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Xi’an Forest of Stone Steles Museum

Xi’an Forest of Stone Steles Museum

Xi’an Forest of Stone Steles Museum. Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by B. Hogarth, 1982.

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This photograph is taken inside the Forest of Steles Museum in Xi’an, China. A man is looking at rows of stone steles that contain historic inscriptions carved over many centuries and preserved here.

The history of the collection begins in the Tang dynasty (618-906) when various emperors began to order copies of famous works of literature to be engraved on stone, partly for preservation and security, because works on paper could easily be lost or destroyed. Written records had been committed to stone and bronze before, but not systematically collected. For students learning the classics, the stone steles functioned like libraries. Copies could be made of individual works by placing moist paper against the stone and then dabbing the stone with an ink-soaked pad of silk filled with cotton. In some cases, these ink rubbings are all that remain of some stones that have been lost or destroyed.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279), the present Confucian temple that houses the collection was built and the first stone stele was moved inside. This is a typical practice in many Confucian temples where walls are filled with memorial stones and stone inscriptions. The present Stele Museum is one of the largest of its kind in East Asia.