Object lesson

December 15, 1995

For Chinese art scholar Jessica Rawson, now warden of Merton College Oxford, object and text tell different tales. But in order to get the whole story we need both, as she explains to Simon Targett

It is hard to believe that Jessica Rawson has not always walked across the cobbled quadrangle to the timbered library of Merton College, Oxford. As she reaches the oak door her voice drops. "These are the oldest bookshelves in England," she says, pointing to some modest-sized stacks that nevertheless represented a revolution in library technology when old Mertonian Sir Thomas Bodley introduced them from Italy in the 16th century.

Here, with the halo of cerebralism which the headship of an Oxford college confers, she looks every bit the scholar of Chinese art and archaeology who, according to Gordon Johnson, her former teacher and now head of Wolfson College, Cambridge, "has turned the preserve of the connoisseur into an academic venture of profound originality and discovery". But until last year, Rawson was a curator at the British Museum and it was by no means obvious that the scholar in her would finally prevail, that the academic would triumph over the administrator.

Academically precocious, at ten she was mesmerised by Chinese characters, coming across them after reading about the Rosetta stone and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Seven years later, she toyed with reading oriental studies at Cambridge. But her school, St Paul's, put her off. Rawson fetched up at New Hall, and graduated in 1965 with an unremarkable career in history. She half planned to do research, securing a place at the School of Oriental and African Studies. But when her father died, she decided "it was better to get a job and have a steady income", and so she became an assistant principal, Ministry of Health.

There she thrived. As she acknowledges, "I had a considerable inclination towards administration," and she was something of a "hot prospect" in the civil service. Yet after two years she accepted the post of assistant keeper in the department of oriental antiquities at the British Museum. It was a now-or-never moment, and Rawson was lucky. "I should not have got in," she admits, "because I did not have a degree in Chinese." But: "It was the 1960s, and those rare people who did have Chinese degrees were going off to the new universities to found chairs."

The new job was a step in the right direction, rather than a leap into heaven. "It was a very intricate jigsaw puzzle type of a job" and although there were opportunities for research, there were wide-ranging administrative duties - the cataloguing, housekeeping and displaying of rare objects. She thrived in her new-found administrative role, even while taking a degree in Chinese at SOAS between curatorial shifts. She might have continued on this path, especially after developing a passion for purchasing ancient bronze carvings from the market stalls of antique dealers along Portobello Road.

But then in 1978 she started work on the famous Arthur M. Sackler collection in the United States, joining a team of Harvard academics. "It raised my aspirations," she now says, adding that "from the late 1970s onwards research became the primary element of my life". Certainly, her reputation as an indefatigable researcher rose steadily. According to one insider, "rumour has it that she goes to bed with huge catalogues of Chinese archaeology". Rawson does nothing to dispel this image. Her daughter had to get used to seeing her working on the latest catalogue, lecture or article. "When she was young, my husband and I would take it in turns to go to the park and push her on the swings. We would not all go together."

But what Rawson may have lost in domestic bliss she has gained in professional recognition. Her election to the British Academy in 1990, and later her award of a doctorate of letters from Cambridge, testifies to her contribution (by reference to their manufacture of beautiful, ritualistic objects of jade and bronze) to the understanding of the Western Zhou - a people who ruled China between 1050 bc and 750 bc. In this she is unique in Britain. As Craig Clunas, lecturer in art history at Sussex, observes: "There is no one in this country with whom Jessica can have an intelligent conversation about her specialism."

The British Museum has a magnificent collection of bronzes and jades, mostly brought back by travellers in the last century. But this has become a mixed blessing, because new archaeological finds, especially in the 1970s, turned the world of Chinese scholarship upside down. Rawson was not unaffected. Her first academic work, Chinese Jade Through the Ages, was published in 1975. The following year, the tomb of the Shang queen, Fu Hao, was discovered, dating back to 1200 bc and containing 700 jades. It changed the orthodoxy dramatically. According to Dr Clunas, Rawson's comments on the early period are "now purely of historiographical interest."

She has revised her thinking in a new book, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, which describes a technologically and intellectually sophisticated neolithic culture which "was not dreamed of before". In other fields, this revision might be interpreted as intellectual vacillation, but not in Chinese art and archaeology. The mere fact that she rethought her theories on the basis of reading the cascade of archaeological catalogues coming out of China every month is a source of wonder.

Rawson has become one of the great interpreters of the new material outside China, renowned especially for the idea that there was a "ritual revolution". Based chiefly on a hoard of 103 bronzes found in the mid 1970s, the theory endeavours to explain why ritualistic wine vessels were in vogue in 950 bc but were out of fashion and replaced by food vessels by 880 bc, just 70 years later. As she told the British Academy, "this must have effected major changes in ceremonies and even in beliefs".

She is also recognised as having led what Clunas calls the "intellectual break-out" of Chinese scholars into other disciplines. Gordon Johnson observes that she has "demonstrated relationships between Iranian and Tang silverware, and between bird designs in the Yuan dynasty and in far western Staffordshire".

But Rawson's claim to a more lasting achievement is based on her work on the importance of objects. A museum is a treasure trove of objects, and the bc period necessarily has few extant written sources. So for a curator who spotlights the ancient Chinese world it might seem like special pleading to privilege objects. But her point is that objects and texts often tell very different stories, they are not equivalent, they are not an either-or. "If you don't have both, you have lost half the information. People often assume that if you have got the text that is enough. But I disagree. If you wanted me to understand what your life was like, just to write a potted biography would not be sufficient because it would not tell the whole story, it wouldn't convey the colour and the nuance."

For Rawson objects tell alternative stories, they challenge the canonical consensus. More than this, they are a metaphor for and a mobiliser of cultural thought. Confucius said jade represented the paradigms of human virtue and immortality, much as gold does in the West. Rawson adds that this establishes a dialectic between physical reality and cognitive structure, since an individual would treat somebody with jade quite differently and probably more deferentially than somebody without jade.

Is it not something of a paradox that a gifted linguist like Rawson should be so transported by objects, by the realm beyond language? She does not think so: "Once you have learnt Chinese, you realise that languages are not all equivalent, they are only arbitrary constructs. It becomes clear that you need more than one access to a people's mind."

If Rawson became ever more dedicated to research, she never let museum work slip. In 1984/85, in an exhibition called "Chinese Ornaments: the Lotus and the Dragon", she presented her work on the origin, migration and transformation of some key ornaments through the cultures of Eurasia. Two years later she got the top job in the department and set to work on what most regard as her finest curatorial achievement, the Joseph E. Hotung gallery.

With Pounds 2 million of sponsorship from Hong Kong businessman Hotung, Rawson refurbished a gallery that was first built in 1914. Like her exhibitions, this permanent gallery contains the fruits of her latest research, and the presentation crosses cultural boundaries, with the jades and bronzes of the East set in the golden surroundings of the West. According to Robert Knox, who succeeded Rawson as keeper: "She transformed what was an old and worn and grey and lifeless gallery attracting 50 people each day into a gold-leafed treasure chamber attracting several hundred people every day."

This achievement set her up well in the competition for the ultimate museum job: director of the British Museum, when Sir David Wilson retired in 1992. The Financial Times called her "the joker in the pack" and Rawson says she was "not surprised by the decision" to appoint Robert Anderson. A colleague confirms that she applied in part because she thought "if she did not she would be accepting the British Museum view that oriental material is in some sense marginal to the Greek and Roman material".

Soon afterwards, anyway, she left for Oxford. "That was lucky for Chinese scholarship," says one observer, and Rawson acknowledges that as the British Museum's director she would have had "little time for scholarship". But she has not left the British Museum behind completely since she is preparing a new Chinese exhibition for September 1996 which is expected to rival the famous Tutankhamen exhibition of the 1970s.

If she ever doubts the wisdom of her move, she can look back on the day soon after she arrived at Merton when she discovered a Chinese bronze incense burner in a cupboard. For a sinologist, that was heartening enough. But the vessel turned out to have been a gift to the college from Sir Aurel Stein, a turn-of-the-century explorer who gave the British Museum one of the most precious collections of ancient oriental artefacts. For a former keeper of oriental antiquities, that was indeed a good omen.

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