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On the historiographical orientation of Chinese archaeology.

This year, as it seems every year, news comes from China of another spectacular archaeological discovery. What is the framework of ideas and research that studies these treasures? And how does the special character of Chinese history, with its long, near-continuous record of dynasties, written sources and encyclopedic texts, give archaeology a different place, whether higher or lower, among the other historical and social sciences?


The object of the study of archaeology is just the material remains, including both relics as objects and relics as traces. For this reason it is different from history in the narrow sense, which uses written documentary records, Although both archaeology and history in the narrow sense have the restoration of the shape of human history as it was as their goal, and both are the two major components of the science of history (i.e. history in the broad sense) and are like the two wheels of a cart or the two wings of a bird so that neither is dispensable, nevertheless, the two are independent, albeit closely related, departments of the science of history.

(Xia 1990: 62-3)

When the eminent Chinese archaeologist Xia Nai (1910-1985) wrote this definition of archaeology at the end of his career, he must have been aware that his vision was not widely shared. Field archaeology as currently practised in Mainland China is, in fact, rarely kept methodologically separate from what Xia calls 'history in the narrow sense'. Nowhere else in the world is archaeology as closely enmeshed in a millennia-old living tradition of national history. The present essay will examine the reasons and consequences of this situation.(1) 2

Since its beginnings, historiography in China has been intimately linked to the exercise of power. Court annals and chronicles may have been kept since the beginning of dynastic states, traditionally set at c. 2200 BC. Two such annals survive today in redactions dating from the 1st millennium BC, the Chunqiu (Springs and Autumns Annals) of the state of Lu (only covering the years 721-468 BC) (translation: Legge 1872), and the Zhushu jinian (Bamboo Annals) of Wei, which reaches back to mythical times (translated in Legge 1868). By the middle of the 1st millennium BC, they had developed from mainly ritual schedules to records of historical events, which were consulted as a mirror of government. The official record-keepers were to judge the ritual correctness of a ruler's behaviour and to record any transgressions. While carrying political risk, this task also entailed a certain amount of power and autonomy, resulting in an increasing professionalization of the historian's craft. A body of moralizing commentarial literature grew around the ancient chronicles. Original documents of government action played a role in this emerging historical consciousness; allegedly it was Confucius who edited the Shangshu (Classic of documents), a collection of proclamations of ancient rulers, which were regarded as a source of moral-political wisdom (Legge 1868). After the foundation, in 221 BC, of the Chinese empire, official historiography became a state institution (Pulleyblank 1964; Beasley & Pulleyblank 1961). Early in the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), Sima Qian (c. 145-80 BC) compiled China's first universal history, the Shi ji (Records of the historian) (Chavannes 1895-1905). Extending the scope of his enquiry to what he regarded as the beginnings of civilization, Sima Qian constructed a historical narrative proceeding from mythical culture heroes and sage rulers to the three pre-Imperial dynasties -- the Xia (traditionally 2205-1767 BC), Shang (traditionally 1766-1123 BC) (a more likely time range for the Shang is c. 1600-1050; the historical existence of the Xia remains to be established, see below) and Zhou (1122 (traditionally)-249 BC) -- and down into the historian's own time.

Even though his account was based on original documents including the surviving annals from earlier states, Sima Qian was by his own admission unable to reconstruct an exact chronology of events previous to the year 841 BC. The subdivision of Sima Qian's work into basic annals (benji), tabulations (biao), monographs (shu) and biographic records for lineages or groups of important personalities (shijia) was adopted, with some modifications, into the official dynastic histories, which were compiled for each of the 25 dynasties of Imperial China by its succeeding dynasty. Even the Nationalist government of the 20th century continued the tradition by compiling an official history of its predecessor, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Still a major source in the study of Chinese history, the official histories were later complemented by countless works of individual scholars. With the rise of a Confucian state orthodoxy after the Han, and especially after its reconstitution during the Song dynasty (AD 976-1279), these records of the past assumed a central position in Chinese intellectual culture. Knowledge of history was considered a sure avenue to moral knowledge and precondition for the ability to govern. Next to the Confucian classics, the study and correct interpretation of historical texts was the major component of the traditional curriculum of scholars. In general, traditional Chinese historiography is focused upon the concerns of the ruler, and it propagates the court's official interpretations of historical events. That it is Sino-centric goes without saying. Beholden to a notion of uninterrupted cultural, ethnic and historical continuity, as well as unity, it propounds a unilinear sequence of events and is prone to disregard divergent (e.g. local) traditions. Many efforts are biography-centred, and a strong, politically engendered moralizing tendency remains characteristic of much of Chinese history-writing to this day. On the positive side, Chinese historians have long been aware of the importance of original sources and exact chronology. These preoccupations of traditional historians constitute the background of archaeology in China. Excavated materials can be connected with populations known also from books and inscriptions; the perceived continuity of the Chinese historical experience -- extending even to early periods from which no original writings survive -- directly links the archaeological data to the present in a relation of ethnic and national identity. To a much greater degree than, e.g., archaeological fieldworkers in Europe or the United States, therefore, Chinese practitioners sympathetically identify with the object of their research. In Chinese university curricula, archaeology is usually offered through history departments. At Beijing and Jilin Universities, independent archaeology departments split off from history departments in 1983 and 1988, respectively. At Zhongshan University in Guangzhou and at Xiamen university -- both, significantly, located far away from the traditional centres of Chinese history -- archaeology is taught within American-style anthropology departments. In Maoist terminology, archaeology and history are considered part of the social sciences, a rubric that includes both the social sciences and the humanities as defined in the West. Consequently, the highest-ranking archaeological institution in China, the Institute of Archaeology (Kaogu Yanjiusuo) in Beijing, founded in 1950 and headed from 1962 to 1982 by the above-mentioned Xia Nai, is part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan), which split off from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Zhongguo Kexueyuan) in 1977. In keeping with former Soviet practice, however, research on the Palaeolithic is separately pursued at the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (Gujizhuidongwu yu Gurenlei Yanjiusuo or IVPP), which remains part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Its administrative separation from the rest of archaeology has enabled the IVPP to participate actively in academic exchange with foreign scholars, while the Institute of Archaeology has, for various reasons, long resisted such cooperation (see Olsen 1992). Subsumed under the natural sciences, Palaeolithic archaeology, though taught as part of archaeology in universities, is thus kept distinct from archaeology properly speaking. This further highlights the linkage between archaeology and history; for while the Palaeolithic is utterly beyond the grasp of history, everything after the inception of the Neolithic -- the period corresponding with the time of Sima Qian's mythical rulers -- is, to traditional Chinese scholars, potentially the subject of textually-based inquiry. 3

Modern archaeology was established in China shortly after World War I. The end of the monarchy in 1911 had spelled the demise of the Confucian state orthodoxy; and the May Fourth movement of 1919 -- initially a wave of student protests against what they regarded as the Beijing warlord regime's sell-out to foreign interests -- gave the impetus for a large-scale radical re-evaluation of China's intellectual and cultural heritage (Chow 1960). In attempting to bring about a new China that could close rank with the modern nations of the West, Chinese intellectuals sought to reconfigure elements from their own cultural tradition with western influences into a new and distinctive whole. For the first time, the texts were not all that mattered; their classical language was replaced, in scholarly writing, by the vernacular; and there was a surge of interest in popular and folk traditions.

In the historical field, Gu Jiegang (1893-1980) and his students, the self-styled 'Doubters of the Old' (yigupai) (Gu 1926-41; Hummel 1931; Schneider 1971), raised troubling questions about the authenticity of the transmitted classics. Building upon the 'evidential scholarship' (kaozhengxue) of the Qing dynasty (Elman 1984), they emphasized the multi-layered nature of the ancient books, the vagaries of their transmission and the likelihood of contamination and forgery. These 'New Historians' discarded much of early Chinese historiography as mythical, and they went so far as to call into question the historical existence of the earliest dynasties. Considering the formerly sacrosanct position of the written record (Wang 1985), this was an extremely radical move. If the ancient texts could not be relied upon, how could one know anything about early history? Groping for more reliable standards of demonstrating historical truth, both sceptics as well as traditionalists came to realize the potential of archaeological fieldwork (Du 1992: 335) Just at this point, the first archaeologists arrived on the scene. During the early 1920s, the Swedish geologist Johan G. Andersson (1874-1960) excavated various Neolithic sites in north China -- the first sustained modern archaeological fieldwork in China proper (Andersson 1923; 1925; 1947).(2) In contrast to most other countries with ancient civilizations, however, archaeology in China did not become a monopoly of foreign expeditions.(3) Andersson himself worked under the auspices of the Chinese Geological Survey in Beijing, and it was principally Chinese specialists who introduced and established archaeology in the country. Unlike Andersson and most other foreign excavators and artefact-collectors operating in China in the early 20th century, these Chinese pioneers had received up-to-date training abroad. Li Ji (1896-1979) and Liang Siyong (1904-1954) had graduated from the Anthropology Department at Harvard University during the 1920s; Feng Hanyi (1899-1977) went to Harvard in the 1930s, and Wu Jinding (1901-1948) and Xia Nai studied in Britain during the same period. Not having been specifically prepared for archaeological work in China (Li Ji's background, for instance, was in physical anthropology, and Xia Nai's, in Egyptology), they had to adjust the methodology of their discipline to the Chinese intellectual milieu. Fully aware of the centrality of text-based knowledge to traditional Chinese learning, they sought to lodge archaeology firmly within the contemporary historical discourse.

The major archaeological research unit of the Nationalist period (1911-1949) was the Institute of History and Philology (Lishi Yuyan Yanjiusuo) in Nanjing, founded in 1928 as part of the new, Soviet-style Academia Sinica (Zhongyang Yanjiuyuan). The Institute continues to flourish in Taiwan, where it is publishing the definitive archaeological reports on its pre-1949 excavations on the Chinese mainland; since the 1970s, the Institute has also engaged in the archaeological study of Taiwan. Unlike Andersson, who had concentrated on prehistoric remains, the Institute deliberately chose for its first long-term research project, directed by Li Ji, a Bronze Age site with prominent historical associations: Yinxu near Anyang in Henan province, allegedly the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Inscribed oracle bones discovered in that area since the turn of the century had enabled Wang Guowei's (1877-1927) path-breaking reconstruction of Shang royal genealogy (Wang 1927: 9.1a-21b), which, gratifying to those who believed in the accuracy of the transmitted texts, demonstrated the essential correctness of the genealogy presented by Sima Qian. Excavations at Yinxu from 1928 to 1937 yielded more inscribed material, as well as the remains of temple-palaces and royal tombs (Li 1978; Chang 1980). Brilliantly showing how archaeology could substantiate historical accounts, these excavations legitimized the discipline in Chinese academia. Archaeology was accepted because, on its maiden voyage so to speak, it provided a tool for refuting the 'Doubters of antiquity' and which could be used for sustaining tradition.

Once the correspondence of archaeological remains at Yinxu with textual records on the late Shang had been established, however, surprisingly few further questions were asked. In spite of four more decades of excavations in the area since 1950, no one has systematically investigated the distribution of Shang sites around Anyang. As Yinxu apparently lacks a walled enclosure (traditionally the hall-mark of a Chinese city), it remains unclear whether it was a political centre or merely an agglomeration of temples around a royal necropolis. Alternative locations of the late Shang capital have been proposed, but never archaeologically tested. Almost nothing is known about non-elite Shang culture. Such limitation of scholarly curiosity is symptomatic for the narrowly historiographic orientation of Chinese archaeology. 4

From the beginning, archaeologists strove with little success to set modern archaeology apart from traditional Chinese antiquarianism (jinshixue), which had flourished since the Song dynasty (Rudolph 1963; Chang 1981). To this day, popular usage refers to both by the same Chinese word, kaogu (literally: 'investigation of the ancient'). This word, originally used by Song dynasty antiquarians, was coined as a standard Japanese translation for the Western term 'archaeology' in the late 19th century and was subsequently reimported into Chinese (Xia 1989: 59-63).

Over the centuries, antiquarian scholars had made significant headway in classifying ancient objects and deciphering their inscriptions. To this day, most archaeologists continue to use the vessel nomenclature established in the Song dynasty on the basis of the transmitted ritual classics. This nomenclature does not amount to a strict classification.(4) Li Ji, in his publications of the Anyang finds, stands almost alone in opting for neologisms unburdened with the traditional connotations (e.g., dingxingqi, 'tripod-shaped vessel' instead of ding, 'tripod') (Li Ji et al. 1964-1972); other scholars have not realized the methodological importance of classifying the material record on the basis of their inherent physical attributes rather than by imposed, text- based criteria. On account of their complacency, Chinese archaeology today, although highly descriptive, lacks universally accepted typologies for most major artefact classes.

Traditional antiquarians cherished inscriptions, early realizing that they could be used to correct mistakes in the transmitted historical texts. But much of their activity was geared towards mere connoisseurship, e.g. to furnishing material that could serve as models for calligraphy and seal-carving. To be sure, such activities were by no means frivolous to the literati scholars of late Imperial times, but of great importance in defining their claim to power (Clunas 1991). In any case, it was not until the early 20th century that ancient inscriptions came to be treated as historical documents and put to use in reconstructing ancient history by scholars like Wang Guowei and Guo Moruo (1892-1978). From these efforts arose a new branch of scholarship, palaeography (guwenzixue), which continues to flourish today (Gao 1987; Qiu 1988). The perspective of palaeography, whether pursued with a more historical or a more linguistic bent of mind, tends to be a narrowly philological one. Most early palaeographers did not appreciate, or even understand, the holistic intent and potential of modern field archaeology. To these scholars, archaeology was no more than a useful supplier of evidence. Guo Moruo, for instance, in his epigraphical works, propounded an awkward if highly original blend of novel and antiquarian approaches, pigeon-holing material evidence into a historiographically based scheme (Guo 1933 & 1935 |1958~). This kind of scholarship was highly influential on archaeologists, especially after 1949, when Guo became the Minister of Culture in the Communist government.


The transformation of archaeology into the virtual handmaiden of antiquarianist historiography coincide with an increasingly reactionary political climate. 'Doubting the ancients' soon became tainted as unpatriotic as the Nationalist regime became more dictatorial and the country rallied in the face of the Japanese threat in the 1930s.

Putting a positive face to things, the historian Zhou Yutong (1898-1981) proposed to establish a new, patriotic history incorporating textual criticism, archaeological fieldwork, and new interpretative schemata (Zhou 1941; see Wang 1985: 187-9). Zhou conceived of archaeology as virtually synonymous with 'history in the narrower sense', stressing its usefulness in procuring authentic written(!) documents.

Historical scholarship since the Second World War -- both on the Mainland and in Taiwan -- has become considerably more conservative in its outlook and methodology than it had been during the May Fourth era. Gu Jiegang, though still famous, is now little read. To be fair, the blame for the virtual discrediting of yigu historiography must be partly ascribed to its own strident over-confidence; but the lack of a critical attitude of many younger historians towards their sources is worrying. In fact, little progress has been made in the rigorous linguistic and philological analysis of the ancient texts, which alone could provide clues as to their authenticity. Some of the most notable achievements have been made by western scholars, e.g. Graham (1978) and Thompson (1979). While this process could be greatly advanced with the help of manuscripts that have been archaeologically excavated during the last decades, most of that material remains unpublished.


After the Communist takeover in 1949, archaeology on the Chinese mainland entered a new stage. Unauthorized excavations and tomb robbery, which had been rampant over the country during the first half of the century, were effectively stopped. Archaeological research all over the country was now placed in a stable organizational framework under the State Bureau of Cultural Relics (Guojia Wenwuju). The following four decades -- not excepting even the Cultural Revolution -- were marked by an unending flow of important new discoveries (Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 1984; Chang 1986; Wenwu Bianjiweiyuanhui 1990). This 'Golden Age' now appears to have come to an end. Since c. 1987, large-scale looting of archaeological sites has resumed in China, often apparently condoned by the local authorities. Governmental support for archaeological fieldwork has been drastically reduced. As a result, Chinese archaeology today is in an extremely precarious situation. (On the general demoralization of intellectuals in China today, see Link 1992). Since the 1950s, great progress has been made in defining the temporal and spatial framework of Chinese cultural history since Neolithic times. Until c. 1979, archaeological research in China was almost exclusively focused on the sites of the traditional dynasties in the Yellow River valley; as a result of many spectacular discoveries as well as important administrative changes, scholars have since embraced a more inclusive, multicentric model of ancient cultural developments (Falkenhausen forthcoming).

A double price had to be paid for the comparatively generous sponsorship by the new state: first, and primarily, archaeology was to enhance the national glory and foster patriotism; second, like all other branches of scholarship, archaeology had to participate in the legitimization of the regime by validating Marxist ideology. Both the patriotic and the ideological goal directed the choice of topics for archaeological research significantly towards traditionalist historiographical concerns.

More than ever before, the national past and its material relics have been reified since 1949 into tokens of the nation's greatness, justifying the current regime's claims to every citizen's patriotic loyalty. Archaeological finds were also put to use as a means of developing goodwill abroad through blockbuster exhibitions that have been sent around the world since 1972. (In keeping with recent policy changes, such exhibitions have assumed an increasingly commercialized character.) At the same time, archaeology was, for a time, defined as a national status symbol that allowed China to stand up in competition with other civilizations. When, for instance, Xia Nai (1984: 174-92), lecturing on Japanese television, emphasized the high degree of sophistication reached by the late Neolithic cultures around 3000 BC and defined them -- rather than the inception of dynastic states a millennium or so later -- as the beginnings of 'civilization' in China, this was not a dispassionate scholarly statement: Xia implied that Chinese civilization was coeval with Mesopotamia and Egypt. Similar views have since been adopted by many other serious scholars (Kaogu Bianjihui 1992).

Traditional nationalist historiography also required that Chinese civilization be homegrown rather than influenced from abroad -- an item that remained on the agenda of archaeology in Communist China. Discussion of cultural connections to areas outside the PRC was taboo until recently, and it still carries a certain risk. Such sealing-off of the Chinese past has isolated archaeologists and has largely prevented international co-operation. Chinese archaeological authorities have been especially cautious about international co-operation because of the disastrous outcome of the 1963-1965 joint Sino-North Korean excavations in the Chinese northeast, the only such project undertaken between 1949 and 1990. After disputes about the historical interpretation of the data, the Korean side published the results unilaterally, imposing a jingoistic interpretation. On the positive side, the insistence on indigenous roots encouraged consideration of Chinese materials in their own right and allowed archaeologists to dispense with ill-founded earlier diffusionist paradigms. For instance, Andersson's chronology of the painted-pottery cultures of western China, devised under the premise that they must have been derived from West Asia, was shown mistaken (Xia 1961: 169-74; Yan 1989: 122-65).

Even more than under the Nationalist regime, the traditionalist view of history has become, in Communist China, a holy grail of patriotic consciousness. The principal goal of archaeological work on the historical periods now lies in giving substance to orthodox historiography. The excavation, ongoing since 1974, of the world-famous Terracotta Army near the tomb of the First Emperor of Qin (r. 221-209 BC) near Xi'an furnishes a premier example where archaeological discoveries fit written history perfectly (Shaanxi Sheng Kaogu Yanjiusuo et al. 1988). One of the best-known figures in Chinese history, the First Emperor, during the mid 1970s, was being associated by innuendo with Chairman Mao, and his legalist state doctrine was pitted against 'reactionary' Confucianism (Louie 1980: 99-136). To boot, the remains of his army were grandiose in scale and realistic in style, lending themselves to discussion in terms of the aesthetics of Socialist Realism (Wen & Qin 1975). For the excavators and their sponsoring officials, the Qin soldiers were even easier to 'sell' to the public and the authorities than the Yinxu excavations of old.


If establishing the historicity of the Shang had been its foremost achievement under the sponsorship of the Nationalist government, archaeology under the new regime was to top this feat by uncovering the even earlier Xia dynasty. In the late 1950s, Xu Xusheng (Xu Bingchang, 1888-1976), author of an influential book on the legendary period of Chinese history (Xu 1960), explored areas of Henan and Shanxi that were linked to the Xia by historical--geographical tradition (Xu 1959). Based on Xu's findings, the Institute of Archaeology excavated the sites of Taosi and Dongxiafeng (both in southern Shanxi) and Erlitou (near Luoyang, Henan province). (A definitive site report has been published only for Dongxiafeng: Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo et al. 1988). These multi-year excavations did much to define the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age archaeological sequences in north China. No inscriptions pertaining to a Xia dynasty have, however, been found.

Such lack of hard evidence has not prevented Chinese archaeologists from habitually assigning late 3rd-early 2nd-millennium BC material from all over China (even from outside the geographical area traditionally considered as Xia), if not to the Xia dynasty, then to a 'Xia period'. Robert W. Bagley (1992: 227) has blamed the 'Anyang bias' in Chinese archaeology for such overconfidence: By corroborating a small part of received tradition the oracle texts have encouraged uncritical acceptance of much more, whether or not it has any archaeological foundation, indeed even when it conflicts with archaeology.

In fact, as Bagley points out, recent discoveries have shown that the traditional fixation on the early dynasties in the Yellow River basin has resulted in a distorted picture of historical reality. We now know that, at the same time as Sima Qian's 'Three Dynasties', a number of independent bronze-producing cultures, operating at a similar level of social organization, flourished all over China proper. They probably arose from local Neolithic traditions of very ancient roots. It is quite possible that the importance of the Xia state -- if it existed at all -- has been wildly overemphasized on account of the fortuitous preservation of textual records about it. If pursued independently from textual concerns, field archaeology could here provide a genuinely new perspective. In Bagley's words (1992: 229): Written history holds a double danger for archaeology. Not only does it steer the archaeological sample toward conformity with tradition by telling archaeologists where to look; it also tells us what to see.

Erlitou, the largest and richest incipient Bronze Age site so far excavated in north-central China, has been regarded by some as the Xia capital (Yin 1986; Thorp 1991). Articles discussing the historical interpretation of the site number in the dozens, if not hundreds (Zhou Hongxiang 1990), all of them based on but a half-dozen laconic preliminary reports. Until recently, not even a sketch-map of the site had been published. Publication of a proper site report, though promised for a long time, appears to have been stalled indefinitely by controversy among the excavators regarding the historical interpretation of Erlitou. Such differences are utterly external to the tasks of field archaeology. Problems arise merely because archaeologists see their foremost task as offering solutions to problems of 'history in the narrow sense'. Such priorities undoubtedly results from culturally-determined definitions of what is prestigious in academia -- definitions that uncannily evoke the image of Qing dynasty Confucian scholars. In spite of its proven value, the dirty work of excavation, for instance, commands little respect among intellectuals -- even though the actual digging is never performed by the archaeologists themselves, but by local hired labour. Authoring a descriptive archaeological report is considered less glorious than parading one's knowledge of the classical texts in a dashing article on an individual object or an inscription. (Such articles are also more easily publishable than monograph reports, which, for a variety of reasons including the lack of publication subsidies, often languish for years at the publishing houses.) Like some of their colleagues abroad, many Chinese scholars tend to consider knowledge as the property of single individuals and not of the world of scholarship. Control of data means power. Many fieldworkers -- especially younger ones -- withhold their archaeological reports or publish them in purposefully incomplete form, as there is nothing to be gained by releasing the information to others who might be able to come up with a 'better' historiographical explanation than oneself. As a result, we are far removed from a solution of the 'Xia' issue. The ill-warranted consensus about the historicity of that dynasty among Chinese scholars -- even including the cool-headed Xia Nai (1978) -- probably reflects a mixture of patriotic wishful thinking and historiographical dogma, any challenge to which might amount to political disloyalty.


The intellectual impact of 'Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong-Thought' on archaeological research agenda in post-1949 China, while not insignificant, seems far secondary to that of nationalism. After all, Marxism, coming from Europe, was a wholly alien notion, which was but gradually -- and often creatively -- assimilated to Chinese realities. Even at the height of political movements, the required quotations from Marxist scripture, printed in boldface, did not seriously detract from the scholarly quality of many published works. Marxist historiography spurred an interest in social and economic aspects of Chinese history that had heretofore been little discussed, and on which archaeology could shed some light. The doctrine of social evolution espoused in Engels' Ursprung der Familie (Engels 1884) was first applied to Chinese history in Guo Moruo's Studies of Ancient Chinese society (Guo 1930), which, in a crude and mechanical fashion, identified each of Engels' evolutionary stages with a specific period in Chinese history. Following its initial publication, the scheme was revised several times, and the periodization issue is still raised occasionally. In archaeology, as it turned out, the Marxist impact was most pervasive in the realm of prehistory, where the Engels provided a para-historical blueprint that was more convincing than earlier mythological accounts. It was with considerable enthusiasm, therefore, that archaeologists assembled data deemed to 'prove' the stages of matriarchal and patriarchal social organization and the emergence of private property. (The literature on this topic is immense; a useful synthesis may be found in Du et at. 1983.) Such attempts have recently come under criticism, even within Mainland China, for their clumsy handling of the evidence and their lack of consideration of possible alternative interpretations (Wang 1985-7; Du 1992). Indeed, a serious consequence of the centrality of the Marxist doctrine is that the concept of a problem-oriented research design, until very recently, did not exist in Chinese archaeology. Testing hypotheses concerning past human behaviour has been regarded as unnecessary because researchers have been led to believe that they already knew what happened; the goal of archaeology was merely to demonstrate the correctness of an already-accepted view. Here the limiting impact of Marxism converged with that of the traditional historiographical orthodoxy. One might think that, under such circumstances, it might have been deemed superfluous to engage in the retrieval and study of new evidence. To eschew such a conclusion, Xia Nai (1990: 66) justified continued research in archaeology with the need to reconcile the Chinese historical record with Marxist theory, or, as he puts it, to clarify the workings of the universal Marxist laws in connection with the historical particularities of the Chinese case, caused by factors such as 'environmental conditions, sociohistorical backgrounds, and human activities'. But such mixing of ideology and specific evidence is potentially explosive because it might lead one to suggest modifications to the theoretical framework -- which might be construed as questioning Marxism and, indirectly, the legitimacy of the regime. Most Chinese archaeologists, when it comes to such issues, will therefore only repeat what has already been said by others.

Archaeological research concerned entirely with issues emanating from the traditional historical texts, on the other hand, carries little if any risk. This may explain why, however much Mao's slogans might tout the common people as 'the sole creators of world history', the life of the lower classes during the historic periods remains virtually unexplored archaeologically. To an extent unparalleled in capitalist countries, research over the last 40 years has focused almost exclusively on the remains of the social elites -- the very groups that are also documented in the textual sources. Archaeologists' obsession with spectacular objects -- preferably inscribed -- has led to a veritable treasure-hunting mentality. Even though the scholarly world might learn more from the excavation of a Bronze Age village than from the tomb of yet another royal figure, most archaeologists find it more prestigious to double-track the known course of history by unearthing the archaeological remains of those already famous.

Published archaeological reports abound in attempts, often unconvincing, at associating finds with historically known events, individuals or ethnic groups (as in the above-mentioned case of Erlitou and the Xia). This penchant of present-day Chinese archaeologists derives directly from traditional antiquarianism. Even in the Song dynasty, Zhao Mingcheng (1081-1129) once criticized a colleague for speciously maintaining that the bronzes in his collection had been made by famous individuals from antiquity (Jinshilu 12: 3b; translated in Rudolph 1963: 171).


The problems highlighted in this essay are common to archaeology of historical periods world-wide; they are, however, magnified, in the Chinese case, by the vastness of the historical record and by the centrality of the historical texts in the culture. It would be foolish -- indeed, impossible -- to conduct archaeological research in wilful disregard of that evidence. But there is a difference between making judicious use of texts in the planning and execution of archaeological research, and devising such research entirely along historiographical lines. Xia Nai was of the opinion that archaeology should provide an independent source of data -- a new, different kind of 'text' -- not necessarily 'proving' the historical sources, but suggesting novel ways to approach them. Archaeology and textual research would then be linked through continuing information feedback. In such an endeavour, however, in order to avoid circular reasoning, the two kinds of data must not be prematurely conflated.

Unfortunately, the reality, even at Xia's own institution, has often been different. So far, many fieldworkers in China have not availed themselves of the full potential of field archaeology. Fixated on issues germane to 'history in the narrow sense', archaeologists have often failed to search for the kind of evidence that only archaeology can provide -- evidence that has no equivalent in written documentation. In particular, they have been slow to address topics that require a quantitative approach to the data, such as settlement patterns, subsistence systems, demography, and social organization. In a recent assessment, published in a mainland journal, of archaeology's contributions to early Chinese historiography, the Taiwanese historian Du Zhengsheng writes (Du 1992: 344; my translation, without original footnotes): The archaeological materials now available can exceed the evidence from the traditional texts and concepts current in more recent times |Marxist historiography~: they can illuminate new historical problems.... I have discussed how archaeologists have used archaeological materials to talk about 'clan society', and pointed out that, based on the data seen up to now, there is every reason for archaeologists to reconsider the content of primitive society and to establish a new view of the life of the ancient people quite apart from considerations of descent patterns and property relations. Reports on Neolithic tombs furnish plentiful data on age, sex, and pathology determined from human bones. Through a historical-demographic analysis of age and sex, one can generally determine the demographic structure of settlements; and based on the pathological data, one can make some rough inferences on the health of the ancient populations, on their work habits and on their culinary culture. Animal bone material from settlements also embody the vital resources of primitive society and its ecological environment. Such aspects are of profound significance to understanding the history of the people; their importance is in no way inferior to the issues of matrilinear or patrilinear society and of whether property was held communally or privately. Liberating archaeology from its present narrowly historiographical agenda would allow archaeologists to concentrate on their data and to become bolder in suggesting new interpretations. Rather than leading to ghettoization, this would, one hopes, allow cross-fertilization across a variety of disciplines besides 'history in the narrow sense', such as the soil sciences, environmental sciences, material sciences and the quantitative social sciences. What Chinese archaeology lacks most is not fashionable theory. It is more important that archaeologists become more self-confident about their own discipline and cease defining the goals of their research in terms of the prestige criteria of pre-modern scholarship. If this can be achieved, one may be optimistic that methodologies proper to the Chinese situation will emerge, as they have elsewhere in the world, in the course of research. Operating on its own turf, archaeology will then become truly a source of new historical knowledge.

Acknowledgements. I should like to thank Dr Jessica Rawson and Professors Robert W. Bagley, K.C. Chang, John W. Olsen and Zhang Longxi for valuable comments on a preliminary draft of this article. My special thanks go to those colleagues in China who, in countless conversations since 1979, have shared with me their views of the discipline. Any misunderstandings or exaggerations that may remain in this article are my own responsibility.

1 The amount of archaeology-related scholarly literature from China has recently assumed overwhelming proportions. In order to keep the bibliographic apparatus at a manageable level, and assuming a non-Sinological readership, I refer, to the extent possible, to western publications where further references may be found.

2 This disregards the pre-World War I expeditions sent from several European countries into Xinjiang and Tibet (see Hopkirk 1980 & 1982) -- treasure-hunting endeavours which, in spite of their undeniable contributions to scholarship, can hardly be considered as archaeological fieldwork in a strict sense. 3 The fieldwork undertaken in China by Japanese archaeologists between the two World Wars and during World War II, published in a number of monographs, has exerted virtually no influence on later archaeological practice. Due to the political circumstances of the time, little or no interaction seems to have occurred between Japanese and Chinese archaeologists during that period. Moreover, the Japanese specialists were active mostly in the northeastern regions of China, a region peripheral to orthodox historiography.

4 For a careful account of the ancient vessel names, see Hayashi 1964. In my dissertation (Falkenhausen 1988: 173-223), I went to some lengths trying to balance the traditional vocabulary with the need for a stringent typology.


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