Xia Nai through letters

By WANG XING / 05-11-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Renowned Chinese archaeologist Xia Nai

Xia Nai (1910–1985) was one of the founders of modern Chinese archaeology and a monument in the history of Chinese archaeology. The recently published Collection of Xia Nai’s Letters provides readers with more details of his academic life.

Ambition to establish scientific archaeology

Xia enrolled in the Department of Sociology at Yenching University, Beijing, in Sep 1930. One year later, he transferred to the Department of History at Tsinghua University. In Aug 1935, he left Shanghai for Britain to pursue further studies. 

Before leaving China, Xia was required to complete one year of courses and an internship, during which time he was mentored by the Chinese historian Fu Sinian and the archaeologist Li Ji, both appointed by Tsinghua University. On Oct 8, 1935, Xia wrote to Fu and Li [from Britain], expressing his intention to study technique and method-related subjects while gaining a broad overview of ancient societies. In the months following his arrival in London, Xia visited local museums, and observed that the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum had “made a lot of mistakes in dating” the Chinese artifacts. “Chinese archaeology is truly a fertile land left uncultivated. I only hope to be one of the gardeners in the future, pick up a hoe, and turn the barren soil into a garden,” Xia wrote. At that time, Xia initially expressed his longing to contribute to China’s archaeological efforts.

After due consideration, Xia decided to enroll at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London to study “Chinese Archaeology and Art History” under the guidance of Walter Perceval Yetts. However, he soon realized that he wasn’t gaining much from his studies. On April 11, 1936, he wrote to Mei Yiqi, the president of Tsinghua University, requesting an extension of his stay in the UK by one year and a transfer to the Department of Egyptology. He held the belief that his studies in the UK were intended to equip him with archaeological training and knowledge. Consequently, the bulk of his education upon arrival in the UK consisted of fieldwork skills. However, he “hasn’t got the time to learn how to sort out [the unearthed objects] after excavation and how to study collected specimens.” Xia also wrote that his next steps would be to learn how to work out the development process of various ancient objects according to their shapes and structures, and determine how to explore the traces of the mutual influence of adjoining cultures, verifying history with antiquities, so as to establish scientific archaeology. In his letter, Xia noted that all these research methods cannot be understood or mastered merely by listening to or learning theories without concrete objects and living examples. “Only then can the methods be used to collect and sort out Chinese antiquities after returning to China. Hence, in order to achieve this goal, I must have considerable knowledge of China’s history, religion, and writing first,” Xia wrote.

While in the UK, Xia continued to pay close attention to Chinese archaeology. On July 10, 1936, he wrote to his friend Li Guangyu, a member of the archaeological team at the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, inquiring about the latest excavations at the Chengziya site in Shandong, Yinxu site in Anyang, Henan, and Doujitai site in Baoji, Shaanxi. He also stressed that “a country that claims to have an ancient civilization must own a subject of archaeology,” “otherwise, foreigners who study Chinese archaeology have to read Japanese reports on the Lo-Lang sites [Lo-Lang is also known as the Lelang Commandery, a commandery established by the Han Dynasty in present-day Korean Peninsula in 108 BCE and lasted until 313 CE], Russian reports on Mongolia, and reports by the British, German, and French on Xinjiang sites. Isn’t that shameful?” “Please update me on any news you might have in [domestic] archaeology. Although I specialize in Egyptology now, Chinese archaeology will be my career pursuit after returning to China, and I must not be cut off from it.”

Laying foundation for modern Chinese archaeology 

On Oct 8, 1950, Xia led a team to Hui County, Henan Province, for the first archaeological excavation after the establishment of the Institute of Archaeology [re-set under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) when it was established in 1977] at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). On Oct 22, he wrote to Zheng Zhenduo and Liang Siyong, the director and deputy director of the institute respectively, emphasizing the need to expand their excavation to achieve considerable results. On Oct 25, Xia began to excavate a large tomb from the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) at Hui County, utilizing over 400 workers. “It might be one of the largest archaeological excavations in the Far East.” At the end of December, they reached the bottom of the Luli Ge chariot pit. Xia successfully obtained the entire shape of the ancient wooden chariots for the first time by injecting plaster into the voids left by decayed wood. This represented a landmark approach in field archaeology.

Xia’s 46 letters to K. C. Chang between 1974 and 1985 proposed many progressive research topics in archaeology. On April 5, 1978, he wrote to Chang to discuss “some common problems in many reports,” including “criteria and purposes of artifact classification,” and “typology systems.” He emphasized that the problem with some reports was that they were too fine when it came to a shi, or subdivision [that would end in each object occupying its own sub-category]. Xia believed that each subdivision should include objects of several similar shapes, and authors could publish different shapes, but each shape need not be named as a sub-category. He also noted that some characteristics [of cultural relics] were not essential, nor could they be used to restore ancient life or compared with artifacts from other sites and cultures, but can serve as chronicling criteria. These views were among Xia’s critical contributions to indoor archaeological research, despite differing significantly from some of his peers at that time.

Academic attitudes

Xia has been regarded as a walking encyclopedia. He maintained regular correspondence with scholars across various fields, not limited to archaeology. Xia was a pragmatic and truth-seeking scholar who was not afraid to point out flaws in the works of others. He wrote to Guo Moruo, the first president of the CAS, three times in 1953, 1962, and 1972, respectively, pointing out the errors in Guo’s three articles. In 1965, he wrote to Guo several times, providing archaeological materials related to the origin of Chinese writings. From Oct 1979 to Nov 1984, Xia corresponded with Tan Qixiang, a Chinese geographer, on multiple occasions to discuss the matter of the waters located between the southwest of the Taiwan Strait and the northeast of Hainan Island, and emphasized that academic prosperity requires vigorous debate and breaking down barriers. Although Xia and Tan “cannot persuade each other,” both “enjoyed the thrill of debate” and believed that their exploration of historical truth was “at least one step ahead.” 

From May 1983 to May 1984, Xia wrote to Luo Rongqu, a historian he had never met, pointing out imprecisions and even mistakes in his works on the Land of Fusang [A region or country recorded in ancient Chinese texts] and the discovery of the Americas. In Dec 1964, Xia wrote to the editorial department of the Ci Yuan dictionary at the Commercial Press, pointing out the inappropriate revision principles and formats of the first volume sample of the revised edition of Ci Yuan, as well as eight errors in content, involving astronomy, geography, and other domains of knowledge. 

In 1953, as the tomb of Zhou Chu, a general of the Western Jin Dynasty (265–317), was discovered at Yixing, Jiangsu, the question of whether Chinese people had been able to smelt aluminum in the Western Jin Dynasty soon attracted the attention of academia at home and abroad. Between Dec 1972 and May 1983, Xia corresponded with Ye Yonglie, a Chinese writer of science fiction and biographies, numerous times to stress the importance of objective and scientific analysis in order to prevent the spread of misinformation to the public. He stated that “if the Western Jin Dynasty did have the ability to smelt aluminum, strong evidence would be required to confirm it. I still insist on my original opinion that the small piece of aluminum found at the site, suspected to have been left by later generations, cannot be used as conclusive evidence.” Later, scientific testing results confirmed Xia’s view. Xia’s numerous similar letters insist that science means honest, solid knowledge, and one cannot just play around.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, Xia was awarded six honorary titles by the highest academic institutions of six countries, including being elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. On May 3, 1984, after being informed by the Foreign Affairs Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States that he had been elected as a foreign member of the academy, Xia received a letter of congratulations from K. C. Chang. On May 24, he replied to Chang, stating that he was aware of his limited knowledge and abilities and would strive to live up to people’s expectations in the future.  

Wang Xing is an associate professor from the Yuelu Academy at Hunan University.