Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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The Rise of China Volume 59 Number 4, July/August 2006
by Julia M. Klein

[image]An owl-shaped bronze vessel from a Shang Dynasty tomb (Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) [LARGER IMAGE]

In The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archaeological Perspective (Yale University Press, New World Press; $65), nine experts trace the development of Chinese culture back nearly two million years from the earliest occupation by Homo erectus at the caves of Zhoukoudian through China's political unification under the Qin and Han dynasties.

The late Kwang-Chih Chang, who was the dean of Chinese archaeology, argues that religion played an unusually strong role in defining Chinese culture. The earliest writing was linked to shamanic rituals and may have been used solely by members of the religious class, who supposedly bridged the chasm between heaven and Earth. During the Longshan period, beginning 3000 B.C., shamanism gradually became the monopoly of political rulers, cementing their power.

The Formation of Chinese Civilization

What we know as Chinese civilization developed from diverse regional cultures brought under the rule of Qin Shihuangdi in 221 B.C. The First Emperor of Qin is best known in the west for his vast mausoleum, with its terra-cotta sculptures of warriors and horses. But his life's work was even more impressive: along with reconstructing much of the Great Wall, he standardized China's written language, currency, and system of weights and measures.

This volume makes information previously confined to Chinese academic journals available to the English-speaking public for the first time. Unfortunately, the text is still, for the most part, heavily academic in tone. Dense lists of names and measurements and dry descriptions are more common than strong narrative prose. However, the lush photographs of jade jewelry and carved bronze vessels, as well as aerial views of excavations, will draw readers in.

Julia M. Klein is a freelance cultural reporter and critic.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America