On the Importance of Introductions

Say you’re about to teach a class or enter something into an Arts and Sciences competition or fair.

Can you safely assume that anyone coming to your class or reading your documentation knows anything at all about the culture, region, and time period that provide the context for whatever you are presenting?

Don’t answer quickly. Think about it. Sure, someone might be able to recognize the thing and its context by reading the class title or just looking at your entry, but what about folks for whom that isn’t their focus? What about people who are attending their first (or third) event?

Now, imagine if the topic/thing you’re working on is from a culture/region outside of Western Europe. Does your answer change?

Regardless of where your culture/region is, you should include a brief 150-400 word introduction either in your class handout or documentation that provides this necessary context. Do not assume that is known. Doing so implies that there is a “default” in our game, and while I enjoy my 14th century English fitted gown and bycocket on occasion, there is no default in the SCA. We are a glorious smorgasbord of interests.

So what do you say in this kind of introduction? Here are a couple of mine, to serve as examples.

The Tang Dynasty (唐朝, tăng) lasted from 618 to 907 CE and is widely considered the “golden age” of imperial China. The People’s Republic of China currently recognizes 56 different ethnic groups. The culture discussed here is that of the Han Chinese during the Tang Dynasty, but China has never been a monolith in terms of culture. During the Tang Dynasty, the Han majority’s tolerance for foreign influence created a cosmopolitan culture which included a stream of Chinese and Indian Buddhist monks, Turks from the northern steppes and Central Asia, Koreans, Japanese, Arabs, Persians, Malaysians, and other Southeast Asian cultures. Tang Dynasty China had cultural contact with Europe – via the Roman/Byzantine Empire. There are written as well as archaeological sources that show that China had contact with the Roman Empire from as early as the third century C.E. Unfortunately, there are elements in modern Han Chinese society that seek to oppress other Chinese ethnic groups, sometimes violently –  such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

This is the introduction from my Poetry of the Tang Dynasty class. It’s 168 words, and was one of the first slides in my deck. Key elements here are 1) what time period we’re talking about (618-907 CE), 2) what region (China), 3) and what culture (Han Chinese, while recognizing the variety of cultures present both in period and presently, as well as acknowledging the modern treatment of minorities by the Han Chinese).

In my Easy, Breezy, Beautiful: Tang Ladies Fashion for your Summer Needs handout, my introduction was a bit longer.

The Tang Dynasty (唐朝, tăng) lasted from 618 to 907 CE and is widely considered the “golden age” of imperial China. China today covers 9.596 million square miles and a variety of climates. Summer temperatures ranged from 115 degrees in Turpan, east of the Taklamakan Desert, 77 degrees on the Tibetan plateaus, 98 degrees in the southeast, and 95 degrees in the northeast and southwest. The People’s Republic of China currently recognizes 56 different ethnic groups. The majority ethnic group is the Han Chinese (91.10% in 2010) – a dominance that has been true throughout Chinese history so much that written accounts can really be read as a history of this ethnic group. The clothing and associated culture discussed here are those of the Han Chinese during the Tang Dynasty, but China has never been a monolith in terms of culture. During the Tang Dynasty, the Han majority’s tolerance for foreign influence created a cosmopolitan culture which included a stream of Chinese and Indian Buddhist monks, Turks from the northern steppes and central Asia, Koreans, Japanese, Arabs, Persians, Malaysians, and other Southeast Asian cultures. Buddhism grew in popularity during the Tang Dynasty, but foreign exchange and influence brought small pockets of Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism.

This is 209 words, and has all the same basic information as the Poetry introduction. I included geographic and weather information to point out not only how large China is but also the varied climates and therefore, responses to said climates in terms of clothing. I also noted the Han Chinese’s current dominance in China, though this was written before their oppression of the Uighurs had come to light. (This introduction has quite a number of references attached to it, which were scrubbed when I pulled it into this post – always cite your sources!)

In addition to the three basic points – when, where, who – include any other information that would provide additional context. For example, if I were to teach a class on the lives of women during the Tang Dynasty, I would likely note that the modern Hanfu movement has a history of supporting discrimination based on sex and other misogynistic and Han-supremacist ideas. The idea isn’t to go into a long discussion about these modern issues – that’s not the focus of the class or entry, or even our game – only to acknowledge that they exist and to bring some awareness to them. This is a culture that is living and breathing today – and understanding how the past links to the present is worth the 200 words or 5 minutes it takes to address it.

For example, if you’re presenting something to do with the Crusades, you would give some context as to the when, where, and who that is relevant to your specific topic. You might also also point out that extreme right political factions have co-opted this history in order to promote an ethnocentric and religiocentric agenda with violent rhetoric.

I encourage you to write your own introductory “boilerplate” that you can use in your handouts and documentation, tweaking as needed in order to provide the necessary amount of context for whatever you’re presenting. When, where, who will guide you well, as well as any additional what’s or why’s that you may deem necessary.

On Expectations During the Unexpected

[Written on my phone while lying in bed, because reasons.]

I’m a very to-do list and goal-oriented person. I like crossing things off lists. I like checking boxes.

In mid-March, when everything locked down and I started working from home (which I am very blessed and thankful to be able to do), I made lots of plans. Things I would do with the extra time I gained by not having to be in my car running errands, commuting, etc. Some of them, I did. Some of them got put by the wayside as pandemic anxiety settled in and started to crush all my motivation and creativity.

In December 2019, I made a 2020 to-do list which I titled The Big List. It hss SCA projects, unfinished things, household goals, finanical milestones, etc. And I can easily divide it into thirds to make sure I’m on track as the year progresses.

I’m not on track.

The Big List, July 29, 2020. To be on track, I will need to fill in 10 more things before the end of August.

I could make a sub-list of 10 things to get done between now and the end of August so I can fill in that second third in the circle, but nothing bad will happen if I don’t. And in two weeks, my son starts first grade via remote learning. I’m still teleworking, but even though I agruably have more time, my creative energy is tapped. I’m lucky if I can finish a book, let alone find one that is capable of capturing my attention.

And it’s okay. I keep telling myself that it’s okay. This too shall pass, even if we have no idea when, or what the world will look like when it does.

The best I can do is tend to immediate needs – for myself and my family – and be kinder to myself as part of that.

And that means stop looking at this list. Or maybe making a new one with fewer items – like getting vigil and elevation fabric ironed and cut for sewing…

Hang in there, folks. It’ll be okay. We’ll get through this. Be kind. <3

The Balance of Accuracy and Accessibility

Silk fabric during the Tang Dynasty was, to the best of my knowledge, 24″ wide. 1 2 This is not a common width – I have only found it once, and it was a very expensive reproduction of a period fabric. Because of this, we, as a community, accept that most people are going to make garments out of fabric that is either 45 or 58-60″ wide – the standard commercial widths. It is what is accessible, even if it isn’t accurate. The same is true for printed motifs as opposed to woven – while it may be more accurate to use a woven (jin) silk for a particular garment, accurate motifs are difficult to source (locating them, price point, international shipping, etc.). Better to block print a design that you know is accurate on a fiber/weave you know is correct than settle for an inaccurate woven design with questionable fiber.

I don’t use period cosmetics – I apply modern cosmetics in a period style. I have done research on what materials were used in Tang Dynasty cosmetics, and I am aware of similar research by other SCAdians. I choose to use modern cosmetics to achieve a period style due to the broader accessibility of modern cosmetics – literally anyone can go into a drugstore or grocery store and buy what I use, as opposed to struggling to source various ingredients and going through the arduous process of making the cosmetics in their kitchen, then storing them. When you only go to one event every few months or so, period cosmetics – which have to be made in batches and have a much shorter shelf life – aren’t a reasonable investment of money or time for practical use. I’m also married to a Metallurgist with a background in Chemical Engineering and who used to do FDA compliance work who makes lots of faces when I start doing stovetop experiments – and has vetoed some as Household Safety Officer.

There are still some choices that can be made here – like drugstore brand cosmetics vs. bare mineral/organic/etc., but affordability comes into play again. Cosmetics are the sort of thing where I wouldn’t expect someone to buy a separate set of products for the SCA when what they might use for modern life will do the trick just fine. A comparison might be interesting, but again – cosmetics, even modern ones, are an investment of not only the product itself but also tools and time to learn how to apply them.

One of my goals with sharing what I learn about Tang Dynasty material culture is to make it as accessible as possible. It’s more fun when other people play with you, after all. And the more people that are learning about a thing, the more brains are engaged, the higher the chances get that you figure out The Thing that has been eluding someone’s understanding.

Should we strive for authenticity? Of COURSE WE SHOULD – within the balance of accessibility. When I was sourcing stones for Lady Mi’s necklace, I couldn’t find turquoise for a price that was in my budget – I have a household to help upkeep and two small kids to help provide for, because I am a Responsible Adult. So I used glass, which is a reasonable substitute, and a material that artisans would have had access to in period.

The research element here is key – as it is with anything Tang Dynasty related, in my book, because it is not a culture I hold any personal identifying claim to – finding an appropriate, accessible alternative can require just as much research as finding out what was used in period. But that research is worth it, because you’re building your case and helping others down the path who come behind you. It’s work worth doing, and it’s work worth doing well.

This is why there is a section on most guided documentation forms (and why when we counsel people on how to write their documentation) to specifically address substitutes. It’s 100% okay if you can’t use exactly what they would have used in period – just explain what you used instead and why you made that choice. If it’s reasonable – find-ability, affordability, safety, etc.

There is a difference between pushing for accuracy and gatekeeping, just as there is a difference between thoughtfully using accessible materials and being lazy with your research.

As it is with so, so many things – it is about finding the proper balance.

Further Information:

  1. Burnham, D. K. (1997). Cut my cote. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.
  2. Wilkinson, E. (Ed.). (2018). Chinese history: A new manual (5th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Yenching Institute.

The Rock Crystal Necklace of Lady Mi – A Maker’s Diary

This post is a result of my cursory research of Lady Mi’s rock crystal necklace, exhibited by the National Museum of China in 2019, and my attempts to recreate it. I don’t plan on ever entering this necklace in competition, but I wanted to share this process as it shines light on how one can recreate something that looks period without using 100% period techniques or materials – and, mainly, on a budget. I’ll link to all the items I purchased for this project, as well as the sources used. Special thanks to Minamoto no Hideaki for helping translate.

Lady Mi’s rock crystal necklace, on display at the National Museum of China in their Datang Fenghua Exhibition (大唐风华特展, January 2019). Click to enlarge.

Lady Mi, consort of the Fujun official (辅君夫人米氏, 685 AD-755 AD) was buried in what would become the suburbs of X’ian, Shaanix Province. Her tomb was discovered in 2002. She was buried wearing a rock crystal necklace with amethyst and turquoise drops and three blue beads, all strung on silk. The silk had degraded, and archeologists had to search for the beads that had scattered around her neck.

They found 92 crystal beads, 2 amethysts, 2 turquoise, and 3 blue beads. The amethyst and turquoise were set with gold bails.

Continue reading “The Rock Crystal Necklace of Lady Mi – A Maker’s Diary”

Vetting Sources – The Book Review

One of the first things I do when I discover a new monograph (that’s a fancy word for book) source is look for reviews.

The academic publishing field can be pretty brutal. You publish your book, and there will be reviews of it that will be published in the various journals that have the same readership you’d like your book to have. These reviews might be glowing, encouraging people, usually fellow academics or library professionals, to add your book to their collections, or scathing, warning those same people away from your shoddy research and inaccurate conclusions.

This is an excellent way to vet a book – it’s similar to the customer review section of any online shopping website, only these are academics who, presumably, are well-versed in their field and so are coming to the book with a contextual body of knowledge.

So how do you search for book reviews? The same way you search for other journal articles! The key here is that the title of the book and the author are going to be your search terms. You can sometimes get hits by searching Google/Google Scholar, but if you want to be very specific, you can go straight to the journal you want to look in (you know, the one you have already saved fifteen articles from), or you can search databases like JSTOR, Proquest, or Taylor and Francis.

Sometimes, the reviews will be mixed. Sometimes they will be united in their critique. But it’s always a good idea to get a sampling, so you’re not relying on one person’s opinion. It’s also a good idea to look up who the reviewer is to check their credibility on the topic.

And even if the reviews are bad? Well, you still might want to take a look at the book, though maybe through a more cost-efficient method like inter-library loan, but do so with the grains of salt cautioned by the reviewers.

So let’s walk through this.

For this, we’ll look at The Westerners among the Figurines of the T’ang Dynasty of China by Jane Gaston Mahler, published in 1959. This is a series of photographs of tomb figurines with some accompanying text describing their clothing, etc. It’s been awhile since I held this book in my hands, but if memory serves, there was no indication of where the figurines originally came from (which is a problem when looking at this kind of art – because they were often the result of outright tomb robbery in addition to questionably ethical academics coming in to China from abroad). Provenance is important when looking at any extant item. Without provenance, you have no real substantial proof that the Thing is what it is being purported to be. (Psst. Go read Konstantia Kaloethina’s post on the importance of provenance. I will wait.)

I won’t be going into a lot of detail with these reviewers, but you can follow the links to each of their reviews (in JSTOR) to read them yourself. I’ll just be pulling out some of their summary comments.

To begin with, let’s look at Henry Truber’s review (1959), published in Artibus Asiae. Dr. Trubner received his Ph.D. in Fine Arts from Harvard in 1947 and worked as a curator for Oriental Art throughout his career (sorry that this source isn’t better; you’d think it would be easy tracking down credentials of Sinologists from the 1930s-60s…). Truber points out the photographs and discussion of costume as being “a distinct and commendable service to modern scholarship”, but also notes the number of typographical errors as well as Mahler’s tendency to quote well-established facts at length within her text where a footnote would have sufficed. What sticks out to me is his point that Mahler’s “racial” identification methods are faulty (because of course they are – thanks, pre-Civil Rights bunkum. This is a Very Good Reason to pay attention to publication dates and the diction used when people not part of that culture discuss the history of marginalized cultures):

p. 264

Edward H. Schafer‘s own academic focus was on China’s interactions with other cultures during the Tang Dynasty. Dr. Schafer worked as a professor in UCLA Berkeley’s Department of Oriental Languages from 1947-1984, serving as president of the American Oriental Society and receiving many distinctions throughout his career.

In his review (1959), published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Schafer agrees with Trubner that Mahler’s descriptions of clothing are far more useful than her attempt to classify them by “race” as opposed to region or culture. He also notes Mahler’s clunky, extended use of quotes in her section on the history of Western China.

p. 206

Still, like Trubner, he recommends the book to students, noting that his own criticism as “carping.”

The last review we will look at is by Dr. Richard Edwards, a prominent historian of Asian art who wrote extensively about Chinese paintings and taught at Brandeis University, Washington University in St. Louis (where he was at the time of this review), and the University of Michigan. Edwards’s review (1960) is in the Journal of Asian Studies.

Edwards makes many of the same points that Trubner and Schafer did, but also notes that the twelve pages on clothing need to be taken with a grain of salt:

“We are told (p. 115) that ‘Dignitaries of the seventh and eighth centuries . . . adopted pleated cuffs and bands like the Kuchans (Fig. 6).’ The drawings of the Chinese in Fig. 6 show extremely long sleeves, and if the cuffs are there they cannot be deciphered.”

p. 337

Of the three, Edwards feels the most scathing in the end.

p. 337

There might be more at play here bubbling beneath the surface. All three reviews came out not long after Mahler’s book was published, as would be expected. All three were from men recognized in the field via academic postings or their own research and publications. Remember – Mahler is Jane Mahler. While Schafer worked to see policy changed at the University of California so that women could have full professor status, that was in the 1970s – far be it from us to say whether or not he had these same views of equality a decade prior. I also don’t want to assume that Trubner and Edwards were misogynists, but as sexism in academia is still an issue in 2019, I don’t think it’s an unfair assumption.

I want to point out that Dr. Jane Gaston Mahler was the first woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in Oriental Art History (Columbia, but I can’t find a date). She taught at Barnard College and Columbia University.

All that aside, I hope this exercise was helpful. Again, (scholarly) book reviews can be found anywhere you look for academic articles already – JSTOR, EBSCO, etc. It’s also not a bad idea to keep track of the journals specific to your area of study and check their tables of contents every now and again to see reviews for new titles to add to your wishlist.


It’s been a bit, and for that, Oh Internet, I apologize.

One of my 2019 SCA resolutions is to post here at least once a month, so hopefully you will start seeing some “regular” content. My last post is from over 2 years ago, and in that span of time I have done quite a bit, including bringing another child into the world. Much of my current research has been on garment construction in Tang Dynasty China, as part of the Epic Timey-Wimey Garb Project. Don’t fret, though. I have been equally neglectful of the SCA Reference Desk, if not moreso.

But today I want to talk about Google Scholar Alerts. Google Alerts, you may know, are searches you can set up to email you (either individually or in a digest) when the search engine discovers a new page relevant to your search terms. It’s super great for staying on top of stuff.

I have two alerts set up for “Tang Dynasty” – one is a straight Google Alert and one is a Google Scholar alert. The Google Alert mostly pops on articles from Chinese news sources, and the content is rarely relevant to me – it lacks citations, and is often just a historic nod in a “this has been going on for this long”sort of way. Not the sort of thing you’d want to include in your reference list for documentation.

On the other hand, the Google Scholar alerts get me some really interesting stuff – some of it is modern (those historical nods again), but I get a fair bit of archeological articles. Today’s alert included an article about cultural exchange between China’s Tang Dynasty and the Sasanid Empire as seen in ceramics.

So how do you set up a Google Scholar alert? Super easy. But I’m going to let Richard Byrne do it, because he covers some other cool stuff Google Scholar can do to help you find and save articles.

“Tracing is Period”

A couple of months ago, I threw myself (is there any other way?) into researching period tracing techniques for Western Europe. We talk about how “tracing is period” but generally, the conversation stops there. This was a fun little rabbit hole for me, and someday I’ll trek back down it and try to make my own tracing paper. Though I doubt my husband will be a fan of me spreading fish glue on granite until it is thick enough to make paper…

You can see my handout here: Tracing is Period: A Discussion of Techniques used to Reproduce Art in Medieval Europe

I decided to post today because 1), new handout, and 2) I’m TRACING!

Working on f. 10v of The Second Bible of Charles the Bald, 871-877.
Working on f. 10v of The Second Bible of Charles the Bald, 871-877.

Continue reading ““Tracing is Period””

Visconti Baronies and How I Ship Awards

Kaydian Bladebreaker’s Court Barony backlog is done!

Ahem. Sorry about that.

Sir Kaydian’s barony is the companion piece to his lovely lady’s, Mistress Cassandra, given at the same event. I was very honored to be asked to take care of these backlog scrolls. They took me awhile (as is evident by the distinct skill-evolution between Cassandra’s and Kaydian’s, especially in terms of script) due to moving twice and the general stuff of life, but they’re done now, and soon I will be shipping Kaydian’s scroll so that they can be matted and framed and (I assume) displayed side by side. Both of them are based on the Visconti Hours – Kaydian’s is LF 155 and Cassandra’s is LF 153.

I wanted to take a moment and show how I prep scrolls for mailing, in addition to showing this pair side by side (which is why I haven’t blogged about Cassandra’s yet). Pics and more after the break!

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My Process – Choosing Inspiration

When I get a scroll assignment, the first thing I do is find out who the person is. More than likely, I have never met them before.  I always try to match the inspiration for my scroll to the recipient’s persona.  In this post, I’ll talk about how I go about finding a period illumination to base a scroll on.

Continue reading “My Process – Choosing Inspiration”