Lenfest 2015 Winner: Li Feng

March 09, 2015

Li Feng brings his background as an archaeologist and historian of early China to bear on his teaching, at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Li has spent more than 15 years analyzing inscriptions on bronze vessels from the Zhou period (1045-256 B.C.) and written four books on early Chinese history that consider the nature of its first bureaucracies, the collapse of the Bronze-Age state, and the region’s philosophical search for social order.

In Li’s undergraduate classes he tries to stress an understanding of history over just a knowledge of history. “It’s impossible to introduce undergraduates to the totality of Chinese civilization in one semester,” he says. “Instead, I take a global perspective and relate the rise of China to the broader human experience, using materials from the field to help them remember not only how a certain event happened but why it happened. What is its relation to all other things?”

With his graduate students, Li plays a more specific role. “You have to help your Ph.D. students design their careers, and that requires knowing your field well enough to know what’s undiscovered. By working with graduate students this way, you can shepherd research and help fill in blanks for years to come.”

Li directed Columbia’s first archaeological fieldwork project in China in 2006-2011. In 2002 he founded the Columbia Early China seminar, an inter-university forum for the study of early Chinese civilization from the Neolithic period to the end of the Han dynasty (A.D. 220).

“Our true knowledge of the past relies on an impartial understanding of all surviving evidence -- archaeological, inscriptional, and textual,” Li says. “I look for ways to integrate the material evidence and the written records of early states and societies.”

His analysis of these archaic inscriptions has opened two new subfields of research. The first established the study of early calligraphy as a way to understand the casting process of bronze vessels and, more broadly, their role within the rituals and institutions they served. The second deals more broadly with early Chinese writing, a topic he explored in his edited volume, Writing and Literacy in Early China, considered the first book to study the question of literacy in early China.

He received his master’s degree from the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and his Ph.D. in 2000 from the University of Chicago. Li also did Ph.D. work in the University of Tokyo in Japan.

—by William McGuinness