Digs to the glory of Marx

The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology

June 9, 2000

The Golden Age referred to in the title is the period of 50 years from October 1 1949, the founding of the People's Republic, to the present, and the catalogue accompanied an exhibition of archaeological finds excavated during this time, dating from the Neolithic to the 10th century AD. Edited by Xiaoneng Yang, who curated the exhibition, the volume includes essays and catalogue entries by leading western scholars in the field of Chinese archaeology as well as a group of essays by important Chinese scholars, most of whom are associated with Beijing University.

The introductory essay by Yang is a most informative overview of the history of the development of modern Chinese archaeology, not only during the past 50 years but dating back to the 1890s and Liang Qichao. To my knowledge, this is the first such comprehensive overview in English and provides an excellent introduction for students of the subject, dealing as it does with the question of the various western archaeological expeditions to China at the beginning of the century and the resulting acquisitions by leading western museums, as well as with the early joint ventures such as the Sino-Swedish expedition and the work of the pioneer Chinese scholars such as Li Ji, Liang Siyong and Su Bingqi.

Yang describes the establishment of the Bureau of Cultural Relics and the Institute of Archaeology and pays tribute to the work of Xia Nai, who studied at London University under Mortimer Wheeler from 1935-39 and who became the greatest authority in Chinese archaeology. In fact, Xia's influence was such that he even persuaded the great Guo Moruo (president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences from 1950-78) to abandon his plans to excavate Tang tombs and also prevented the precipitate excavation of the largest of the Ming tombs after having unwillingly taken part in the excavation of the Ming Emperor Wanli's tomb before he thought the conditions were favourable. Xia argued that the achievement of an archaeologist should be measured "not by what has been recovered but rather by how the site has been excavated". The politicisation of archaeological research in China, and the attempt to match archaeological discoveries to the Marxist model of social organisation, are also covered, as is the growth of regional archaeological institutes as well as the establishment of archaeology as a specialisation in regional universities and the growth of regional archaeological journals.

The main body of the catalogue is divided into four sections, presenting finds from Neolithic (5,000-2,000 BC), Bronze Age (c. 2,000-771 BC), Chu and other (mostly Southern) cultures c. 770-221 BC) and Early Imperial China (221 BC-AD 924). The six major Neolithic regional traditions are discussed and illustrated in the first section. Some of these, such as Yangshao, Longshan, Dawenkou, Hongshan and Liangzhu, will be familiar to those who saw the exhibitions in 1973 at the Royal Academy and in 1996 at the British Museum. However, the intriguing Taosi pottery from Shanxi province, excavated between 1978 and 1985, decorated with slanting geometric designs rather reminiscent of bronze decoration, will be less well known.

Perhaps the most exciting of the nine Bronze Age sites presented are those of Dayangzhou in Jiangxi province and Sanxingdui in Sichuan province,excavated in 1989 and 1986 respectively, revealing human heads, masks, figures and spirit trees of bronze, some of which were seen in the 1996 "Mysteries of China" exhibition at the British Museum. Important, too, is the Erlitou site at Yanshi in Henan province, about which there is a difference of opinion, with most Chinese archaeologists equating it with the Xia dynasty while western scholars regard this interpretation as problematic.

The third section, aptly titled "The flamboyance of the Eastern Zhou", discusses some of the most spectacularly beautiful finds of painted lacquers, silks and inlaid bronzes from the Chu culture in the south to the Zhongshan culture in the north. The magnificent set of 65 bronze bells from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, excavated in 1978, has a range of more than five octaves of 12 semi-tones each and has been compared to a modern-day piano. In fact, this tomb has been called the most important archaeological discovery of the Eastern Zhou period, due to the huge tonnage of remarkable bronzes as well as to the well-preserved tomb itself.

The fourth section is so full of major finds covering a period of more than a millennium that it is difficult to pick out the most exciting or important. The terracotta army of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, is perhaps the single most famous archaeological discovery in China, never failing to move us, perhaps because of its dramatic scale. Also known will be the jade suit of Prince Liu Sheng, excavated at Mancheng, Hebei province, in 1968 and exhibited in the British Museum in 1996. The perhaps less familiar jades found in the tomb of the King of Nanyue, near Guangzhou, are of greater quality and quantity than those found in Liu Sheng's tomb and also include a jade suit. A particularly beautiful round jade-covered box is interesting for the fact that the decoration on it copies that on Han Dynasty lacquer, as well as because it has been mended with rivets, showing how highly valued it must have been.

Tang Dynasty treasures excavated from tombs, hoards buried at times of crisis and underground crypts in Buddhist temples, echo those treasures exhibited in the British Museum's recent "Gilded Dragons" exhibition. The 0 items of gold and silver buried in 755 in the well-known hoard discovered at Hejiacun, Shaanxi province, in 1970, are represented in this catalogue by such masterpieces of Tang metalwork as the handled gilt silver jar decorated with parrots and filled with precious stones and minute gold dragons (exhibited in "Gilded Dragons"). The crypt under the pagoda of the Buddhist temple Famensi, excavated in 1987 in Shaanxi province, revealed a plethora of Tang gold, silver, ceramics, glass and silk presented by many of the Tang emperors to the temple as devotional offerings. This excavation is doubly important due to the fact that it can be linked directly with the writings of the famous Tang scholar Han Yu, who wrote a great piece of anti-Buddhist prose in 819 protesting about the emperor receiving relics of the Buddha in his palace. The relic in question was, in fact, the finger bone of the historical Buddha, for which the Famensi temple was famous.

Both the importance of the finds presented in this massive tome, together with the quality of information and interpretation provided by foremost scholars from China, the US and Europe, make this book a major work on the subject that will prove of use to students and scholars long into the future. The only negative issue to point out in the context of China's great archaeological progress detailed in this catalogue is the damage that has been and is being done by tomb looting and smuggling, necessitating the expenditure of scarce resources on high levels of security for ongoing digs.

Jane Portal is assistant keeper, department of Oriental antiquities, British Museum.

The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology

Editor - Xiaoneng Yang
ISBN - 0 300 08132 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 528

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