Tracing Chinese civilization origins boosts cultural heritage protection

By CHEN XINGCAN / 07-21-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Visitors in the Erlitou Site Museum of the Xia Capital in Luoyang, Henan Province Photo: CFP

The origin, formation, and development of civilization is one of the most important topics in human history research. Issues such as the origins, formation, and development path of Chinese civilization are significant topics not only in the study of ancient Chinese history, but also in the study of world history.

Project to trace civilization origins
The project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization is a multidisciplinary key scientific research project supported by the state. Since the commencement of pre-research, about 400 experts majoring in nearly 20 disciplines from more than 70 R&D institutions at home and abroad have participated in the project. It is a major comprehensive research project on ancient civilization with the largest scale, as well as the most disciplines and scientific technology involved so far.
Studies show that from around 5,300 years ago, the vast area [within China], including the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, and the West Liao River basins, gradually entered the stage of civilized society. With close interactions between each other, those regions formed a “Chinese interaction sphere” [a model adopted by the Chinese archaeologist Kwang-chih Chang (1931–2001), also a professor at Harvard University, to describe the close relationship among different regional cultures in China that developed in the fourth millennium BCE] characterized by “plurality and unity,” laying the foundation for the origins of Chinese civilization. The new archaeological discoveries of dozens of core sites, including Liangzhu, Lingjiatan, Niuheliang, Shijiahe, Shimao, Taosi, and Erlitou, have proved that Chinese civilization has more than 5,000 years of history. 
Cultural heritage protection
To some extent, the study of the origins of Chinese civilization is the epitome of China’s cultural heritage protection. Numerous sites, including those related to the origins of civilization, are China’s valuable cultural heritage, and should be well protected, managed, and utilized. Combined with the experiences of the project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization, this paper makes several suggestions on how to advance the relevant work [of cultural heritage protection] during the “14th Five-Year Plan” (hereinafter referred to as the Plan) period in an orderly and scientific manner.
The first is to adhere to the correct research orientation and research methods, and form civilization theories with Chinese characteristics. The project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization has always insisted that “the central link in civilized society is the state,” and has viewed the emergence of the state as the fundamental marker of entering a civilized society. Starting from archaeological materials, this project draws conclusions on the key characteristics of evaluating a society’s entry into civilization in the absence of the discovery of written materials, and has made positive contributions to enriching theories on the origins of world civilization. 
In addition, it is of far-reaching significance to stick to the correct research orientation, methods, and multidisciplinary efforts, while doing a good job in protecting Chinese cultural heritage, during the Plan.
The second suggestion is to strengthen the protection of various cultural heritages. Cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource. We have a long way to go to protect core sites, including those related to the origins of civilization, in the process of urbanization. Even such world-famous archaeological sites as Shimao, Erlitou, and Yinxu have suffered from damage to varying degrees, even severe robbery in recent years.
To improve the protection of cultural heritage, it is necessary to strengthen people’s reverence for historical relics and nurture the awareness that protecting cultural relics is a political achievement as well. It is also important to properly balance the relationship between protecting cultural relics and economic and social development, to severely crack down on the robbery and destruction of cultural relics, and strictly prohibit market circulation and collection of cultural relics unearthed by looters and artifacts stolen from museums, so that people can benefit from the fruits of cultural relic protection.
The project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization has made valuable progress in this regard. The project provided crucial academic support for the Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City [in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province] being inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is a good example of archaeological work providing core guarantees for the protection and utilization of cultural heritage. The Neolithic City of Shimao in Shaanxi Province was discovered during the project’s research period. Many of the findings at this site have brought a reversal of traditional notions [in the field of archaeology, culture, and history]. While strengthening archaeological work, Shaanxi authorities focus on the protection of cultural heritage, establishing new institutions and implementing effective management, which is a new attempt in the protection and management of cultural heritage.
The third suggestion is to promote public understanding of science and publicity [of cultural heritage protection] in various forms, and establish a proper orientation for public opinion. Academic research must include the public, as the public need proper guidance and dissemination of knowledge. Holding exhibitions and building national archaeological site parks are the most intuitive forms of publicity. The project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization has held special exhibitions in many places, with new archaeological discoveries as the main content, greatly attracting public attention. The newly built Erlitou Site Museum of the Xia Capital and national archaeological site parks have promoted public understanding of Xia culture research with the latest [archaeological] findings, making remarkable social achievements and enhancing international influence.
This paper suggests further promoting the utilization and popularization of archaeological discoveries and research results during the Plan. The new discoveries and new understandings represented by the project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization shall be entered into teaching materials, so as to strengthen cultural self-confidence and enhance the younger generations’ sense of identity with the history of China. It is necessary to spread refined Chinese history and culture, enhance people’s identification with China and the cohesive force of the Chinese nation, and provide a sense of belonging for the Chinese nation through national archaeological site parks, exhibitions, documentaries, short videos, etc.
Chen Xingcan is a CASS Member and director of the Institute of Archaeology, CASS.