New light on the vision of a thousand candles

The Archaeology of Northeast China
December 8, 1995

Few fields in Chinese studies have developed as explosively as archaeology or have been as affected by recent history. The construction boom has led to numerous random discoveries; the privatisation of the economy has encouraged the looting of sites; and national pride and regional autonomy have fostered the search for indigenous and local cultures. The "big bang" theory of origins, in which all civilisation flowed from the dynastic centre in the Yellow River plain, has increasingly been replaced by the vision of "a thousand candles", with various areas of China, particularly in the neolithic period, making contributions to the imperial synthesis. The Chinese archaeologists' contributions to this volume reflect these developments. Four of their chapters deal with the Neolithic, four with the bronze age, in the area once known as Manchuria.

Sarah Nelson's introduction raises significant issues of method and theory, explaining, for example, how Chinese scholars use terms like neolithic and bronze age. Also valuable are her introductory essays to each of the chapters and her concluding chapter, in which she corrects earlier misconceptions about the early cultures of the northeast (Dongbei in Chinese) - they were not, for example, nomadic - and calls for more work on environmental variables, the subsistence base and radiocarbon dating.

Nelson does her best to demonstrate the cultural significance of the frequently undigested data that crowd the book's chapters. Archaeology is so new in the Dongbei, still so influenced by Marxist conceptions, that interpretative paradigms are relatively undeveloped.

The authors generally stress the teleological relevance of local cultural achievements in terms of contributions made to or received from the protodynastic center. They show little concern for social process, for how particular cultural traits would have been transmitted or would have functioned.

The striking fact (not recorded in the original 1975 report), for example, that in the Dadianzi burials, "Males face the site, while the females face away from the site", is passed over without comment, despite its possible implications for endogamy and the transmission of cultural traits.

And the hypothesis, which Nelson herself questions, that the remarkable Hongshan culture, centered in Liaoning, with its cist burials, sacrificial sites, Venus-like statues, and "Goddess temple" at Niuheliang, was associated with "the dawn of Chinese civilisation", is insufficiently supported by evidence.

Curiously, no reference is made to the oracle bones found at Fuhegoumen (a Hongshan culture discussed in the book), the earliest such bones yet found in China, which would have provided one possible link to Shang dynastic practice.

The book-like an archaeological dig itself-is filled with tantalising information. And it does contain several suggestive hypotheses for those willing to excavate them, such as, to select an example from Guo Da-shun's chapter five on "lower Xiajiadian culture", the argument that one branch of lower Xiajiadian became the Yan culture, another became the Shang.

At the same time, the book is marred by editorial carelessness and by translations (done by a variety of hands) that frequently betray uncertainty about the meaning of the original Chinese and the requirements of clear, idiomatic English.

Specialists will wish to consult the original Chinese reports; non-specialists, having read Nelson's accounts of the archaeology of the Dongbei, may wish to employ the volume - which is furnished with an effective index - as a reference.

As Nelson herself notes, the book offers "a wealth of detailed information on Dongbei archaeology, with a spatiotemporal scheme on which further studies can be based". One looks forward to those further studies.

David N. Keightley is professor of history, University of California, Berkeley.

The Archaeology of Northeast China: Beyond the Great Wall

Editor - Sarah Milledge Nelson
ISBN - 0 415 11755 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00
Pages - 254

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