To be held by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Clare College, Cambridge at the Riley Auditorium, Gillespie Centre, Memorial Court.

To be followed by a drinks reception. Registration is not required.

When we look at China today, we forget that this vast continental power faces east. To the west, the altitude of the wide Tibetan plateau, and the deserts and mountains of Central Asia and the steppe, constricted early contact with regions in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean that the West too easily thinks of as the sources of civilisation. In its own climate, dominated in the summer by the Pacific Monsoon, alternating in the winter with the Westerlies, China’s agriculture developed separately and differently. And this is true of China’s culture as a whole. In place of the familiar ancient Egyptian or Greek monuments of temples and deity figures in stone, the early culture is written in a wealth of bronze banqueting vessels, orchestras of bell chimes with zithers and lacquered furniture carefully preserved in immense deep tombs to ensure a rich afterlife for the ancestors. The central role of the family, in which the ancestors continue to be present, is rarely recognised, although this social structure was and remained the model for the Chinese state. The huge population provided a highly organised, skilled work force, capable of creating thousands of terracotta soldiers for the First Emperor and realising today’s formidable infrastructure of high-speed railways. Even with communication along the steppe, across the Central Asian deserts and over the sea, China’s unique culture became and has remained distinct.

Professor Dame Jessica Rawson joined the British Museum to serve over the years 1968-1994 as Assistant Keeper, Deputy Keeper, and finally, Keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities. She was Merton’s first female Warden, serving for 16 years from 1994 to 2010. She was also Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford from 2006 to 2011 and was appointed Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at Oxford in 2000. She received a CBE in 1994 and was awarded the title of Dame in 2002 for services to oriental studies.

Her primary academic interests are in early China’s history and material culture. She is best known for her research on the interaction of the peoples of central China with those along the borders with northern Eurasia, which resulted in major innovations, such as the introduction of metallurgy to China. She has presented her research as a Global Fellow at Peking University in 2017 and as an Academic Fellow at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou from 2017 to 2019. She has also taught at the Universities of Cambridge, London and East Anglia, and has held visiting professorships at the universities of Heidelberg and Chicago. For the academic year 2013-2014, she held the position of Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge.

The Trustees of the Needham Research Institute gratefully acknowledge the support of the Master and Fellows of Gonville and Caius College, the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology in the establishment of this annual lecture.