How a Swedish Geologist Kickstarted China’s Love of Archaeology
This is the first in a series on the past, present and future of Chinese archaeology.
In October 1921, the Swedish geologist, archaeologist, and scholar Johan Gunnar Andersson led a small expedition into rural Henan province in northern China. By this point in his career, the 47-year-old Andersson was a well-known figure in international academic circles, in part due to his earlier participation in two Antarctic expeditions. In 1914, China’s newly formed Beiyang Government hired him as a mining consultant and tasked him with surveying China’s iron ore deposits. For the next few years, he juggled several geological expeditions along with his interests in paleontology and anthropology. His early investigations of the Zhoukoudian ruins near Beijing, for instance, would lead to the discovery of the “Peking Man” fossils.
It is for his work in Yangshao, however, that Andersson is best known today. As the head of a team that included Chinese geologist Yuan Fuli and Austrian paleontologist Otto Zdansky, Andersson spent two months excavating a Neolithic site near the Yellow River. The dig produced an abundance of painted pottery shards, one of which still bore the imprint of a grain of rice. In keeping with the conventions of Western archaeology, Andersson attributed the pottery to what he termed the “Yangshao culture,” which he believed was the distant ancestor of today’s Han Chinese. Identifying similarities between the Yangshao pottery and items from the Anau and Tripolje cultures of Central Asia, Andersson speculated in his 1923 book “An Early Chinese Culture” that the Yangshao people might have spread from regions west of China around 3,000 B.C.
The significance of the Yangshao dig cannot be overstated. Although Andersson’s methods were somewhat crude — his true area of expertise was, after all, geology —he and his team carried out the most professional and scientific excavation they could. The result was the first discovery of a prehistoric culture in what is now China, located in the historical heartland of Chinese civilization. The Yangshao dig is for this reason widely recognized as the historical starting point of modern Chinese archaeology.
But Andersson’s work was also controversial, even in the 1920s. His hypothesis that the Yangshao culture originated west of China antagonized Chinese scholars, who saw it as attributing Western origins to Chinese civilization.
Almost immediately after Andersson’s dig, Chinese scholars procured the backing of academic or newly founded archaeological institutions to carry out their own investigations into China’s ancient past. Though Andersson is regarded as the pioneer of Chinese archaeology, it is these individuals — Li Ji, Dong Zuobin, Xia Nai, Su Bingqi, and Pei Wenzhong — who are its true founders. Between 1921 and 1949, they fine-tuned basic archaeological methods such as stratigraphy and typology — the classification of different layers of sediment and of items, respectively — improving the quality and utility of excavations.
Early Chinese archaeologists, with the support of important and influential Chinese institutes like the Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology and the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce’s Institute of Geological Surveys, played a key role in the reconstruction of Chinese history and pre-history. The Academia Sinica conducted 15 excavations in the Yin ruins of Anyang, also in Henan, discovering the capital city of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1800-1046 BC) as well as royal mausoleums from the same period. The Institute of Geological Surveys, meanwhile, sponsored further digs in Zhoukoudian that unearthed the fossils of Peking Man — a monumental discovery that helped put Chinese science on the map.
This progress did not end with the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Rather, scholars including Guo Moruo, Yin Da, and Xia Nai took the reins of Chinese archaeology and helped form the basis of what the country would later call “archaeology with Chinese characteristics.” Although Guo — a poet, writer, and later in life a powerful official — is perhaps the best known in the West, Xia was the group’s unsung hero. A Western-trained Egyptologist, Xia worked at the forefront of Chinese archaeology from the founding of the People’s Republic of China until his death in 1985. He planned and guided the field’s overall development, refined the principles according to which archaeological cultures were named, and established an initial framework for identifying these cultures.
Xia was the first in China to recognize the potential of American scientist Willard Frank Libby’s invention of “carbon-14” dating technology, soon after it was applied to archaeology in the 1950s, and he persevered through many difficulties to establish the country’s first carbon-14 archaeological laboratory in 1959. Beginning in the late 1950s, at a time of diplomatic isolation for China, Xia organized archaeological exchanges between China and the rest of the world. These exchanges stimulated the development of important new areas of research, such as Silk Road archaeology; their influence continues to be felt today.
Under the leadership of this group of pioneering scholars, China made important progress in both prehistoric and historical archaeology. Work done during this period helped prove that the agricultural and economic patterns of “rice in the south and millet in the north” were already established as early as 8,000 years ago, making China one of the earliest known regions in which agriculture emerged. Other archaeological digs found evidence that, as early as 3,000 B.C., key settlements in both the north and south of today’s China experienced rapid development and formed into unified cultural entities. Further scholarship, as well as DNA research, proved that the evolution of the Chinese people and culture was uninterrupted and autochthonous, thus laying to rest earlier theories that attributed the origins of Chinese civilization to regions west of China.
Andersson’s theory was, at last, disproven, but by this point, Chinese interest in archaeology was increasingly organic. Major finds like the 1974 discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors lent credence to early historical documents like the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. - AD 220) scholar Sima Qian’s “Records of the Grand Historian.” This incited the public’s feelings of pride in their country and culture — and gave impetus to new digs.
More challenging has been the discovery of artifacts from cultures and civilizations not included in China’s histories, and which don’t fit neatly into the country’s historical or dynastic narratives. For thousands of years, China has traced its origins to the Yellow River basin. The discovery of the Liangzhu culture in the Yangzte River delta near what is today Shanghai and the Sanxingdui culture in the southwestern Sichuan province have forced scholars to reckon with a more muddled picture. Although both cultures were swept away by the tides of history, elements of Liangzhu art and culture like jade receptacles and sacrificial vessels became deeply integrated into what is now thought of as Chinese culture. Artifacts from the mysterious Sanxingdui site, meanwhile, bear so little resemblance to the surrounding cultures that some non-archaeologists have posited they were left by aliens.
Then there is Shimao, an ancient city in the unforgiving, hostile environment of North China’s Loess Plateau, closer to Mongolia than the central plains that supposedly birthed Chinese civilization.
To say these discoveries are challenging our understanding of Chinese history may not be wholly accurate. Rather, they are expanding our ideas of what Chinese history looked like. The discoveries of Sanxingdui, for instance, are pushing scholars away from more linear, self-contained understandings of Chinese cultural development and toward the notion that early Chinese history is characterized by “many elements in a single whole.”
Still, Chinese archaeology’s most important achievement is arguably its success reaching and exciting the public. Today’s schoolchildren can rattle off dates not only from the country’s major dynasties, but also from prehistory. A hundred years ago, Johan Gunnar Andersson pricked the pride of Chinese scholars and intellectuals with his Western origin theory; now, China has a homegrown archaeological tradition to be proud of.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Visual elements from East Asian Museum, Xinhua, and People Visual, edited by Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)