Abstract: The study of stone inscriptions in the Tang dynasty is a comprehensive endeavor that involves many disciplines of academic inquiry, from epigraphical and archaeological to historiographical and historical. In this kind of study, the relationship between the stones as objects and the texts on them is of particular significance. The materiality and textuality of the inscriptions are constantly intertwined, and in our research it is important not to lose sight of either aspect. Yet, due to limited disciplinary backgrounds, most scholars lack the necessary training and appropriate method when approaching stone inscriptions. When faced with these inscriptions, our disciplinary background might help us identify issues and offer interpretations, but it could also confine us to a particular academic approach, a fact that we should all be cautious about.
This lecture explores the intertwined relationship between materiality and textuality of stone inscriptions by focusing on their production, circulation, and interpretation. The attention to these issues is both the foundation of my research as well as where research breakthroughs could occur. The making of Tang stone inscriptions involved textual composition and stone carving. When studying this process, we should pay attention to 1) the composition of not only the text of the inscription but also other related texts; 2) the strategy and result of stone carving and its relationship to the cultural characteristics and status of the inscribed texts, 3) the artisanal aspect of the making of the stones and its evolution, and 4) the intricate network of relations among the person in charge of carving the inscription, the owner of the inscription and their family members, the composer of the text, the writer of the text, the copyist, the carver, the viewers and those who reproduce the text by further copying. Once a stone inscription was constructed, it became a part of the physical landscape where it was situated, sometimes even serving as a landmark site. The initial construction and eventual destruction of such physical landscapes are important historical subjects; and the ability to recreate and reimagine this landscape, particularly for inscriptions whose physical stones no longer existed, is a key element in our evaluation of successful research work. The various ways of reproducing a stone inscription, including catalogs, colophons, transcriptions, rubbings, photographs and 3D images of the stone inscriptions, carry subtle differences both synchronically and diachronically. Without an understanding of the pros and cons of these methods, our research would encounter unexpected difficulties. For the interpretation of the inscriptions, aside from the stones themselves, we should pay attention also to the geographical environment, cultural landscape, historical records, other related inscriptions, the transmission of old rubbings and the variance in different editions. The stone inscriptions need to always be compared to transmitted texts, as well as other types of excavated texts in order for us to make new discoveries. New methodology in approaching the inscriptions would expand our vision and knowledge and produce more research results.