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Stanley Ho Junior Research Fellow, Dr Christopher Foster, completes successful project in China with UCCL grant

16th May 2019

Stanley Ho Junior Research Fellow, Dr Christopher Foster, recently completed an extremely successful project in Yumen, western Gansu province, China, with the generous support of grant from The Universities’ China Committee in London (UCCL).

Dr Foster was awarded a grant of £1,700 last November, enabling him to conduct a survey of Han period watchtowers situated in the desert near Yumen city. The objective of the research survey was to clarify the precise location of one watchtower in particular, called Yumen Huahai, where important manuscript fragments of a long-lost scribal primer were discovered in the 1970s. Before his survey, there was great confusion over whether this watchtower was visited previously by Aurel Stein during his famous archaeological expeditions in the early 20th century, and if the site remains standing today.

Dr Foster conducted the survey under the gracious guidance of Wang Pu, director of Yumen City Museum, and museum personnel, including the scholar Ban Dejun. The team was completed by Prof Bai Junpeng of Northeast Normal University, one of the foremost authorities on these manuscript finds. Journeying into the heart of the surrounding desert, Dr Foster and colleagues identified a number of watchtower sites, following in the tracks of Aurel Stein. Ultimately, they successfully located and examined the Yumen Huahai watchtower, which happily was found in good preservation.

The gathering enabled invaluable academic exchange, including a tour of the museum’s exhibits and viewing other unpublished Han manuscripts. Dr Foster moreover was able to share his research with local experts, delivering a talk in Chinese, titled (in translation): “The Cang Jie pian Practice Writing Discovered at Yumen Huahai Watchtower, and the Canonization of the Confucian Classics.” Following the survey and talks, Dr Foster and Prof Bai Junpeng travelled on to the neighbouring cities of Jiayuguan and Lanzhou. They met with Zhang Xiaodong, the director of Jiayuguan Great Wall Museum with, where they personally inspected the manuscripts unearthed at the Yumen Huahai Watchtower.

Dr Foster commented:

‘The survey was quite an adventure – we got lost in the wastelands, had to push our car out of sand dunes, fill in irrigation ditches to make roads where there were none, and nearly gave up on finding the watchtower altogether when locals insisted it had been levelled. But through it all we persevered and made a huge discovery! To then later be able to see, with my own eyes, the manuscript artefacts I have studied for so long... it was really a priceless experience. I am so grateful to my Chinese colleagues for all their help and warm welcome, to UCCL for the generous financial backing, and for all the support and inspiration I receive from Pembroke College on a daily basis.’

Dr Christoper Foster
Dr Christoper Foster