Whispers of ancient times speak volumes for history

The Cambridge History of China, Volume Eight - The Cambridge History of Ancient China

November 26, 1999

Modern archaeology is transforming China's past. Oliver Moore takes a slow boat through an emerging past.

The Cambridge History of China , including a volume on Ming history reviewed here, begins - if that is what history does - with the watershed date of 221 BC, the year of China's first unification as an empire. Volumes devoted to imperial history have been appearing over the past 20 years, and they are now joined by the single (and weighty) volume of a new enterprise, The Cambridge History of Ancient China , which deals with history and cultural remains prior to the axial moment of unification.

Chinese traditional views of the period before unification presented a highly idealised antiquity, and gave little consideration to the grave problems of historicity that increase with each more remote stage of China's past. The overwhelming prestige of surviving annals and scriptures - some of them transmitted from two and a half millennia ago - rendered their historical claims acceptable to a degree against which independent checks were virtually taboo.

The rapid evolution of modern archaeology in China effected a momentous disruption to these long-accepted claims. From the beginning of this century, excavated inscriptions on turtle shells, bronze vessels and wooden strips have provided radically fresh views of China during the first millennium BC. Also discovered were the remains of cities, the settlements of late Neolithic societies, and, not least, tombs of various elites - usually plundered but sometimes intact. Given the wealth of materials available, ancient China rather than imperial China is by far the younger subject and it is no irony that the newest production from Cambridge is a volume on the earlier period.

Archaeology informs much of Ancient China . The volume uses archaeological insights to give refined accounts of early chronology, geography, origins of human settlement, language and writing. Four central chapters adopt dual archaeological and textual approaches to the Shang and Western Zhou periods ( c .1570-1045 BC and 1045-771 BC), now universally accepted as the two later historical periods of the traditional "three ages" ( sandai ). The contributors' perspectives on the existence of the earliest age - tradition's much-vaunted Xia dynasty - diverge: Kwang-chih Chang is cautiously optimistic that certain late Neolithic remains belonged to the Xia; Robert Bagley respects the strong yet little attended arguments of Chinese scholarship earlier this century that Xia remains can never be verifiable.

Four more chapters present further alternative archaeology and text-based accounts of the two phases of late (Eastern) Zhou history (771-221 BC). These are complemented by two chapters discussing the most important philosophical texts either transmitted from the final centuries of that period or recently discovered in tomb contexts. A particularly fascinating chapter by Nicola Di Cosmo surveys the textual and archaeological knowledge of China's northern zone - rimming the Siberian steppes and central Asia - and posits how this multi-ethnic region came to offer an alter ego by which, to some extent, Chinese cultural identity was formed. Michael Loewe provides a general summary of the late Bronze Age heritage.

An admirable fluency links these chapters, particularly the clear expositions of archaeology for the Shang, Western Zhou and the earlier and later phases of Eastern Zhou. Closely linked to these accounts are expositions of each period's textual sources by historians whose attention is, for the most part, fully engaged with the interpretative limitations that archaeology and textual history impose upon each other. An exception to this approach is Cho-yun Hsu's account of early Eastern Zhou developments, which is focused exclusively on the revelations texts provide for his period's institutional and intellectual developments.

The archaeological chapters surpass all previous accounts for their narrative cohesion and detailed references, despite dealing with issues that still strongly divide scholarly opinion. Bagley reminds us that, despite the evidence of large buildings, workshops, rich tombs and writing,the absence of a city wall at Anyang - the most important site of late Shang government during c.1200-1045 BC - has led some scholars to imagine the site not as the Shang capital but as a separate ceremonial centre.

Bagley accepts Anyang as the Shang's last capital. So too does William Boltz in his lucid exposition of early Chinese language and writing, which uses evidence preponderantly gleaned from Anyang. David Keightley, in a chapter dealing with Shang inscribed oracle bones as historical sources, seems less convinced. He offers another dichotomy: later historical sources claimed the Anyang area to have been the capital for the last 12 Shang kings, but the archaeological evidence for a royal presence at Anyang in the years before the last ten kings is still absent. This plurality of views enriches the volume greatly.

Wu Hung's chapter on the art and architecture of the 5th to 3rd centuries BC, the late Eastern Zhou, is an ambitious contextual account for later developments in building, tomb design, bronze and lacquer production and certain forms of surface painting. Wu's use of statistics for size and location provides a stimulating introduction to the scale and frequency of certain material productions in this complicated period of multiplying political centres. What some readers may find difficult to follow is his progressive interpretation of artistic developments, particularly the rise of what he terms "ritual art" culminating in the "complete dominance of funerary art during the Qin and Han dynasties". Even if the period witnessed huge expenditure on the decoration of tombs, its artistic production quite clearly had other aims as well as funeral arrangements. The latter dominate our perceptions today simply because they provided the only context in which material of any mass has survived. I wonder too if "ritual art", "ritual architecture", "ritual orchestra" and several other "ritual" phenomena are good descriptions. They build up the notion that late Zhou society ordered the huge bulk of its material productions simply in response to unabating ambitions for ritual performances. Objects in significant quantity and inscriptions do suggest that the pattern of demand may have been such, but their evidence should not blind us to a history of artefacts created first in response to other stimuli and only later appropriated into ceremonial settings. Caution is important here, since China possesses a truly enormous transmission of ritual prescriptives, and the structures they promote may intrude heavily on interpreting material evidence.

More seriously, formulating a "canon of ritual art" can lead to distorted typing of the objects themselves. Wu sees the design of certain "ritual vessels", made during the 4th century BC in the northeastern state of Zhongshan, as "restricted by convention" and, more significantly, as productions that revived Western Zhou traditions in their use of inscriptions to document political events. But his example of a tripod vessel "made entirely of bronze" is actually a composition of a bronze receptacle standing on three iron legs, and therefore flouts the precepts of even a notional canon. The Western Zhou tradition was characterised by inscriptions placed inside vessels, but the Zhongshan vessel bears columns of text on its exterior. Such exceptional practices suggest a departure from convention rather than a revival.

Some of the data is extremely problematic, particularly the archaeological fieldwork that Di Cosmo has to handle. The northern zone, including quite large tracts of north China's heartland, were grounds for the passage or brief settlement of many social groups, none of whom in this early period used writing. To save us from an utterly clueless mingling with such inconveniently mobile crowds, traditional and modern scholarship have obliged them almost uniformly never to appear in print without wearing the appropriate ethnonymic tags issued by ancient sources. The potential for distortion is obvious and Di Cosmo states that historical claims made in the context of archaeological findings remain highly speculative.

But can such caution have been completely adhered to when debate centres on nomadic cultures referred to, as ever, by names gained from ancient Chinese sources? For instance, archaeological data acquired in Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) is here attributed to a people named the Wusun in ancient Chinese texts. The authority for this attribution is Han Kangxin's recent analyses of exhumed crania, which include a number typed as Wusun. Han's identifications are based on a body of Tsarist and Soviet anthropological fieldwork beginning in the 1880s. Despite good observations on the ground, these Russian claims for the Wusun and many other ethnic groups remain only speculative equations between a geographical location - visited by untold numbers of groups in ancient times - and the passage of one group of visitors recorded in an old Chinese text.

To criticise the details of chapters covering such impressive depths is little short of the "mantis blocking a cart with its forearms", as a Chinese philosopher in the 4th century BC scoffed. Read as a whole, this volume's advocacy of archaeological insights, combined with more traditional historical approaches, offers a truly stimulating invigoration of how we imagine the ancient world in China.

The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644 , part two of volume eight in The Cambridge History of China , is a collection of topical discussions that complements the diachronic account of the period given in its twin volume, part one (1988). This masterful series on China's imperial history has been appearing steadily over the past two decades under the editorship of Denis Twitchett and the late John King Fairbank, both contributors of several chapters of their own.

Eleven volumes from a planned total of 15 have appeared, and some of them have been reissued in Chinese. This second Ming volume collects essays dealing with the structure of government, fiscal and legal systems, foreign relations, economics, agriculture, communications, learning and religion. The Ming period is probably the first in Chinese history to offer historians the possibilities of understanding social conditions as low as

village level at a variety of locations throughout the empire. Ming efforts to preserve knowledge about local government have survived in print from numerous centres of government all over metropolitan China, and this wealth of information can yield much.

Possibly the best overview of the period is given by Martin Heijdra in a survey of rural socioeconomic conditions that is finely nuanced by the employment of skilfully drawn statistics. Eminently readable, these pages cover many of the key developments in late imperial history. For instance, the frequently documented population explosion of the 18th century was not an isolated phenomenon. Heijdra shows that the population doubled in size over the course of Ming history, and he argues that late Ming claims of overpopulation should be treated seriously as well as taken into account for the same period's growing degree of rural commercialisation.

Ming China, apart from perpetuating - and then abandoning - the maritime achievements of earlier centuries, also experienced the first chapter of competitive penetration by the European sea powers.

John Wills's contribution, "Relations with maritime Europeans", narrates the opening moves in creating a "modern world system". Dutchmen, for Wills,excelled in what clearly were generally high standards of violence and obstinacy. But then the Dutch documentation of their presence in East Asia is particularly full. It is, of course, good to know that Dutch authorities started to tax Chinese gambling at Jakarta almost as soon as they had conquered the region in 1619, but regrettable that not more is said about the increasingly important presence of Chinese populations outside China.

Wills's chapter is nicely complemented by Willard Petersen's, which describes the inroads of Christianity and other ideas, including Aristotelian philosophy, introduced at just the moment when the European vanguard was moving on to science associated with Copernicus, Galileo and William Harvey.

There is no chapter devoted to art and literature. The editors regret this exclusion in their foreword, but the volume does not lack important insights into social aspects of these topics. Most notable are those of Timothy Brook, whose chapter on communications and commerce provides a welcome amplification of his now-influential cultural history of the Ming, The Confusions of Pleasure .

Both these Cambridge volumes are edited to the highest standards. They gather sources, maps and - in Ancient China - clear and attractive drawings by Li Xiating, which, together with what they have to say, will generate enthusiasm among insiders and outsiders alike for two diverse and highly attractive volumes of historical discourse.

Oliver Moore is lecturer in the Chinese history of art, University of Leiden, The Netherlands.

The Cambridge History of China, Volume Eight: The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part Two

Editor - Denis C. Twitchett and Frederick W. Mote
ISBN - 0 521 24333 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £80.00
Pages - 1,203

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