Antiquarianism in China experienced a dramatic change in the second half of the nineteenth century. While ancient Chinese artifacts were still eagerly sought after, scholars began to collect Egyptian inscriptions. Unequipped with any knowledge of the Egyptian writing system, they were fascinated by the stylistic similarity between Egyptian hieroglyphs and ancient Chinese seal-script characters. This article centers on the scholar-official Pan Zuyin (1830–90) and his collection of ink rubbings of the Decree of Canopus, a stele with trilingual inscriptions carved in the Ptolemaic era. It examines how Qing antiquarians interpreted ancient Egyptian inscriptions, adapting, denying, and transforming Champollion’s approach by explaining the formation and evolution of the Egyptian writing system in terms of their own philological theory, the liushu (the six modes of character formation). It argues that the craze for Egyptian inscriptions resulted from discursive changes occurring in the field of antiquarian study as the scope of acceptable research areas was broadened and the strange and exotic objects—previously considered uncollectible—began to attract scholarly attention. The popularity of Egyptian inscriptions also demonstrates that serious philological study and an amateurish pleasure-seeking attitude were not so much oppositional binaries as interdependent activities.

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