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Cultural Revolutionary Volume 53 Number 5, September/October 2000
by Erling Ho

An eminent Beijing archaeologist and communist looks back on a lifetime weathering political tempests.


Yu Weichao (Andy Ryan)

Sixty-seven-year-old Yu Weichao has been known to stay up all night chain-smoking and drinking tea while discussing Chinese archaeology, history, and politics. When I met him last summer at the Poly Plaza Hotel on the eastern edge of Beijing, he and some colleagues had been ensconced for weeks writing, editing, and proofreading the sumptuous catalog for a new museum that the Chinese business conglomerate Poly Group had recently opened. Traffic in Beijing is frightful, and with a tight deadline, holing up in a hotel was the quickest way to get the job done on time. "I didn't get to bed until nine o'clock this morning," he told me, lighting up another cigarette. "There was some editing that we had to finish." Mao Zedong is said to have spent two sleepless weeks pondering how to defeat Chinese Nationalists in the Civil War of the late 1940s; men of Yu Weichao's generation take pride in that kind of endurance.

Among China's first generation of homegrown archaeologists, Yu has been a major player in what has been called the "Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology." The discoverer of a Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.) palace and a capital city of the Western Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1100-771 B.C.), Yu is best known in China for his efforts to modernize the Chinese National History Museum in Beijing during his 13-year tenure as director. To the outside world he is best known for heading a team charged with selecting the most important sites for excavation in advance of the world's largest dam in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River. Much of his time has been spent organizing and finding money for the salvage work. A lifelong communist, Yu is adept at weathering the vicissitudes of the state, which has at times both encouraged and punished archaeologists, and he bears the laurels and scars of the oft discordant relationship between archaeology and party ideology.

Erling Ho is ARCHAEOLOGY's Stockholm correspondent.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America