Displaced Ceremonial Objects as Rituals of Colonial Violence

Fraenkie Poluchov 

BFA PH 2026

HONORABLE MENTION: Perhaps the most engaging H101 essays we’ve encountered, this piece seems to break the mold from inside it. While the form seems familiar, the first-person narrative guides us through reflections on research, happenstance, access, decoloniality, and academia. We thoroughly enjoyed the unique voice and perfectly unresolved ending that sustains tension between resentment for and submission to the task at hand.—Meredith Barrett

Unknown Maker, Chinese, Lithophone, 1761–1762, jade and gold, 41 x 60 x 3.2 cm (16 1/8 x 23 5/8 x 1 1/4 inches), Gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. 37.113

I need to be honest. I feel nothing looking at this artifact. It evokes nothing in me. It means nothing. It is only familiar tones and symbols that signify one thing, one word said in thousands of American voices on television news programs each day: “China.” Immediately, this recognition of apathy and Westernism surfaces, and immediately anger follows. My eyes scan the surfaces beneath for plaques, context, histories. There is nothing vibrant offered except for a name. I step back.

In front of me is an L-shaped something. It is the tone of faded jade and inscribed with gold (Lithophone, 2023). There are symbols that predate modern Chinese flanked by two five-clawed dragons. It is called “Lithophone,” as if that is enough for all the histories it may contain. Two boys who are much taller than me but younger in age stand to my right. They have the energy of kids who are still filled with hope and awe about their futures, or maybe the wealth to know they’ll always have whatever they want. With one of them, it does not bother me. He seems so sweet and real as if his hope is something earned either in faith or measurable effort. The other seems too certain of every aspect of himself for me to appreciate his disposition. As soon as he dropped his eyes beneath my own, searching for the curves my oversized clothes were hiding, I was assured of my opinion.

“Are you in Prateek’s class?” I ask them, trying to normalize how closely we all stand around this object.

“Maybe. I’m John,” responds the one I’ve decided I do not care for. Do you not know who Prateek is? Are you trying to communicate something? Am I unclear? How do you not know if you’re in someone’s class? It felt less like a slight on the professor and more like someone attempting to instill an air of mystery about himself that did not exist. It felt not at all like a slight on the professor and entirely a meticulously manicured version of charm tailored to fit the main character of any and all Lost Generation narrators as I glanced at the paper Prateek themself had given me when I rushed into the museum, exactly on time and technically fifteen minutes late a near hour earlier, in the boy’s hand.

“I mean, are you looking at this for THAD?” I rephrase, hoping to establish what I know is true.

“Yes, and I’m Steven,” the one I like says.

“Nice to meet you.”

We all stand around the Lithophone and Steven exclaims, inviting John closer. They both, then, become excited and begin speaking in Chinese. It sounds like Mandarin, but I remind myself I only studied it for a month and often forget things. They settle slightly though are still exuberant as they turn towards me.

“This is a very important object in Chinese culture … I live very close to where it comes from,” says Steven.

“How close?”

Steven contemplates for a minute, as if solving a math problem.

“Less than two miles.”

“Jesus fucking Christ … do you know how this got here?” I ask, hoping my assumptions are wrong. Everyone asserts it was likely stolen. It comes from Xiannongtan (Xiannongtan, n.d.), or the Temple of Agriculture, as stated on the plaque beneath (Lithophone, 2023), in Beijing. The name “Lithophone,” however, is reductionist in nature. Reduction seems to be the key to orientalism. The object in front of us is technically a lithophone; however, a lithophone is any instrument that produces sound by striking stone (Turner, 2018). To place this object in a museum and call it “Lithophone” would be like putting the bible of the personal chaplain to King Charles in a museum and calling it “Book.”

What it is is one-twelfth of a bianqing—an instrument with L-shaped stone chimes that are activated through striking (The Palace Museum, n.d.). In Chinese, it is “编磬” (The Palace Museum, n.d.) which translates to “a compilation of chimes'' (Google, n.d.). There are chimes (bianqing) and bells (bianzhong) (The Palace Museum, n.d.). There are versions of this, too, in Korean and Vietnamese cultures. In Korea, this same style and structure of lithophone is called “타악기의 하나'' or in the Latin alphabet, “pyeongyeong” (Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, n.d.). In Vietnam this style of instrument is called “biên khánh” (Biên Khánh, 2010). All of them are lithophones and all of them carry their own names. Excising the name of a person, place, thing, ritual … it removes the history and creates a narrative in the voice of those who hold the pen. To change, alter, exclude, or replace the name of an object, place, group of people, or an individual person one is claiming rights or ownership over is not to play God but rather His counterpart, a counterpart feared and exorcized across cultures and religions.

John, Steven, and I stand around this object, snapping photos through the glass. I think of François Arago and then of my own pallor. Too embarrassed to take the time, all of my images shake in their shitty iPhone resolution. They always say it’s the most powerful camera in any phone ever made, when after a year my old Nikon CoolPix could surpass the quality.

I push Arago from my head, noting his intrusion, and release the urge to spiral into thoughts of pocket cameras and all their implications. Instead, I guide my eyes to move from the phone screen to the transcription settled between two dragons. In the early origins of the dragon’s use in Chinese imagery, it was used to symbolize spring, and the rains that accompanied it, bringing life to crops. As China evolved into an imperial state, the dragon, too, became associated with the emperor. A dragon with five talons was only to be inscribed upon objects for use by the emperor himself (University of Southern California, n.d.). That, it seems, is exactly what happened.

Every spring equinox there was the potential of a parade to Xiannongtan of the emperor and all his guests. Some years this occurred, some it did not, but it took place during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (Xiannongtan, n.d.) between the years 1368 and 1906 (Augustyn, 2023). Once at Xiannongtan, the emperor would strip from his royal robes and don the clothing of farmers to perform the Tilling Ritual (Xiannongtan, n.d.). This ceremony consisted of digging the first trench for planting to ready the empire for a new planting season (Shi, 1998). Given the fifth talon on the dragons of the lithophone, it is highly plausible that it was used by and possibly commissioned by the emperor. The Qing Dynasty at the time of this bianqing’s creation (1761–1762) was ruled by Quianlong (Lithophone, 2023). His reign began in 1735 and ended in 1796. This piece was made halfway through his spectacularly long reign and one to two years after a successful slough of military actions that are said to have “eliminated” Turkish and Mongolian threats along the northeastern border (Pélissier, 2023). Often throughout history, and I cite common knowledge here, there are spectacular displays of art and wealth proceeding successful military efforts. Given that context, it is possible that Quianlong sought the creation of these chimes for a grand display at the annual Tilling Ritual following victories of war.

“Look,” I say, sucking myself from the vortex of information processing. Beneath my left index finger sits a name. A name we all know. I recollect this name coming off the lips of a man I apprenticed for once. He paid me far too little for doing the same work as my male coworker, who made nearly four times what I did and had been there less than a year. He told me of how his great-great-grandfather founded The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn using this money. I nearly gagged because Pratt had been my dream until Parsons gave me more funds. I’d always regretted not attending. I didn’t know its origins were in the pockets of a family who pervasively puppet arts and culture across the world in their own eye, in their own vision, while destroying not only centuries of history but the ozone layer as well.

In small letters, underneath the blurb of non-specific information about this highly specific object were the words:

Gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

The other two students and I exchanged pleasantries. I enjoyed the soft-spoken one whose friend kept speaking over him. I could tell he wanted to know more about me, and it felt so predatory. He attempted to translate the text at one point but I did not allow myself to listen; I didn’t want to use or possess the knowledge of someone who made me so uncomfortable, even if it was to my academic benefit. I begrudgingly removed myself from the conversation, wanting to know everything about this thing that moments ago I’d felt nothing for, yet needing to be as far away from the boy in front of me while wanting to know his companion. I smiled as I had the whole time like I was perfectly suited to the sudden examination I’d been placed under and turned away.

Rounding the corner, I came upon a casket holding the mummified remains of a human being ripped from their resting place and homeland. I walked as quickly as I respectfully could, holding my breath in irritation, through the hallways and down the many flights of stairs until I came into a great hall of sorts filled with natural light and huge, grand paintings of European aristocrats. I fled, imagining I was holding the skirts of a dress much like the dozens depicted around me rather than noting their eyes on my hooded sweatshirt and hair that was still unkempt from the nap that nearly prevented my visit. The hallways blurred and the staircases cascaded until I was back in the lobby I started in, a full hour after beginning my search for all the objects I was given and forty minutes longer than I was told it would take. I looked at the empty sheet of paper in my hand, unsure where to begin. How can we analyze that which is presented only as something that is passed on and possessed, its language forgone and usage unstated? There was nobody in the lobby whom I knew, and my professor, who I sought to berate so I might ask them if I could fixate on the recurrence of the Rockefeller name instead of the artifacts themselves, was nowhere in sight.

I gathered my belongings from one of the little lockers an attendant had forced me to put them into and rushed into the daylight to ponder the imperial power of wealthy families for weeks on end before finally sitting down and deciding that it was more effective to write about the history of this fragmented bianqing and honor its origins than to fixate on that name which everyone already knows.


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The Palace Museum. (n.d.). 兽首编磬 (Beast Head Chime). 故宫博物院. Retrieved October 8th, from https://intl.dpm.org.cn/index.html?l=en

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Turner, B. (2018, September 16). Mysterious Stones Found In Colo. May Have Been Ancient Musical Instruments. NPR. Retrieved November 17, 2023 from https://www.npr.org/2018/09/16/647184207/mysterious-stones-found-in-colo-may-have-been-ancient-musical-instruments

University of Southern California. (n.d.). Dragon/Tiger, US-China Institute. University of Southern California. Retrieved November 17, 2023, from https://china.usc.edu/calendar/dragontiger

Unknown Maker, Chinese. (2023, June 16). RISD Museum. Retrieved November 17, 2023, from https://risdmuseum.org/art-design/collection/lithophone-37113

Xiannongtan (Temple of Agriculture). (n.d.). World Monuments Fund. Retrieved November 17, 2023, from https://www.wmf.org/project/xiannongtan-temple-agriculture

Fraenkie Poluchov is alive and making something that may or may not be art.