Ocean Objects:Maritime Material Culture in Southern China from a Global Perspective

  • GRASSKAMP, Anna Katharina (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project will map the textual, visual and material meanings of maritime material culture in Southern China in its local and global contexts from the Ming dynasty to the present day. Corals, shells, saltwater pearls and sponges have played important roles in the everyday lives of coastal inhabitants and have been attributed with financial, social and artistic values. Locally modified ocean objects, including nineteenth-century oyster shells painted with the image of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, have become meaningful souvenirs for visitors from all over the world. Maritime material culture is hence an important constituent of Southern Chinese cultural identity and heritage, and its disappearance due to pollution and the over-exploitation of natural resources makes this study an essential and timely endeavour.

Although prior studies have focused on the trade of coral from Europe to the court in Beijing, no study to date has looked at ocean objects in China’s Southern regions. We propose to fill that gap. Through the study of objects that have travelled worldwide, the project will follow maritime material culture through the ages, examining how early modern patterns of exchange relate to contemporary global interconnectivity. Starting with the Ming dynasty when Zheng He explored the ‘Maritime Silk Road’, the project will examine relationships between objects in their local and global contexts in periods of trade bans, explore mass commodity exchange of Asian ocean objects to Dutch and British East India Companies, engage with the material worlds of modern tourism, and examine the uses of shells in contemporary art and recent Southern Chinese craftsmanship.

We will adopt the following novel approaches to the study of maritime material culture:
(a) Site-specific research on local ecologies and heritage u s i n g cross-disciplinary methods from: (i) material culture studies for object-based research in museum depots and private collections; (ii) visual culture studies for image-based research; (iii) philological studies for text-based research; (iv) interviews with curators, craftsmen and artists.

(b) Cross-cultural approaches to: (i) research on the interconnectivity of local and global object networks; (ii) the contextualisation of local research within global scholarship; (iii) object-focused research that unites ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures.

The primary aims of the project are to:
(i) Examine the meanings attributed to maritime material culture in Southern China;
(ii) Contextualise extant research on Southern Chinese, Northern Chinese and imperial courts; (iii) Situate our findings from local contexts in a global framework.

The project will result in the following outputs:
(i) Conference presentations;
(ii) Two internationally peer-reviewed journal articles;
(iii) One article of public interest on maritime material culture and Southern Chinese tangible heritage and craftsmanship;
(iv) A database on Chinese maritime material culture in museum collections worldwide;
(v) Exchange with local and international academic and non-academic communities;
(vi) A teaching component.
Effective start/end date1/01/1831/12/20


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