Can Archaeology Prove China’s Ancient Historians Right?
Earlier this year, the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Shanghai Museum organized two separate exhibitions of artifacts recovered from the early Bronze Age Erlitou site. The two exhibitions shared a name, “Heyi Zhongguo,” which the Palace Museum translated as “The Making of Zhongguo,” and the Shanghai Museum as “The Essence of China.” Both translations reflect the growing consensus that Erlitou was the capital of the mythic Xia dynasty — the first dynasty according to traditional Chinese historiography, though one that left no historical records of its own.
The Xia capital hypothesis dates back almost 70 years, but it has gained new currency thanks to China’s renewed emphasis on archaeology as a means of nation-building. In 2019, the nearby city of Luoyang opened the Erlitou Site Museum of the Xia Capital and began applying for UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status for the site. Support for Erlitou as the Xia capital has only grown since then, peaking this year with the two major exhibitions and a Sept. 16 press conference by the National Cultural Heritage Administration at which Zhang Haitao, the head of the Erlitou team at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, declared that new discoveries “lent more substance to the assertion that the Erlitou site was the capital of the Xia dynasty.”
There is just one problem: There is no textual evidence for the existence of the Xia, much less for the assertion that Erlitou was its capital. The rush to declare Erlitou proof of the Xia reflects a myopia that has characterized Chinese archaeology for a century. Without textual corroboration, no number of artifacts from Erlitou can prove the Xia existed, even as the persistent quest to do so blinds us to the real insights the site offers into the origins of early state formation in what is today’s China.
This phenomenon has much to do with the way two theoretically distinct disciplines — archaeology and China’s longstanding tradition of historiography — have been merged in China. Experts, including not just historians, but also many archaeologists, continue to view archaeology as a subdiscipline of historiography. They see it as a tool for proving the validity of historical texts, rather than a distinct discipline with its own methodology and goals.
The Chinese archaeologist and scholar Xia Nai compared the relationship between Chinese archaeology and history to “the two wheels on a cart and the two wings of a bird: inseparable.” Put another way, Chinese archaeologists believe their main task is to verify the authenticity of ancient historical records.
Ancient texts like the “Records of the Grand Historian” from the 1st century B.C. refer to the existence of a Xia dynasty prior to the Shang dynasty (roughly 1600-1046 B.C.). In the 1950s, Xu Xusheng, a prominent historian and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology, decided to use archaeological methods to back up his more traditional textual analyses of the Xia’s origins. Believing that the Xia referred to a Xia clan or tribe, Xu used documentary sources to identify either the plains of Luoyang in what is now the central province of Henan or the Lower Fen River in the neighboring Shanxi province as two possible areas of activity for a prehistoric Xia clan. He then traveled to Henan to conduct an archaeological survey, where he discovered the Erlitou site and subsequently penned his famous “Preliminary Report on the 1959 Survey of the ‘Ruins of Xia’ in Western Henan.”
What followed was a self-reinforcing loop of speculation. In 1977, Xia Nai proposed that from an archaeological standpoint, Xia culture should refer to “the culture of the Xia people during the Xia dynasty.” Archaeologist Zou Heng agreed and declared that “Erlitou culture was Xia culture.” He also summarized three characteristics of Xia culture: First, its pottery tended to have a round base; second, the excavation of a bronze cauldron at Erlitou suggested that bronze vessels were already being cast in the early Xia culture; and third, its ritual vessels included goblets, jue (wine holders), and he (a three or four-legged vessel used to hold or pour wines).
From there, Chinese scholars collapsed the Erlitou culture into the Xia culture, into the Xia clan, into the Xia state, deducing that the distribution of distinctive artifacts also found at Erlitou marked the presence of the Xia state and that the distribution of these artifacts delineated the territory of the Xia dynasty.
The theory’s weak foundations have not escaped notice. After all, there is still no proof that the Xia existed. But some scholars are nonetheless predisposed to regard ancient references to the Xia dynasty as credible, arguing that China’s earliest historical documents should be held “innocent until proven guilty.” That is, ancient texts or records should be believed as true until there is sufficient evidence to prove otherwise.
This is hardly convincing. Ancient records are the creation of ancient minds; they are the product of history, not history itself. To that end, using them as reference necessitates a process of identification and verification. A few modern Chinese historians have argued for a textual criticism approach to historiography, most notably historian Gu Jiegang, whose 1926 book “Doubts on Ancient History” highlighted the ambiguity of some ancient historical records.
Documentary and archaeological remains are very different kinds of evidence. In ancient societies, only the elites could read and write, so literacy was a tool for their rule and memories. Records of the Xia dynasty first appeared in the Western Zhou dynasty (1045-771 B.C.), but it is absent from oracle bone inscriptions made during the late Shang dynasty. Scholars like Yang Kuan, Chen Mengjia, and Gu Jiegang have all argued that Western Zhou rulers might have exaggerated the Xia as an all-powerful dynasty to advance their own agenda: justifying the destruction of the Shang.
Unfortunately, Gu’s spirit of skepticism suffered a major blow when details of the Shang royal line recovered from oracle bones were found to be consistent with ancient documents, casting doubt on his critical approach. Many archaeologists today acknowledge the importance of skepticism but also generally dismiss it as the product of a negative attitude.
The quest to find the Xia obscures a far more important question: Do the accounts of the Xia in ancient texts really suggest the existence of an early state as contemporary cultural anthropology would define the term? The formation of a state is generally defined by the establishment of institutionalized power, of which a key feature is the rise of a bureaucratic government. Attempts to identify the roots of early state formation should be based on excavated materials that independently point to the levels of social development in Erlitou. Instead of searching for the Xia, we should be looking for evidence of bureaucratic government formation and, based on dynamic changes in settlement patterns, tracing the transformation of a social organization as it moved from kinship-based to territorial relationships.
In other words, rather than being mutually corroborating, historiography and archaeology should complement each other. Historiography is suitable for top-down reconstructions of history, in which documentary records are used to construct a kind of political history. Archaeological materials work better for a bottom-up reconstruction of history. Although material cultures are not as self-evident as texts, they offer all kinds of information vital to reconstructing the development of various facets of life, including ecological environments, subsistence, economic trade, handicraft production, population growth, diets, nutrition and pathology, population distribution and migration, social structure, and ideology.
The search for the Xia is an entertaining mystery, but it cannot be treated as the most important, most fulfilling aspect of exploring the origins of Chinese civilization. Doing so results in important issues being ignored and makes it difficult to delve deeper into the causality of Chinese history. As it is, the findings of Chinese archaeologists continue to struggle to earn international recognition and our work is not treated as part of an equal dialogue.
That’s a shame. Understanding the origins of civilization is a topic of global importance, and a field to which China has much to offer. But first we must transcend our own narrow historical perspective, draw more comparisons between our own and other explorations of early civilizations, and humbly and openly learn from international experience. By doing so, we can improve the quality and influence of our scholarship and turn our academic findings into part of humankind’s knowledge base.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A turquoise-inlaid plaque on display at the Erlitou Site Museum of the Xia Capital, Henan province, Feb. 4, 2022. The plaque dates back to what is known as the Late Xia period (18th–16th century B.C.) and was unearthed from tomb M11 at the Erlitou site (Block VI) in1984. VCG)