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Archaeology aids reconstruction of China’s ancient history

ZHANG QINGLI | 2018-05-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

People examine oracle bones at the museum of Yin Ruins, one of China’s oldest archaeological sites in Anyang, Henan Province in 2016.


At the dawn of the 20th century, Gu Jiegang and his fellow scholars reexamined records of ancient history that were filled with myths and legends. Their skepticism undermined traditional accounts of the mythical Sovereign Emperors and promoted the study of early Chinese history. However, the discovery of Yin Ruins and more archaeological documents on the Neolithic Age have contributed to reconstructive research on ancient Chinese history.

Archaeology examines relics and remains, while history mainly investigates ancient documents. What chemistry will the two disciplines spark when they explore ancient China? How will archaeology lend support to the historical studies as it becomes an independent discipline?

A CSST reporter recently invited three scholars who study different research questions to outline their views on these issues. They are Chen Chun, a professor from the Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology at Fudan University, Zhang Guoshuo, a professor from the School of History at Zhengzhou University and Huang Hailie, an associate professor from the Research Center for Ancient Documents at Jilin University.


CSST: What role has archaeology played in promoting the study of ancient Chinese history?


Zhang Guoshuo: Archaeology is crucial in this field because there are huge limitations for us to study the ancient history through surviving documents due to textual omission, mixture with legends and writers’ speculation. The introduction of modern archaeology to China in the 1920s supplied new approaches and means to study the country’s ancient history. Archaeological exploration entered a golden era, attracting national attention after 1949. The constant archaeological discoveries served as the bedrock for studying ancient history in a comprehensive and profound way. Also, the Origin of Chinese Civilization Project and other major research programs remarkably promoted the field in three aspects. First, a structural system of ancient Chinese history has been set up. The ancient documents only generally outlined the history prior to the Qin and Han dynasties. However, the archaeological research methods made the picture clearer, in particular when it comes to the Xia and Shang dynasties.

Archaeology has addressed the skepticism about historical documents. Documents about ancient history were not so accurate, but archaeological research has found that many records on the ancient history of China were reliable, such as the information about the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties and their cultural remains, oracle bone inscriptions as well as Chinese bronze inscriptions. The Erlitou Site in Henan Province has provided evidence of the existence of the Xia Dynasty in terms of location, times and cultural characteristics as well as stage of social development.

Archaeology has greatly contributed to research on the development of ancient Chinese civilization. The arguments that the ancient Chinese civilization has a sole cradle or it originated from the Central Plain have been abandoned. Instead, there is a growing consensus around a theory of multiple originss, or that the origins displayed a diversified unity.

Chen Chun: The materials adopted by archaeology freed from the limitations caused by the records in ancient documents, broadening the scope of ancient history and racing the start of human history back to the Paleolithic Age. At present, the earliest oracle bone inscriptions can be dated back to more than 3,600 years ago while the earliest human activity can be traced to nearly 1.8 million years ago. Ancient documents reflect the activities and ideas of a minority of people—mainly nobles and the ruling officials—at that time, whereas studies can touch upon such metrics as ecological environment, profession, economy, population and diet, nutrition, disease as well as handicraft industry, trade, social structure and evolution, ideology and region. Archaeological materials offer more reliable historical information and these findings were made in the course of updating theories and methods.

Huang Hailie: Archaeological methodologies and theories have greatly assisted the study of ancient history. For example, as basic methodologies, stratigraphy and typology were widely adopted in the field of archaeology to help divide timelines into parts and clarify the evolutionary lineage of utensils, so that a comprehensive framework of time and space is available. The proposal of the regional systems and cultural types model has laid a sound foundation for the study of the origin, formation and development of ancient Chinese civilization. The structure of the ancient society and law of historical development have been revealed because cultural factors were included in the study. Currently, the broad application of natural sciences and advanced technologies in archaeological studies has refreshed people’s understanding with a massive amount of information under the framework of ancient Chinese history.


CSST: The renowned historian of the 20th century Wang Guowei proposed the concept of “double evidence,” which was considered a valuable method for connecting archaeological discoveries and ancient documents. How should archaeology and history collaborate to study ancient history of China when documents have limitations?


Chen Chun: The discovery of the Yin Ruins in Anyang, Henan Province heralded the dawn of modern archaeology in China, paving the way for China’s academic and value orientation in the field. Archaeologist Zhang Guangzhi said that the search for oracle bone inscriptions led to the discovery of the ruins, whereas the studies on oracle bone inscriptions is an extension of exploring history through documents. In this way, the role of Chinese archaeology in its early days was to find evidence to the records and make academic arguments about history.

Now, archaeology has developed toward an independent discipline. It differentiates itself from history in the aspects of research material, theory, methodology and target information even though they share an identical research goal. It is better for these two disciplines to make use of their respective advantages and complement information of each other. The traditional “double evidence” method no longer fits them. The debate on how to reconstruct ancient history of China has never ended since the emergence of the Doubting Antiquity School. Li Ji criticized the biased argument that “only written words carry historical values” in the 1930s. Many questions will remain unsolved if studies pay all attention to written words while ignoring other forms of materials though they may have sacrificed spectacular efforts. Shaking off constraints, archaeology can remarkably broaden the scope of historical studies.

Huang Hailie: In a broad sense, Chinese archaeology is a part of the discipline of history. Its early work focused on reconstructing the ancient history of China, taking on the nature of historical studies and the situation lasted for a while. However, it extended to natural sciences, anthropology, sociology and art as  branches rose such as technological archaeology and settlement archaeology. In this context, archaeology is more than a tool for supporting historical studies. Its independence deserves greater attention.

Zhang Guoshuo: In my perspective, it is inevitable that the history of ancient China should be studied by giving equal attention to archaeological materials and ancient documents. In this process, scholars should consider ancient documents as a guide and fully realize the value of archaeological materials. It is notable that the ultimate goal of Chinese archaeology is to study development of human history and civilization in ancient times. Sometimes they may contradict with each other. In this case, scholars need to guarantee the reliability of archaeological information. Any connection with ancient documents must be made based on sufficient archaeological materials and profound examination. When the reliability is confirmed yet the contradiction remains, information revealed by archaeological materials should be adopted, because the antiquities couldn’t be changed and disguised by post generations, whereas people may distort ancient documents during their circulation of thousands of years.


CSST: How will archaeology deepen the study of ancient Chinese history as it tends to touch upon more disciplines?


Huang Hailie: In terms of the “double evidence” method, the so-called “underground sources” mainly refer to the unearthed materials in written form, including inscriptions on oracle bones, bronze ware or bamboo. However, scholars used to compile and study these materials in the same way as they do to ancient documents because content recorded on these subjects share greater similarity with ancient documents. Today, progress can be made in methodology in which we can conduct comprehensive studies by using ancient documents, unearthed documents as well as abundant unearthed archaeological materials without written content. Also, we can add more forms of evidence to make assertations more reliable. Archaeology can touch upon historical studies from the perspective of ethnicity of archaeological culture. In a narrow sense, historical studies of pre-Qin ritual may integrate the examination of ancient documents and archaeological materials in the future.

Chen Chun: The traditional “double evidence” method can become more comprehensive. The documents in written forms can be seen as recorded political history of a social group while underground archaeological materials are remains of ancient people’s behaviors and daily lives. They are the product of history rather than the history itself. We can reconstruct ancient history through integration and reasoning of information carried by archaeological materials, which was inaccessible with the help of ancient documents. Based on this form of archeological studies, documents can supply more detailed information for social and cultural development. The integration of archaeological studies and inscription comprehension should become an approach to reconstructing ancient history of China in the 21st century. 

Zhang Guoshuo: Sciences and technology are constantly changing. Academic development is destined to enter a new stage. Lessons have been learned from previous practices that the “double evidence” method is far from enough. We need to absorb research achievements from around the world and promote “multiple evidence” method and the multidisciplinary approach. I believe that these two methodologies will dominate the future study of ancient history of China in a durable future.


(edited by MA YUHONG)