Professors Martin Kern and Brian Steininger and their class (HUM233) East Asian Humanities I: The Classical Foundations

Nov. 8, 2021

Professors Martin Kern and Brian Steininger took their HUM233 undergraduate class to visit one of the Princeton Art Museum's most precious artifacts. The scroll is an undated (most likely 7th century) copy of a fourth-century Chinese calligraphy by "the sage of Chinese calligraphy," Wang Xizhi (303-361). Only ten other copies of his works are known to exist, and not a single original. The other ten are all in collections in China, Japan, or Taiwan. You can find the scroll here:



The following week, the HUM/EAS 233 students visited the Princeton University Firestone Library - Rare Books Division to review two items in their collection.  The first rare Japanese manuscript was a copy of the Greater Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Daihannyakyō), copied in the late thirteenth century by a monk named Kaien. This kind of devotional copying was seen as an important source of karmic merit, and Kaien spent at least eight years on the project—the completed sutra would have been 600 volumes long. Princeton University holds some two dozen volumes in Kaien's hand, and others are scattered in libraries and museums across Japan.

The second item was a seventeenth century manuscript of the Tales of the Heike, written on decorated paper and with numerous hand-painted illustrations. The Tales of the Heike are an epic narrative about the civil war that rocked Japan in the twelfth century, and its stories became a crucial repository of cultural memory, particularly for the warrior class. This lavish text, with extensive use of gold leaf, was perhaps a gift commissioned by a domain lord. (more information about the Heike manuscript: The HUM233 class discussed how the Tales, though focused on the battlefield, incorporate a Buddhist sense of the transience of this world and the sinfulness of killing, and were linked to the need to pray for the souls of those killed in battle.