Every time we uncover archaeological treasures, they transport us back in time to share a story of the people who created them—and Art History Prof. Yan Sun enjoys every minute of it.
Spending her career investigating the complex history of Chinese material culture between the late second millennium and the late eighth century B.C.E.—from Bronze Age tombs to Chinese inscriptions cast on bronze vessels—Sun dives into the social and political climate of the times to understand the culture, people, and society from a new lens.
“[My work is] interdisciplinary,” she said. “It is not a traditional art historical study, but it’s not archaeological work because I don’t do field work. It’s more a material culture study.” Material culture study encompasses physical objects such as vessels and artifacts—the kind one might find in a museum— and their archaeological contexts, such as tombs and settlements.
In July 2021, Sun released “Many Worlds Under One Heaven,” a book about the Zhou rule and overthrow of the Shang Dynasty during the 11th century B.C.E. She depicts this overthrow using newly excavated Chinese artifacts to uncover a more intricate history of negotiation between the voices on the frontier—or those outside of the kingdom—and the ruling dynasty.
“I’m interested in how the local people negotiated their identity in this newly built, newly constructed state,” she explained. “That’s what I talk about in the book: the process of negotiation and the building of the cultural identity.”
Growing up in Beijing, Sun began appreciating history from a young age. She grew up in a Manchu family, meaning she was linked to the group that founded the last dynastic power in China, the Qing. As a result, she regularly visited sites connected to this dynastic history, including the imperial palaces at the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven. There, Sun fell in love with the rich history of architectural sites.
When she enrolled as an undergraduate student at China’s prestigious Peking University, Sun selected the archaeology and museum studies tracks. The path led to an unexpected passion for museum studies, linking material art to history.
“I was among one of the first classes taking courses on museum studies,” she said, hearkening back to the opportunity to help with exhibitions in the Sackler Museum at Peking University, including the layout and wall labels for an exhibition of tomb carvings 25+ from the Han Dynasty. “I really benefited from that experience, so in retrospect, I feel like I really want my students to be able to have that experience here at Gettysburg.”
Working closely with Carolyn Sautter, the director of the Special Collections, and Shannon Egan, the director of the Schmucker Art Gallery, Sun utilizes the rich collection of Asian art available in Gettysburg’s Special Collections and the curatorial opportunities at the Schmucker Art Gallery for both teaching and learning. She breathes life into lessons through firsthand accounts of Chinese architecture and art, from personal photos of the sites to lessons in traditional calligraphy.
Sun shares her passion for embedding herself in Chinese history with her students, passing the torch to future generations. “I grew up going to these places and always wanted to learn more about the family history and the Manchu culture,” she said.
“I tell my students [about my visits to] archaeological sites and what kind of objects I see. I share my experiences and wisdom—I thought that’d make it more interesting,” she continued. “I still feel so close, even nowadays, to the historical sites in the city.”
Sun started teaching at Gettysburg after graduating with her PhD in art history from the University of Pittsburgh in 2001. After teaching at the College for nearly two decades, Sun has seen the Art History Department blossom. The growing discipline and rising interest in Asian culture among college-aged students puts Sun in an advantageous position to inspire and teach eager students.
“In recent years, we have noticed that there are more and more students who are really 100+ interested in Asian culture,” she said, noting how students become exposed to Asian culture through forms of media, from computer games to Chinese television programs on YouTube. “When [students] come to Gettysburg, they already have this global vision, and some of them are just interested in learning more about it. Culture or arts is a way to have an impact on our students.”
Almost every year, Sun returns to China with her husband and son, often visiting museums and architectural sites for research. She has also brought Gettysburg students to China, including Chinese studies major and art history minor Allison Gross ’15, with whom she helped arrange an internship with the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses in Xi’an.
“[It’s a] gratifying moment to see students doing research on their own, trying to be a scholar and following your path,” Sun said. “That’s very rewarding.”
By Phoebe Doscher ’22
Photos courtesy of Prof. Yan Sun