The Hole at the Heart of Chinese Archaeology
The origins of modern Chinese archaeology are generally traced to 1921, when Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson excavated Yangshao Village in the northern Henan province. Although some scholars have since argued that China’s long and rich tradition of epigraphy — the study of ancient inscriptions — could be considered a predecessor to archaeology, the Chinese epigraphical tradition was essentially an extension of historical research and lacked the refined methodology pioneered by Western archaeologists like Andersson, who in turn modeled their more “scientific” approach to excavation on the work of 19th century geologists and biologists.
But China’s lack of archaeological tradition did not blind contemporary scholars to the field’s potential importance. In particular, the groundwork for archaeology’s rise was laid by the emergence of the revisionist “Doubting Antiquity School” (gushi bian yundong) in the early 20th century. Led by the scholar Gu Jiegang, the school applied approaches borrowed from Western textual criticism to the study of ancient Chinese historical texts. In essence, Gu argued that the Chinese nation’s understanding of itself and its history was largely based on false sources. This daring movement not only rejected the existence of the “Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors,” the mythical founders of what is today considered China, but also called into question the very existence of China’s earliest kingdoms, including the Xia and Shang Dynasties.
The claims of the “Doubting Antiquity School” were politically explosive, and Gu and others were in for heavy criticism from more traditional scholars such as Liu Yizheng, Wang Guowei, and Zhang Yinlin. While it was Gu who insisted that examining physical artifacts was the only way to develop a truly authentic understanding of ancient history, both sides of the debate were quick to grasp the potential of what scholar Fu Ssu-nien once called the “novel tool” of archaeology for solving some of China’s oldest historical questions.
This, then, was the intellectual milieu into which Andersson first introduced Western archaeological methods. It wasn’t Andersson who would shape the future of archaeology in China, however. Rather, this would fall to the Chinese scholar Li Ji, who would earn a reputation as the “father of Chinese archaeology” after organizing a 1926 excavation in Xiyin Village in the northern province of Shanxi. In 1928, Li was appointed director of the archaeology team at the Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology. In this role, he led the excavation of the Yin ruins — digs that confirmed the site as the capital of the Shang Dynasty.
The dig had far-reaching ramifications for Chinese archaeology, and not all of them were positive. Proving the existence of the Shang Dynasty — which ruled much of the central Chinese plain during the second millennium B.C. — served as an effective rebuttal to the claims of the “Doubting Antiquity School.” Precisely because the Yin ruins seemed to prove the veracity of China’s ancient texts, however, the dig also helped confirm archaeology’s status as a “tool” — in Fu’s words — a means of settling historical or historiographical debates rather than a standalone discipline. Instead of conducting more digs and improving their methods, Chinese scholars used archaeology primarily to resolve textual disputes. The most gratifying aspect of their job was not the thrill of discovering something new and unknown; rather, it was simply corroborating ancient classics.
In short, archaeology was viewed as merely a branch of history, a situation that would not officially change until 2011, when the State Council — China’s Cabinet — promoted archaeology to the status of full academic discipline on the same level as history.
Nevertheless, archaeology continued to flourish in China over the course of the 20th century, with the period from 1949 until just before the Cultural Revolution in 1966 sometimes referred to as the field’s “golden age.” The discoveries made during these years took scholars’ understanding of China’s prehistory and ancient history to entirely new heights.
Despite these highs, the country’s isolation from academic exchanges during the Mao era functionally limited archaeologists to the study of ancient material culture. Chinese archaeologists continued to use methods from the 1920s and ’30s, and their “research” was essentially limited to the categorization, description, and dating of various artifacts.
The story of the past 40 years, then, has been one of playing catch-up. Technological advancements and new methods have allowed the country’s archaeologists to obtain an unprecedented amount of information from old sites. This has given us new answers, but also new questions. Weak theoretical foundations remain the discipline’s Achilles heel. Much of today’s archaeological research is limited to the interpretation of artifacts, and archaeologists too often fail to delve into what these artifacts say about societal structures, economic models, and cultural landscapes. Meanwhile, too little time devoted to the study of empirical approaches has caused excavations to become routine operations that never stray from a single, one-size-fits-all procedure.
The truth is that archaeological theories, methods, and practices are a collective entity; they’re all closely interrelated and codependent. A lack of coordination between the three will affect archaeologists’ ability to achieve their research goals.
For instance, many Chinese archaeologists continue to base their analyses on the concept of “archaeological cultures,” focusing their energies on using typological methods to categorize material cultures and attribute them to various ancient ethnic or cultural groups.
Owing to the limitations and subjectivity of these categories, the concept of archaeological cultures is ill-suited to the task of reconstructing Chinese history. This is because the archaeological cultures theory categorizes material culture based on common traits, whereas civilizations and nations become increasingly hierarchical and diverse over time. For example, archaeologist Zou Heng has speculated that the Bronze Age Erlitou culture is in fact the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty. Working off this assumption, Zou has worked to date and define the culture through the categorization of earthenware found at the Erlitou ruins. However, the vast majority of this earthenware consists of everyday items, which evolve separately from political entities. Their forms, motifs, and combinations, no matter how interesting, do not signify the existence of a particular kingdom.
To break the stranglehold of archaeological cultures on Chinese archaeology as a discipline, we need to adopt a more diverse approach to archaeological research and practice. Instead of focusing on which culture or civilization an artifact belongs to, we should look at the role material cultures played in ancient society, their interactions with the environment and surrounding cultures, and the evolution of these cultures from one period to the next. Doing so will allow us to move beyond static descriptions of the past and free us to offer real insights into the evolution of the prehistoric and ancient societies that have inhabited China.
The late archaeologist Yu Weichao once divided the global development of archaeology into an embryonic period, a traditional period, and an interpretative period. Yu felt that, although Chinese archaeology’s aims are in line with those of the interpretative period, its practices remain stuck in the traditional period. Over the course of the last century, Chinese archaeology has made plenty of laudable achievements, from the excavation of the Terra Cotta Warriors to the otherworldly finds of Sanxingdui. However, when judging archaeological achievements, it’s necessary to separate the discovery of materials from the quality of the ensuing research. It is in this latter field — the extrapolation, synthesis, and interpretation of information — that Chinese archaeologists need to redouble their efforts.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A collage of terracotta sculptures excavated from pit K9901 at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. From the website of Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum)