Jie Shi Brings Focus on Chinese Art, Architecture

7,000 life-size sculptures are just the beginning of the treasures discovered in earliest royal tombs.

Since being discovered by farmers in 1974, China’s ancient Terracotta Warriors have fascinated both scholars and the general public.

But the 7,000 life-size sculptures are just the beginning of the treasures still being discovered in China’s earliest royal tombs, says Assistant Professor of History of Art Jie Shi, author of the soon to be published Modeling Peace: Royal Tombs and Political Wisdom in Early China.

“Where the warriors are located is just one small section of a vast mausoleum,” says Shi. “We’re talking about an area that’s approximately five miles by five miles. They’ve been excavating since 1974 and only been able to examine a fraction of the area."

“The emperors and kings chose the finest works as burial objects,” Shi adds. “In the early tombs these were mostly functional items but they were beautifully crafted. In the later tombs, in addition to these items, you start to see paintings, carvings, and the like and there’s still a vast amount of items that have yet to be studied.”

Drawing on phenomenology and critical theories, Shi’s interdisciplinary research closely examines the forms and contents of Chinese art and architecture in relation to ancient and medieval Chinese lived experience, social institutions, power structure, political thought, and ritual practice.

Shi joined Bryn Mawr’s faculty in 2017. He teaches introductory courses in Chinese art and visual culture and more advanced undergraduate lectures and graduate seminars on Chinese religious art and architecture, decorated objects, word and image, and art of the Silk Road. 

Prior to coming to Bryn Mawr, Shi attended Peking University and the University of Chicago, where he also taught as a Ph.D. student. Although his academic training took place exclusively at larger universities, he has welcomed the chance to teach in Bryn Mawr’s more intimate environment.

“I found students were always more engaged while taking courses with smaller class sizes,” says Shi. “So I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of teaching here at Bryn Mawr.”

Eager to perfect his teaching and to acclimate to Bryn Mawr, Shi has participated in the Teaching and Learning Institute, including in its Students as Teachers and Learners program, during his first year. The program has a student from outside the faculty member’s field sit in on courses and give feedback on every aspect of the classroom experience.

“Working with a student partner was a very fruitful experience and I think it’s helped me become a better teacher,” says Shi.

Among those who would agree is Ying Yan ‘18, a triple major at Bryn Mawr in History of Art, Physics, and Mathematics, who is now at Harvard earning a Ph.D. in Physics.

“Professor Shi was extremely knowledgeable, smart, and helpful,” says Yan. “He inspired me to challenge many of my own assumptions about art of the past. Under his mentorship, I was able to view and write about art with much more curiosity and seriousness than before. As a teacher, not only did he give me help and feedback, but he also came up with many interesting and incisive questions that made me think hard and work out new ideas through this kind of ‘mental yoga.’”

To enhance students’ experience in the classroom, Shi has worked with Special Collections to give them hands-on experience with items and invited guest speakers to class such as the curator of Chinese art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He hopes one day to be able to take students to China to see first-hand the materials they’re studying.

However, whether in the classroom, in the field, or at a museum, Shi stresses that the study of the history of art isn’t just about recognizing particular objects or works.

“It’s not just about knowing dates of the works, names of the artists, or other substantial historical information. It’s about being able to appreciate visual messages and visual communication. It’s about visual literacy, which is incredibly important in today’s world. In China, the U.S., and throughout the world we are constantly encountering a huge amount of visual material that cannot be analyzed through any other discipline.”