Sino the times

March 22, 1996

As China becomes a richer society it is ironically turning its back on a wealth of discovery about its past. Jessica Rawson reports

The past 25 years has been an era of major Chinese archaeological discoveries. Jade suits always seem to make the news and about 40 have been found. But other wonders have also come to light: the pottery warriors; iron foundries 1,000 years older than those of the West; a tomb of a queen equipped with more than 1,000 bronze vessels and jades; a marquis of the 5th century bc buried with an orchestra of instruments and with 18 young women to play them in the afterlife.

Ancient China was always exceptionally wealthy. The Chinese preferred to bury their fortunes rather than erect stone monuments to their power. Such burials are the Chinese counterparts of the Egyptian pyramids. They are often dug far below the fields to protect them from robbery, an effort that has been far from successful. Grave-robbing was an industry in ancient times and still is today.

From the neolithic period, c. 6000 bc, tombs were sumptuously equipped. The quantities of vessels for holding food and for banqueting, first in pottery and later in bronze, are evidence of a belief that the dead required nourishment. Texts reveal preoccupation with offerings to appease ancestors and later on give recipes for immortality. The jade suits were intended also to give their owners immortality of the body, flesh transformed by contact with the jade. Both China's ancient wealth, therefore, and the beliefs of the period fostered magnificent tombs.

Such tombs add greatly to knowledge of China's past, and to her present prestige, but they also pose great problems of preservation and publication. Archaeological work in China falls under two categories, a central academic body and local provincial organisation. The central body is the Institute of Archaeology based in Beijing and responsible to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It has several large groups working in different parts of China, with principal excavations near Beijing itself and at major sites along the Yellow River.

The other major organisation is based on the 50 provinces or autonomous regions. Located at the provincial capitals, these local institutes may also have outposts near major sites. So extensive are many excavations that workstations are built near large sites and teams work there over periods of years.

These intensely provincial institutes are highly competitive, but the province of Shaanxi, home of the terracotta warriors, has in recent years been seen as the most successful. Reports in the western press of a new find of a jade suit are an aspect of such provincial competition. The most renowned jade suits are from the northern province of Hebei (one is coming to London in September). Now the province of Jiangsu in the south-east has claimed a more perfect example.

Such provincial pride has its drawbacks. Archaeologists of each area are keen to show the value of finds within their own sphere; they are less willing and even less able to explore cultures that span provincial boundaries. The study of many topics, especially such fields as early agriculture and technology suffers, and so too do other subjects, such as concern with the beliefs in the afterlife that stimulated the use of jade suits.

The competition that fuels excavation also stimulates publication. Two archaeological journals are produced by the Institute of Archaeology, a monthly and a quarterly, and another is published monthly by the Central Cultural Relics Office (the organisation overseeing the provinces). In addition, every province has one or more journals reporting excavations. The body of published material thus keeps pace with discoveries. Monographs with full archaeological reports are less quickly produced. But several major reports emerge each year.

For a western scholar the output is daunting. Many of the local journals are difficult to obtain. Even Chinese archaeologists rarely see them all. Indeed for the Chinese themselves, the depth and range of finds make it difficult for individual scholars to escape from preoccupations with their own localities. China is thus ill-served by wide-ranging studies. Comparison of artefact types, or agricultural practices in several regions are rare. Even more difficult are studies of the society, its structure and economy. For example, an understanding of the impact of Central Asian trade on China is not easily achieved. Some major areas remain under researched, such as the origin of iron casting. While China has the earliest iron casting in the world, c. 900 bc, it is not clear what prompted this major innovation. It seems likely that interest in iron was a result of introduction of weapons and other artefacts from Xinjiang province or Siberia.

China's traditional scholarship has always emphasised the contribution of textual study. One of the biases of Chinese archaeological research is the constant attempt to fit transmitted texts and archaeological finds together. There has been a tendency to simplify interpretation of the archaeological record so that it matches the standard account of early Chinese history in transmitted texts. If archaeology has contributed a single overwhelming lesson, it is that at all periods before the unification of China in the third century bc, China's landmass was inhabited by peoples with very diverse cultures and practices.

Among the finds that have rammed this lesson home are extraordinary bronze masks found in south-western China in 1986. These immense, strange creations were found in large pits with broken fragments of bronze trees, vessels, human-like heads, jades and gold. Nothing like these objects had been seen before. They belonged, on evidence of pottery types, to a hitherto unknown people contemporary with the Shang dynasty, c. 1200 bc. While the Shang are known from the bones they inscribed with records of divinations and from later accounts by their successors the Zhou, nothing is recorded in the textual tradition about the peoples who made these masks. The Chinese have attempted to relate these finds to obscure literary accounts, but no texts explain such extraordinary pieces. Large archaeological finds are making essential an escape from a framework determined by the textual tradition.

The bronzes are of great technical virtuosity. In place of elaborate stone buildings, the Chinese invested material and man-power in craftsmanship: not just bronzes, ceramics and jades, but also very specialised crafts peculiar to China - lacquer and silk. These last two required complex manufacturing processes, with many stages, to produce the finished objects. But these sub-divided processes - lacquer is, for example, a sap of a tree that has to be applied in many layers to a base in wood or cloth; the layers are then been allowed to dry between each application - are most efficient if the scale of production is large.

Indeed such processes and the effort they require are typical of China, the home of mass-production by means of sub-division of labour. Even neolithic ceramics were made in subdivided mounded parts. Bronzes were probably also made in the same ways. During the 6th to 7th centuries, if not earlier, bronze casting moulds were decorated mechanically. Thus to subdivision of manufacturing processes was added mechanical reproduction. Indeed, mass-produced "consumer-goods" were invented in ancient China.

Skilled labour produced bronzes, lacquers and silks, which were distributed to officials of different ranks serving from the borders of present-day Vietnam to outposts in Korea. These objects could be almost identical. Small differences could be employed to mark differences in rank. A well-organised hierarchical ranking system was thus made visible in dress, everyday utensils such as lacquer drinking cups and in rarities, such as jades. The large tombs are products of a society that valued objects as a measure of power, and that could make them and subtlety to respond to minute variations in status.

But the steady progress that has been made in excavating such finds has depended upon the direction of funds. In the postcultural revolution period, the Chinese government saw great advantages in harnessing China's ancient scholarly tradition to excavation and its interpretation. A country that had suffered turmoil in the 1960s was ripe for an account of its past more edifying than the story of the previous decade. Moreover, China had in that difficult period retired from the international stage. An aspect of the country's re-entry was the mounting of large exhibitions, such as that held in London in 1973/74. Displays of new archaeological finds revealed a new China to a marvelling audience. The 1970s and 1980s were periods of intense central support for archaeological work. But today, central excavation funds are on the decline, as they are everywhere. Ironically as China's wealth grows, the funds for archaeology decline. As China becomes a richer society the past may seem relatively less important.

Jessica Rawson is warden of Merton College, Oxford. The major finds will be displayed at the British Museum from September in "Mysteries of Ancient China" sponsored by The Times. A conference to coincide with the exhibition will be arranged by The THES and the BM.

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