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Politics and Practices of Time in the Chinese Period of Division (4th–7th centuries)

As its most consistent feature, the period following the final collapse of the Han dynasty (220 CE) is characterized by constant changes: some 35 dynasties were proclaimed, social structures were installed and destroyed, multiple sects emerged, and competing canons of thought compiled. These transformations took place alongside past ideals of dynastic unity and successions of empires as the “normal” condition, which many of the elites longed to reestablish. Sound and the notion of time had been fundamental indicators of synchronicity between empire and cosmos in the preceding unified rule of the Han.

This research project explores how Chinese elites in the Period of Division coped with the ephemerality that marked their time; how changes in society, religion, and political structures effected the sciences, especially in practices and theories involving temporality and the manipulation of sound, among these are astronomy, hemerology, ritual music, and calendar-making.

The working group wish to examine how elites rationalized continuing, abandoning, or changing practices and theories in the sciences at large in this transient reality, through the prism of sound. How did these conditions reflect upon constants of a cosmological system, such as temporality and acoustics; a system which strove for unity and eternal truth, but collapsed. 

The research is based on the study of practices around time in early medieval China drawing from varied media (texts, images, scapes, and objects) with the aim to critically engage with the impact of later dynastic historiography.


Mounted Musician (two images). Northern Wei dynasty (386 –534 AD). Earthenware with pigment.
Met Museum. Gift of Enid A. Haupt, 1997.

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