A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Images of Dynasty Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Albert E. Dien

Only after the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 did large-scale excavations begin in China, research that has proved so fruitful that the second half of the twentieth century may be remembered by Chinese archaeologists as a golden age. This unprecedented efflorescence has been brought about largely by the enormous scale of industrial development, leading to the discovery of ancient sites. Also crucial is state support, forthcoming because discoveries are seen as confirming the Marxist interpretation of history, in which societies defined by class struggle are viewed as evolving toward communism. Such discoveries also foster a sense of nationalism and cultural pride.

Traditional Confucian principles stress the importance of precedent and universal truths articulated by sages of the past, so a deep interest in antiquity has always pervaded China. But this past was seen to consist of heroes and wise kings such as the mythic Yellow Emperor, who led the Chinese from savagery to civilization. As early as the first and second centuries A.D., one finds accounts of a historical transition from a stone age throught successive jade, bronze, and iron ages, but this sequence was speculation based on legend, not historical investigation. Antiquarian interest emerged in the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) but was largely limited to collecting and publishing ancient bronze vessels and ink rubbings of inscriptions on bronze and stone, reflecting an interest in epigraphy that has continued to the present.

Westerners introduced modern techniques of prehistoric archaeology to China. One early example was J.G. Andersson, a Swede working for the Chinese Geological Survey in the 1920s, who led the team that discovered Peking Man (Homo erectus) at Zhoukoudian, southwest of Beijing, and the Neolithic site at Yangshao, in Shanxi. Western-trained Chinese soon took up the task. A series of fortuitous discoveries of writing on bone, used in divinations, led to large-scale excavations at Anyang, a capital of the Shang Dynasty, sponsored by Academia Sinica, a national research institute in Taipei, Taiwan, and directed by the Harvard-trained Li Chi and others between 1928 and 1937. Wartime conditions led to a hiatus in archaeological activity, which was not resumed in a systematic way until 1949.

China has a vast written record extending far into the past. It has been estimated that a translation only of official histories, compiled from the second century B.C. on, would fill 400 volumes of 500 pages each. There is in addition an enormous body of classical literature, non-standard historical works, philosophy, and so forth, which sheds light on still earlier periods. But while the written materials have provided tremendous insight, little was known about how the ancients lived, and almost nothing was known about the prehistoric period beyond legend. Recent discoveries allow us for the first time to place people in their own temporal contexts, to know how a person of the Han Dynasty differed from one of the Tang.

Despite the limitations of the Marxist interpretation of history, archaeological discoveries of the past 50 years have had a significant impact on the way in which the past is viewed in China. After a long-standing insistence that the Yellow River basin was the birthplace of Chinese civilization, the archaeological establishment is recognizing, rather grudgingly, that ancient remains found on the peripheries of China may represent independently evolved cultures.

Albert E. Dien is emeritus professor of Asian languages at Stanford University. He is completing a book, Six Dynasties Civilization, to be published by Yale University Press as part of their Early Chinese Civilizations series.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America