3D technology in the Chinese history classroom: Restoring material metadata for primary sources

In 2012, the Smithsonian Institution started its experiment of turning museum collections into 3D models (Terdiman 2022). Ten years later, the world’s largest museum is steadily on its way to embracing future technology with already more than two thousand digitized three-dimensional items available online. Among them, more than one hundred are Chinese artefacts ranging from ceramics to bronze vessels and animal bones. Similarly, the National Palace Museum in Taiwan has scanned its finest collections and made their 3D models accessible online. Now libraries and universities have also joined to explore this advanced technology, with the Xiangtangshan Caves Projects as an exemplar supported by more than thirty institutions reconstructing the Buddhist caves digitally. Individuals, too, are invited to upload scanned models to platforms such as Sketchfab and Scan the World for sharing.

As the application of 3D technology becomes more widespread and accessible, it refreshes the way in which we engage with objects. On the one hand, it gives the public virtual access to not-for-display museum items, which often take a significant portion of the total collection. On the other hand, its ability in constructing objects virtually and physically inspires new research and learning methods and perspectives. In this post, I would like to focus on the use of 3D models in the Chinese history classroom. Particularly, I intend to re-evaluate one of the essential ways that students access history – via reading of primary sources – and to ask how 3D models enhance students’ experience of primary source examination.

A classroom is a space where students often engage with historical texts and put history into context. We instruct students to read and ask “who”, “when”, “what”, and “why” questions to understand a primary source, from which point we expect them to connect to the past experience. However, it seems that we have gotten so used to reading texts that we oftentimes neglect the material context of the source. We do not always encourage students to think about the material metadata that comes with the text: texture, shape, and function of the surface on which the text was written. Unlike modern times when the most common writing medium is paper, pre-modern Chinese writing materials varied, including animal bones, bronze vessels, bamboo strips, and silks. They provide important context for understanding the manuscript and textual culture of the time. For instance, students can examine the hollows and cracks of oracle bones to understand the procedure of divination and to make sense of the inscription.

Fig. 1 A 3D model shared on Sketchfab by the British Library

The importance of objects is admittedly not entirely omitted in history classes. Museums such as Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago have long supported teaching activities at their home institutions. But many other universities without a large East Asian department do not have the luxury to offer students a possibility to engage with material artefacts. Visual sources, on the other hand, have been gathered by dedicated historians to promote students’ access to digital materials, as exemplified by Patricia Ebrey’s A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, which is designed for class use supplementing textbooks and textual sources. Despite this effort, objects and images, unfortunately, have long been put in the category of non-textual sources standing at the opposite of words. Materials have very few opportunities to be considered as an inseparable part of textual sources that impacted on the creation of words.

In this respect, the development of 3D technology may inspire us to break the dichotomy of textual and non-textual sources. The traditional assignment of artefacts and texts to the discipline of art history and history respectively has limited our imagination in the role of an educator who guides students to contemplate on source materials. As David Staley notes, written documents often filter the “original surrounding” and “elements of experience” when the source was created – such as the audience reaction to a speech (Staley 2003, 61). Now, parts of this experience of human past can be restored by 3D models. The overlook of the entire piece, the high-resolution details, the option to zoom in and out, and the capability to control artefacts with fingertips altogether build the setting for students to act like a history explorer considering the text in relation to its written surface. At this point, texts depart from a source book and become more vivid evidence for history. Students can then begin to understand the choice made by Zhou people to carve on a certain surface of the bronze vessel and the possible results caused by the material form of bamboo slips on the missing words.

Fig. 2 Inscription shown inside a 3D bronze vessel (Smithsonian)

To sum up, the remote access to 3D artefacts is a wonderful treasure that can enhance students’ understanding of primary sources. I contend that the examination of objects should not be confined to the discipline of art history. Only by offering students the opportunities to practice like an explorer of history can we start to expect them to own shared experiences with humans from the past.


Staley, David. Computers, Visualizations, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2003).

Terdiman, Daniel. “Smithsonian turns to 3D to bring collection to the world.” https://www.cnet.com/culture/smithsonian-turns-to-3d-to-bring-collection-to-the-world/ Accessed Sep 30, 2022.

(Cover image: 3D model Mythological Beast created by the Minneapolis Institute of Art on MyMiniFactory, edited by author.)

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