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Interview with Li Boqian June 25, 2008


Li Boqian (Photo by Liu Bowen)

Why did you study archaeology?

After my first year in the history department [at Beijing University in the mid-1950s], I had to decide on my major. There were three choices: Chinese history, world history, and archaeology. Professors from each area came to pitch their subjects. [The one who was to become] my teacher, Xia Nai, was very humorous. He said if you choose history, you probably not have to study archaeology. But if you choose archaeology, you will have to study history. Like a two-wheel cart, studying history alone is like having only one wheel, whereas archaeology is the other wheel. The cart can only start running when you have both wheels.


Li Boqian gazes at a display of pots and other artifacts in Beijing University's archaeology museum, which houses a selection of finds from university-led digs throughout China. He led excavations at one of them, a Bronze Age site in Shanxi Province, where these objects were unearthed from tombs of high-ranking individuals. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

How are things different today?

China is more open now since the economic reforms. As a result, Western theories and techniques soon came in. We used to study archeology behind a closed door.

You used to lead excavations at a Bronze Age site in Shanxi Province, but are now studying finds from the site?

I've been focusing on that location since 1979, where we found many Jin kingdom tombs [A.D. 265-420]. I'm leaving the day after tomorrow to go back to the site.

So you excavate in the winter, too?

Yes, come to think of it, it's quite hilarious. When you start digging a tomb and can't finish it by the time winter comes, what do you do? At one time, we set up a tent to cover the big hole and then placed a stove in the hole. It's very poetic with the snowing falling on top and a burning stove beneath the tent on the bottom of the hole.


Li Boqian's team unearthed all of the artifacts in the Bronze Hall at Beijing University's archaeology museum. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


Li Boqian points out the location of the site where we works to Zhou Xiaolu (in red), deputy director of the Chinese Art and Archaeology Research Institute at Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts; ARCHAEOLOGY's Eti Bonn-Muller; and Willow Hai Chang, director of the China Institute Gallery in New York, who was a former student of Professor Li. (Photo by Liu Bowen)


This animal skull and oracle bone, on display in Beijing University's archaeology museum, were unearthed at Zhouyuan, a Neolithic site in Shaanxi Province. They were found in a well, along with five other skulls. The line in the center of the skull shows cut marks from where the animal's skin (either a sheep or a cow) was removed. It would have been used as a cup for wine made from gains. The holes in the bones were used to predict the future. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

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Is archaeology a popular subject today?

It's not popular now because it's too labor intensive. Today's young people like to make money--and archaeologists are not making money. Their working and living conditions are very harsh.

Was it more popular when you were studying it?

Back then if you wanted to become a good historian, you had to study archaeology. We were differently motivated at that time. I think all the young men, like my teacher, they believed that if anyone really wanted to understand the study of Chinese history, they had to learn archaeology. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to complement the study.

Are there any independent archaeologists in China, who dig on their own, not affiliated, for example, with a university?

The government has control, layer by layer. There are no individual archaeologists. And there is a law to protect the relics. As long as they're in our territory, the sites and finds all belong to the government.

There's a lot of salvage archaeology in China, but are any excavations planned?

There are about 2,000 salvage excavations every year throughout the country. Planned excavations are very rare. Generally speaking, we do not like to plan to excavate. We try to protect sites by not touching them.


Excavated in the 1970s, this terracotta vessel (2,800-2,500 B.C.), also on view in Beijing University's archaeology museum, has two unusual marks etched near the bottom: an arched line with a dot just above it. Professors Li and Zhou believe it may have been an early Chinese character, but, they stress, there has been a great deal of debate over it--and no definitive conclusion. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

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Are there any excavations in the city of Beijing right now?

At the moment, there are no major digs and discoveries in Beijing. The major excavations are still carried out outside Beijing, in places like Anyang, Louyang, and Xi'an [sites in Shaaxi Province].

So archaeologists don't actively excavate at any sites in the city? There are no ongoing digs?

There is one site in the northern part of Beijing. It's the ancient kingdom called the Yan kingdom [Western Zhou, 1122221 B.C. to Spring and Autumn Period, 256 B.C.]. So in that location, they're constantly doing digging.


Outside his university office, Li Boqian points out a graphic model of a Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 B.C.) site in Henan Province called Wang Chenggang. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

Is that through the university?

The university has sent a few groups there to help over the years.

But it's not a university-run dig?

No, it's not. It belongs to Beijing City.

Are there any other particularly interesting sites?

There is also an early site that dates to the Neolithic period. It is about 10,000 years old. It is located on the west side of Beijing. They found a skeleton and some man-made stone tools there. Also from that site, they found some decorative jewelry and fish bones with red mineral material that could have been used as body paint. It shows that even at this early time, people were pursuing beauty.

Beijing University has an on-campus archaeology museum that houses finds from sites where students have dug over the years. How are the galleries organized?

Because the museum exists for study purposes, finds are organized in chronological order by period, starting from the Stone Age. If the displays were organized by medium—like bronze or ceramic—that would present more of an artistic point of view, a way to look at artwork. But here, the emphasis is on the history.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America