contexts, in the mountains of today's Shandong and Hebei provinces. I then studied art history and archaeology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB, 2009-2012) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, 2012-2018), before being based for a few years in the archaeology department of Renmin University of China (2018-2021).

What led you to join Inalco?

After years of study, teaching and research in an Anglo-Saxon or Sinophone environment, I was delighted to have the opportunity to continue my trajectory in the French-speaking landscape of Chinese studies research, particularly in an institution with such diverse orientations as Inalco, and in a cultural context as rich as Paris.

You arrived at Inalco in 2021, and are attached to the Institut français de recherche sur l'Asie de l'Est (IFRAE) research team. What are your lines of research?

Since my arrival, at a time when China remained inaccessible, I have mainly explored Parisian museum collections and libraries, getting to know the many curators, librarians and researchers or other China specialists. This exploratory phase gave rise to visits to storerooms and workshops, and anchored my research and teaching in this new terrain: Paris. As part of IFRAE's Axis I (Languages, sources and their issues, 2. Visual sources, textual sources: interdisciplinary approaches to the image), we are now a few art historians interested in different regions of Asia (China, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal), working together on case studies and reconstructing the trajectories or lives of objects, particularly inscribed objects, or documents, such as prints for example. We're thinking about how to systematize our meetings and institutional partnerships to perpetuate this approach and integrate PhD and Masters students, to enrich their training in Asian art history or archaeology. I have also exchanged ideas with fellow historians of religion or archaeologists active in Axis III (History and sociology of religion in East Asia), notably on the question of religious landscapes - in my case, "inscribed landscapes" in medieval China.

You have initiated, in partnership with BULAC and the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the exhibition project "Pratique de l'estampage en Chine : images et objets inscrits" presented at Inalco from March 6 to 30, 2023. Tell us about this adventure.

In collaboration with Michela Bussotti (Director of Studies at the EFEO/UMR CCJ), who worked for a long time on the cataloguing of Parisian collections in the early 2000s, I have tried to arouse - or resurrect - in Paris a bit of curiosity around prints, these ink-on-paper reproductions of stone engravings (usually texts). It's a project that's been close to my heart since my thesis years, when I realized that nothing would show in my manuscript from the hours spent in contact with the rock face, waiting for the paper to dry and smelling the ink... Since 2018, I've organized exhibitions and workshops around this technique, in Venice, Brussels, Bruges or at Mont Tai itself, a mountain known for accumulating millennia of epigraphic inscriptions. Paris, too, abounds in stamps, scattered by the hundreds in libraries, universities and museums - institutions with very different profiles, for these documents bearing images and inscriptions, reproducing monuments or inscribed objects, truly straddle the line between the world of books and visual or material culture. It was as part of the courses I gave in Licence 3 on the history of writing and calligraphy and the history of Chinese painting, as soon as I arrived at Inalco, that I was able to take my students to see original prints in the EFEO library first of all. EFEO colleagues Michela Bussotti and Dat-Wei Lau, head of the library's Chinese collections, were extremely patient, as the student body was quite large. Right from the start, I told them that their written files would be included in an exhibition, one or two years later...

How did the discovery of the Bulac prints go? How did it feel? What do these stamps tell us?

On the way, as I was asking everywhere if anyone had seen any stamps around, Soline Suchet, Deputy Head of the Collections Development Department - Asia Team Leader (BULAC), ended up finding on a dozen stamps folded in a box, then, more recently, a few dozen more preserved in rolls, or in large envelopes... These documents really do slip into the smallest nooks and crannies, and willingly go unnoticed. The institutions that possess them have not always grasped their value: indeed, in the eyes of the collector or the Chinese calligrapher, the print is a true work in ink, sharing its aura with the original work and often supplanting it, as the latter is most of the time of the order of myth...

This research project also has an educational dimension. How did you involve students in this exciting research and cultural mediation project? What is the profile of these students?

Students are at the heart of this project. In addition to undergraduates, I accepted master's and doctoral students who were interested in the adventure, including auditors from other universities such as the EPHE. For them and for me, it was a question of spending time observing documents about which little is known. First of all, we had to learn to handle and appreciate them as works in ink: this was not easy for everyone. Without color, and with the inversion brought about by engraving, these sheets of very light paper, crossed by white lines on a black background, can seem austere or difficult to access. We also had to learn to reconstruct the sometimes complex technical gestures that led to these prints: the stamping of objects is sometimes the result of a collage of several sheets of paper, or a mixture of printing and painting techniques... Finally, we had to decipher the inscriptions - sometimes very ancient forms of writing sought by the scholars and paleographers who selected them, and translate them wherever possible. A catalog exists for the EFEO's engravings, produced some twenty years ago along with those of other Parisian collections, but the wealth of this material is far from having been exploited in research work; as for the Bulac's engravings, which we have analyzed, even their origin remains a mystery for the moment. The students each participated to the extent of their interest and skills. Some, like Anna Le Menach, are studying restoration or conservation; others, like Francesca Berdin, are studying epigraphy; others, like Paula Suméra, are studying calligraphy or cartography; still others are studying the history of religions. The design of the exhibition itinerary, the framing and hanging of the works and the preparation of guided tours were undoubtedly the moments when their investment was most total and visible, and this is perhaps what left the most lasting impression on them. Some of the students, particularly the master's students from Inalco, are continuing the adventure; they were the most active in writing the notices for the works: their contributions will be included in a collective work planned for next year.

Installation of the exhibition at PLC (BULAC auditorium gallery and garden level)
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What's the common thread running through this exhibition?

The title of the exhibition includes the following keywords: "practice (of stamping)", "inscribed images and objects" (the associated study day, for its part, included the terms "materiality", "transmission" and "reception" in its title). The aim is to apprehend stamping as a cultural practice, integrating all its players: the authors and engravers or producers of texts, images and stamped objects; the craftsmen or master stampers, often anonymous and little-known; the collectors, paleographers or calligraphers who left seals and colophons on these documents as they circulated; the French sinologists who, from the early 20th century onwards, brought these documents back from China. Beyond the small circle of specialists - sinologists, historians or philologists - we wanted to give access to the wider world of visual and material culture, even if the images and stamped objects remain partly in the grip of a textual logic. Vases, weapons, mirrors or bronze statuary, terracotta tiles and bricks, inkstones... any object can be taken out of its context and stamped if it bears an inscription. As for inscribed images, their complex journey combines the worlds of Chinese painting, xylography, illustrated books and popular or religious imagery. Here too, the inscription is decisive: it is a typology of the human figure or other genres in painting, such as bamboos in ink or flowers and birds, that takes shape and is consolidated through stamping. Stamping is indeed a technique of reproduction, dissemination and transmission, but it also projects onto the history of Chinese art a particular reading grid, helping to build a particular formal repertoire.

The exhibition in images
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The exhibition is very rich and features many pieces. Can you go backstage and tell us more about how the exhibition was put together? How did you adapt the scenography to the two exhibition spaces: the auditorium gallery of the Pôle des langues et civilisations (PLC) and the Rez-de-jardin inside the BULAC?

We took advantage of the corridor's 30-meter-long space to build a step-by-step itinerary, with around ten original works and twenty reproductions. The challenge was to avoid an overly linear progression: using three wooden walls, we divided the corridor into four sections (historiography, inscribed objects, characters and portraits, inscribing the landscape). We tried to give each section a slightly different personality. Inalco equipped itself with a window table, which formed the heart of the "inscribed objects" section, with stamping tools, an album open to an inkstone stamping and the corresponding object, a real inkstone. We printed the works to scale and placed them in a wooden model of the gallery, to test different stagings. One of the students, who came to us from art school - Killian Cahier - also created a model of the space on SketchUp, in order to have precise measurements of the spaces between the works, and to align all the works to a constant height. On the garden level of the BULAC, we used the existing display cases. We used Indesign to lay out all the notices, in A4 or A4 for the double layout, trying to keep the font size fairly large despite the fairly large amount of text. Each of these choices was discussed at face-to-face or online meetings, and quite intensively on the exhibition's Whatsapp group.

Maquette de l'exposition - SketchUp
Maquette de l'exposition dans la galerie du PLC, réalisée avec SketchUp. © Killian Cahier‎

In conclusion, your practice of calligraphy and sigillography led you to study art history and archaeology. Today, among other things, you are a specialist in Chinese stamping. Has your archaeological and aesthetic research into stamping fed/inspired your personal artistic practice in return? How?

It's sometimes difficult to dissociate artistic practice and teaching or research, as these activities share several essential aspects: creativity or the desire to experiment, the desire to transmit, attempts at collaboration. What's more, in the Chinese scholarly tradition, artistic activity is built on an intimate and special relationship with the past or an elsewhere, and manages to sneak into the few lost moments left to us by study or... administrative tasks! Calligraphy and sigillography are undoubtedly among the artistic practices that best combine with academic activity, maturing slowly at the pace of daily learning.

Following Lia Wei's artistic activity


Chinese prints from the EFEO Archives, new research approaches
Discover the EFEO Asian Treasures video. Michela Bussotti (EFEO), Claude Laroque (Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne) and Lia Wei (Inalco/IFRAE) discuss the exhibition's conception and new research approaches to the Chinese stamping technique.

La pierre et le pinceau
A film by Marie-Françoise Plissart
This film was shot in 2010-2011 in Chongqing, in the provinces of Sichuan and Shandong, and in Beijing. It shows the stamping process in the field, following Lia Wei and Zhang Qiang in their fieldwork in the rock-cut tombs of the Eastern Han dynasty (2nd-3rd century CE) and the Buddhist epigraphy of the Northern dynasties (6th century CE).