Digging Up China's Best Exhibitions - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Digging Up China's Best Exhibitions February 12, 2009
by Eti Bonn-Muller

Willow Weilan Hai Chang recalls her fondest memories excavating along the Yangtze River—and how they inspire her work at New York City's China Institute Gallery.


Willow Weilan Hai Chang studies in her Nanjing University dormitory (1980). (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

Willow Weilan Hai Chang is the director of the China Institute Gallery in New York City, where she has spent nearly a decade organizing a wide variety of exhibitions, ranging from imperial calligraphy to contemporary photography. She has also been instrumental over the years in introducing American audiences to hundreds of China's greatest and rarest archaeological discoveries. Formally trained as an archaeologist, she is at the same time incredibly brilliant and completely unassuming. Amid a flurry of preparations for the opening of the landmark show, Noble Tombs at Mawangdui: Art and Life in the Changsha Kingdom, Third Century BCE to First Century CE, she spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY's managing editor, Eti Bonn-Muller, about why she choose an unconventional major (for a nice young lady, that is), what it was like to unearth evidence for the origin of rice cultivation in China, and how she brings her passion for the ancient world to life on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

How did you first get into archaeology?

I want to say, because I'm a Curious George [laughs]! Well, I was among the first generation of students to study archaeology after the Cultural Revolution. In China, there were 10 years when there was a lack of high-level education, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. In those 10 years, a lot of the young people were sent to the countryside to be educated by the factory workers, the peasants, and the soldiers. I was sent to the countryside with my family to be a farmer. There was no system to allow us to go to university. So all the people, even older than me, we didn't have the chance. All of us did physical work to clear our minds.

After those 10 years of cultural emptiness, in 1977, when I was 22 years old, that's the first year the country had a nationwide test, kind of like an "imperial" exam. Thousands and thousands of people took the same test to find the best people to go to university. So I was very lucky that I got in that first year. I passed many, many tests. That was a very hard year because after 10 years, everyone tried to get in at the same time!

Why did you choose archaeology as a major?

Well, my first love is literature. Still, it's my first love. When I filled in my choices for a major, I did put in that literature was my first choice. My second choice was journalism. My third choice was history. And the history department picked me!

So archaeology was a branch of the history department?

Yes. In fact, it's very funny. During that time, I didn't know archaeology at all. But our teacher came to us and said we needed to choose between archaeology and history. I asked, "What does an archaeologist do?" And he described it to me. He said we were going to do excavations, travel around the country, and study photography and drawing. All of those things are very interesting to me. I always like to find out why, why, why!

Then, later, our teacher discovered he had three girls applying for this major. He came to us and tried to discourage us. He told us that being an archaeologist is very hard because often we would need to be in the field. We would encounter very difficult situations, like the living conditions, which are not very good. We may not have a place to eat our food. There would be no adequate bathrooms. We may not even be able to take a bath, maybe for weeks. Then he asked us, "Do you still want to be an archaeologist?" You know, the three of us girls just stuck with it. We said, "We're going to do it!"

Wow—you were brave!

The teacher even said, "It's so inconvenient for you girls to become archaeologists. It will be difficult for us to arrange for three young ladies. We don't know where you're going to sleep!" For all the men, it was easy, you know? But we all said we wanted to be archaeologists. Even some boys stayed back. Among the people who applied to be archaeologists, I think two boys—they quit. They became historians! But the three of us, we stayed.

Being an archaeologist put me in the frontier. I got to know objects through firsthand experience—to find them, examine them, and study them. I thought that was very interesting. I thought that it was a very good major for me.

How big was the program, then?

The entire class had about 40 students—and only 12 of us became archaeologists.

In spring 1979, Willow participated in her first archaeological field investigation with her classmates in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, along the north bank of the Yangtze River. The Qingdun excavation team, from left to right: Zhou Xiaolu, Zhang Yuejin, Ding Bangjun, Li Xiaohui, Yin Zhiqiang, Ding Zesheng, [a local museum staff member], Zhang Min, Zhang Caijuan, Zhao Lihua, Hai Weilan (Willow), [another local museum staff member], and Xu Yixian. (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang) [image]

That's actually a huge percentage of the class going into archaeology...

You're right, it is. But in that year, the entire country probably had about 100 students as archaeologists—the entire country. For women, maybe only around 10 became archaeologists. So it was fun!

And where did you study?

Nanjing University. That is one of the ivy-league type of universities in our country. So it was very exciting. We started learning, first of all, of course, from books and some objects at our university. We had a small sample room that showed various artifacts. We had to study things like stone tools to see human trace marks. Then in 1979, that was the first year I participated in an excavation along the north part of the Yangtze River.

Over there we dug at a Neolithic site. It's called the Qingdun Culture. Now, it's a preserved site. Every year, they have an archaeological conference and festival there. But during that excavation, we found things that revealed information about the early culture around the lower bank of the Yangtze River. We found the "first ax," the oldest complete pottery ax in China. It might have been a ceremonial item, a toy, or an imitation of the real tool. There are different opinions. It dates to approximately 5000 to 4000 B.C. The important part was that we found the handle and the ax together at the same site. This type of ax, with holes in it, was often seen in stone, but the handle was always missing. This complete example helped solve the mystery of how this type of ax was held.


The Neolithic pottery ax (5000-4000 B.C.) unearthed by the Qingdun excavation team in 1979 (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

Did you find it yourself? Or were you there that day?

It was found by my team. My classmate found it. Two of us were in charge of one 10-meter square, which we called tan fang. We dug in that area. So each team, each group, was made up of two people in charge of that square. It was found in the square some 20 meters away from ours.

In the area, we also found cultivated rice. I still recall that experience. There were maybe not more than 10 pieces scattered around. When I found it, I believe I said, "Wow, that's rice!" Then I showed my classmates, Ding Bangjun and Zhou Xiaolu. Zhou said it must be cultivated rice. It was in the dirt, so we had to be very careful to find that small rice. Later, my teacher, Professor Ji Zhongqing, confirmed it, you know, we put it in a glass tube. That was a big discovery, too. Before, we didn't know cultivated rice could be that early. We thought it would have been wild rice.


A view today of the Neolithic site of the Qingdun Culture in Hai An, Jiangsu Province, located along the north part of the Yangtze River (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

In the square, we also found a site where human beings lived. We found all the postholes and the foundations of a wooden house, called the ganlan type. This type of house still exists in the southern part of China, in damp, very wet areas.

How are they made?

People dig holes for the posts first. Then they build the house above that. So we found those posts. The house was very close to the burial. The pottery ax was very close to the house. And the rice was underneath. In other words, when people ate, the rice was scattered in the house site. The rice was carbonized. And the rice, after we did some research, is the type close to today's Japonica rice. Rice has either short or long grains. That rice was the little short one. I wrote an essay on the excavation that focused on the topic of this cultivated rice.

So those were what our teacher considered the two big findings. The pottery ax is guarded now as the "first ax" of China, as the local people proudly announced. And it is rated as a "national treasure." So that was the first dig I participated in. In fact, last year, in the fall, that location had a convention to celebrate our excavation that took place 30 years ago. All my classmates who participated in that excavation, whoever was in China, they went.

Did you go?

I didn't go. But we planned, we said, well at 40 years—in 10 years—the same team should go back to do an excavation in the same location. That's something I would be very excited about!

[image] Zhao Lihua, a classmate of Willow's, holds a picture of the Neolithic pottery ax. (An image of the ax is also emblazoned on the wall behind him.) The rare artifact, considered the "first ax" of China, was discussed in November 2008 at the annual Hai An Qingdun Cultural Festival and Conference, where the excavation that took place 30 years ago was celebrated. (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

Were the living conditions as terrible as your professor made them out to be?

The conditions were not that horrible [laughs]! We stayed in an elementary school's dormitory, though we slept on the ground. We put dried rice grass on the ground. Then we put down some cotton as our bedding. We had no tables and no place to take a shower. We used a long wooden basin as our bathtub. We boiled water, added some cold water, and put it in the basin to take a bath. And when we needed a table, we turned over the basin and used the bottom as the top of our table.

That's a great idea!

We were young and we thought that was really fun. We didn't think that was too hard. Now, people have totally changed. I mean, now for archaeologists, they have much better living conditions. Of course, most of the bathrooms are still outside.


Members of the 1979 Qingdun excavation team, from left to right: Zhang Min, Zhao Lihua, Zhou Xiaolu, Hai Weilan (Willow), Xu Yixian, and Zhang Caijuan. (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

What about the male students? Were they excited to have women in the field?

Well, I would think they probably liked having some girls around [laughs]! Since there were only three girls, they tried to take care of us, I would say, like if we needed to carry something heavy. And, at the beginning, they would help us dig into the ground. Of course, local people helped us do those heavy things, too. But if the boys saw anything they thought was too heavy for a girl to do, they would offer to help. I thought they were nice. They didn't bully us, at least!

Do you have any other memories of that dig?

I still remember the first time I got close to a human skeleton. Next to our area, my classmates found one. They had to kneel and use a brush to clean it off. I got so scared! Because, I think, in America, kids grow up with movies and television shows. They see so many skeletons and monsters and whatever. But in China, we do not see these kinds of things. You know, we try to avoid letting children see scary things. So I remember the first time I saw that entire skeleton. I still have my goose bumps thinking about it. That is one of the most vivid memories I have. I can remember it even now.

How long did you work on that site?

For the Neolithic site, our goal was to dig from the ground to after we hit the raw soil. The raw soil means there are no cultural remains. I think it took us at least three months to finish that 10-square-meter area. For each layer, if we found cultural remains, we made drawings and took photos to point out their location. So at the end of it, we combined all of those drawings to figure out what was in that area.


Willow studies artifacts from a Six Dynasties (A.D. 220-589) tomb at E Cheng, Hubei Province, with her teacher, Professor Jiang Zanchu, and classmate, Li Xiaohui (June 12, 1982). (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

Did you participate in any other digs?

The next excavation I participated in was in the middle bank of the Yangtze River, in today's Hubei Province. The site was called E Cheng. That place was the early capital of the Wu Kingdom [A.D. 222-280] during the Six Dynasties [A.D. 220-589]. It was the first capital there, so there are a lot of tombs at that ancient site. The tomb my classmate and I excavated was made of brick and it had an arched roof. But inside, all of the materials had been taken away by, well, we called him "the thief of the tomb." But the structure of the tomb was still intact. It revealed information about the people's burial customs. In front of the tomb, they had arranged several bricks into something like a square table, and maybe placed some offerings there. They did some ceremony, and then they covered it with dirt.

Did you find anything else?

Some not-valuable things still remained in the tomb. There was what we call "celadon" [green-glazed] porcelain—little bowls and cups, and pots with spouts in the shape of chickens' heads, a typical Six Dynasties object—some mirrors, and some stone slabs. People think the stone slabs were for ladies' cosmetics. So, small items we found in various tombs. The one we dug didn't have many objects. But overall, in that area, hundreds of tombs had been excavated since the '50s. We excavated in the '80s.

Did you work there again?

I went back to that location several times to study all those tomb findings. I tried to organize them, put the different tomb materials from the same periods together and study how they changed over time. For instance, the little bowls, they were introduced in the Wu Dynasty, but in later periods, the rim widened and the bowl became deeper. I went back there three times during my studies.


Cover of the "Six Dynasties Tombs at E Cheng" field report (edited by Jiang Zanchu, published by Science Press, Beijing, September 2007) (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

The report of that field excavation finally came out and became available last year. Believe it or not—after this many years! My teacher, Professor Jiang Zanchu, was the chief editor for it. In fact, that field report is very important. It's the last one in a plan to publish a series of field reports. The plan was made in the '50s by a famous Chinese archaeologist named Xia Nai. He was the director of the Chinese Archaeological Research Institute. And the report I participated in, "Six Dynasties Tombs at E Cheng," was the last one in his plan. So last year, it was finally published! I felt so proud to have participated in this.

Did you work on any other sites?

Those are the two excavations I participated in as an archaeologist. Then when I finished my studies...in fact, before I finished my studies, I traveled. One of the places I visited was the Hunan Provincial Museum because my dissertation was on Six Dynasties celadon. [The objects on view in the Noble Tombs at Mawangdui exhibition are on loan from this museum.] Celadon was invented in China. The earliest, very earliest green-glazed celadon ever found is from the Shang period, which is around 1600 B.C.

When you were on your digs, did you work only in the summer?

It was not in the summer! Once, we dug in the springtime. At the Neolithic site, I think we started in March and went through to June.

So it's actually part of the coursework?

Yes, it is. The other dig was in the fall. Then I went back either in the spring or in the fall, but nothing in the summer. In the summer, as usual, school is closed for vacation. So we didn't work in the summer. Or in the winter, which is a very cold time.

Do many students study archaeology today?

In fact, it's not a very popular major today. Now, we're short archaeologists. We train quite a lot of what we call "skilled workers." They help to do a lot of the digging. The archaeologists train through the university and basically become the supervisors to monitor the excavations and participate in the most necessary actions for final digging.

Why do you think people are less interested in studying archaeology now?

First, I think, just from my observations, it's not a high-profit profession. Of course, now people seek more-well-paid positions. Archaeologists are still not in that kind of range. And second of all, the working conditions, the living conditions—even though they've improved a lot in the last 20 years, still they're not as comfortable as staying home, you know? A lot of people think it's a very interesting major, but it has a lot of challenges.

How were other ancient cultures taught when you were a student?

Thirty years ago, when I was in school, we focused mainly on China. Of course, it's not for me to decide the curricula. But for me, I think, that is something now China is improving. For background studies, we studied Chinese history, we studied world history. But on the archaeology topic, ancient cultures, we mainly studied China. For the world history, we studied Egypt, even the place that we call the Two Rivers area—the Mesopotamian and Sumerian cultures, which are centered in today's Baghdad area of Iraq—we did study their ancient history. But archaeological material is different from history, you know? History just mentions, for instance, in India, how many dynasties there were, what their general turnover was, and the major historical events. But nothing touched on their art or material. So as an archaeologist, I do not know what their objects look like in each dynasty. Or Egypt—what their particular objects are like. We were taught very general historical information.


Willow stands in front of the ruins of Hecang Cheng, a Six Dynasties military supply storage town near Dunhuang, in Gansu Province (November 2008). (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

For example?

We learned that in Egypt, they have their ancient pictograph language, but not much from an archaeological point of view to tell us about the digging or the ruins there. It's a different angle. So I think that is a pity for the archaeologists. I wish we had more information on other, besides Chinese, archaeology, which we studied, I think, pretty much thoroughly—starting from Neolithic period through the Tang Dynasty, the 10th century. That's what we studied. The later period, in fact, at that time, we didn't learn from school because...maybe it wasn't considered old enough! I don't know. So that is something now the universities have improved a lot.

What do they do differently now?

They invite foreign professors to give an introduction to other countries' archaeological studies and how they do excavations. In the last 10 years, they started to develop this. In some courses at Beijing University, for instance, they have also started to develop more world-based introductions to archaeology. So we do pay attention to other countries now.

What did you do after university?

I served as an assistant professor, and taught archaeology at Nanjing Normal University for three years, before I came to America. "Normal" universities are where middle school teachers are trained. At that time, there were no archaeology classes at any normal universities anywhere in the country. I developed our university's first archaeology curricula and textbook, so future middle school teachers could be educated on the topic.

What about your female classmates? Did they continue to work as archaeologists?

Of course, we went to the field for those two excavations together. Then after we graduated, one lady worked in Nanjing Museum for some years. She didn't do any more digging. Now, she's an auditor in the U.S. My other friend, after many jobs, right now, she's at the Capital Museum in Beijing, in their collections department.

When did you become the director of the China Institute Gallery?

I became the director of the gallery in 2000.

Do you bring your background as an archaeologist to this job?

Absolutely. My archaeology background adds a lot to my research and helps me find good exhibitions for China Institute. I always try to find out what the best items are—especially in the provincial museums because they're the first to get the newly excavated material—to show American audiences. We've exhibited archaeological findings from the Shandong Provincial Museum, from the Beilin Museum [Buddha's "Golden Period"], from the Nanjing Municipal Museum...and the exhibition I'm working on now [Noble Tombs at Mawangdui] also has archaeological findings, from the Hunan Provincial Museum. Everyone in the field knows Mawangdui is one of the most important excavations in Chinese history. This is the first exhibition in the United States ever to focus exclusively on finds from this site. I think my being an archaeologist has maybe naturally guided me to see what are the new, most important, excavated objects that are exciting to show the world. Definitely, that helps a lot.

[image] At the China Institute Gallery in New York City, Willow installs a wooden figurine (206 B.C.-A.D. 25), featured in the Royal Tombs at Mawangdui show, with Professor Liu Gang, a courier from the Hunan Provincial Museum, and an exhibition designer (January 28, 2009). (Photo courtesy of Willow Weilan Hai Chang)

Are you planning any other archaeology related exhibitions in the next few years?

In the future, I have another three on our schedule that have finds from excavations. One is next year on Confucius [551-479 B.C.]; half of the objects come from excavations. Then in 2011, an exhibition, also from the Hunan Provincial Museum, will be on excavated bronzes. After that, I will have an exhibition on the subject of Chinese theater, the opera. There will be carved bricks from the tombs of the Jin [A.D. 1115-1234] and the Yuan [A.D. 1279-1368] dynasties. So it is true, being an archaeologist, now that you ask this question, I do realize, has somehow naturally guided me to find all of these interesting and beautiful artworks that are related to ancient life. And I believe that exhibitions like this provide some of the best ways to share important archaeological findings and research.

Is there one artifact you dream of exhibiting here someday, like the clay ax?

You mean overall, the entire nation? That's too many, too many, too many beautiful things! I try to show American audiences, even the world—through the different periods of Chinese history, and from every corner on China's map—the best parts of our central and regional cultures. I try to provide people with a more complete image of what Chinese culture is all about. Each exhibition is like a little pearl on a different topic—and I hope people will string them together to get a more complete image.

Why is that so important to you?

Because I'm Chinese. I believe the Chinese faith and the life customs have something good to offer the world. For instance, Chinese people like to apply auspicious ideas and symbols in their art. That, in fact, is very cheerful life attitude that makes people feel happy. I think that is a good thing. Chinese people enjoy food; our culture centers extensively on our cuisines. Chinese people pay attention to living longer, either through exercise or using natural herbs. Chinese people adore poems and music. And traditionally, Chinese people promote the qualities of being faithful, loyal, family oriented, virtuous, just, benevolent, loving, trustworthy, and brave. I just think we have a lot of good things to share with the world. And being Chinese—since that's all my education I've had—I think I need to contribute whatever I have to society.

Noble Tombs at Mawangdui: Art and Life in the Changsha Kingdom, Third Century BCE to First Century CE is on view at the China Institute Gallery in New York City through June 7, 2009. The exhibition will be at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art September 19-December 13, 2009.