Archaeology sheds light on China’s national identity

By LIU QINGZHU / 11-05-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Forbidden City is in the heart of old Beijing due to the traditional belief that the seat of power must be situated in a central location. As the ceremonial center of imperial power, the Hall of Supreme Harmony is located at the central axis of Beijing. Photo: CFP

Archaeology is primarily concerned with doing research on material remains. In historical study, the scientific results obtained by archaeology through the research method known as “studying human behaviors by means of studying the artifacts” can be more easily understood and recognized by the public. In this way, China’s traditional culture can get a scientific and down-to-earth interpretation.
Importance of culture identity 
In my opinion, “zhonghua minzu” [Chinese nation] is not the concept of “minzu” [ethnic group] in the sense of ethnology. It has a connotation of “nationality” or “China,” a political concept based on people’s national identity. National identity reflects the cultural genes of “zhong” and “zhonghe” [the two concepts first appear in the Confucian classic Liji: “While there are no stirrings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy, the mind may be said to be in the state of zhong, or equilibrium. When those feelings have been stirred, and they act in their due degree, there ensues what may be called the state of he, or harmony. This equilibrium is the great root from which grow all the human actions in the world, and this harmony is the universal path which they all should pursue. Let the states of zhonghe, or equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish”].
Analyzed from the perspective of historical science, traditional Chinese culture does not belong to regional culture. It is also different from the historical culture of a specific era, dynasty, or other systems of government, and does not belong to a specific “ethnic culture.” Traditional Chinese culture is a culture of “Unity” from the “Plurality and Unity in the Configuration of the Chinese Nationality,” and is a national culture in essence. The nation guarantees its unity and the continuity of its history and culture through people’s recognition of the “national culture.” Among all cultural identities, national cultural identity is the most important and fundamental one.
Traditional Chinese culture is “metaphysical.” Through discovering, studying, and interpreting physical carriers of traditional Chinese culture, archaeology can make it “visible” and “tangible.” The archaeological research on traditional Chinese culture begins with the Chinese civilization that has remained unbroken for more than 5,000 years. The “civilization” here is relative to the previous “ignorant” and “barbaric” eras, which were “primitive societies” that couldn’t claim to be a state. It can be said that China’s unbroken civilization for more than 5,000 years is a continuous national history of China for over 5,000 years. 
This 5000-year unbroken civilization has experienced the periods of the Five Emperors [mythological rulers of China during the period from circa 3077 BCE to 2029 BCE]; the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties [from circa 21st century BCE to 256 BCE]; the Qin and Han dynasties [from 221 BCE to 220 CE]; the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties [from 220 to 589]; and the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties [from 618 to 1911]. The national rulers of different eras and different ethnic groups have adhered to the same idea of the national culture. It is the “national identity.” Such “national culture” based on “national identity” is the traditional Chinese culture.
The study of traditional Chinese culture from the archaeological perspective mainly takes the core elements of the formation of the state as the starting point. Such core elements are the “platform” of state governance—capital city, ritual architecture, and structure of emperors’ tombs that imitated that of the capital city and palaces. These physical carriers reflect the concepts of “zhong” and “zhonghe” in China’s political culture.
‘Occupying the center’
The ancient capitals were usually the political, military, cultural, and economic center of a state. Their archaeologically physical carriers mainly include the location of the capital (capitals should be built in the center of countries and palaces should occupy the center of cities), palace planning, the layout of individual buildings, and their unearthed artifacts. As for the palace planning, the main hall was usually located at the center of the imperial palace complex, further forward and higher than the surrounding buildings, with the ancestral temple of the ruling house to the left of the main hall while the temple to the god of the soil and harvests to the right. Occupying the “center” symbolizes authority, justice, and unity. The idea of “occupying the center” was an important political idea of state governance in ancient China.
The Erlitou Site at Yanshi District, which was most likely a capital of the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century–16th century BCE), the Yanshi Shang City Site, a capital of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century–11th century BCE), the Chengzhou City Site [a capital of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century–771 BCE)], and the Wangcheng City Site [a capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (c. 770–265 BCE)] are all located in present-day Henan Province. The Eastern Han (25–220), Northern Wei (386–534), Sui (581–618), Tang (618–907), and the [Northern] Song (960–1127) dynasties all established their capitals in the “Central Plain” [commonly refers to the lower and middle reaches of the Yellow River]. The Jurchen-led Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties moved their capitals to present-day Beijing. During his reign, Wanyan Liang (r. 1149–1161), the fourth emperor of the Jin Dynasty, moved the Jin capital to Yanjing [present-day Beijing] as he believed that “Yanjing is the center of Heaven and Earth.” Therefore, the Jin capital was also named Zhongdu (lit. “Central Capital”). This means that the specific location of “the center of Heaven and Earth” varies while its connotation has never changed.
The deepening concept of “zhonghe” is manifested in the design of capital cities and palace complexes—a properly designed capital should have gates facing the four cardinal directions; a properly designed imperial palace complex should be built at the center of the city, also with gates facing the four cardinal directions. Such design has been found from the urban planning and palace layout of Chang’an, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Zhongdu, and the capital of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. This is the evidence of the “he” from “zhonghe.” Among the archaeological discoveries of the abovementioned city ruins, the main halls were usually located at the center of the imperial palace complex, further forward and higher than the surrounding architecture, highlighting the central government’s supreme status as the representative of the nation. This is a theoretical guarantee of the “great unity” of the country and its 5000-year unbroken civilization.
National identity and inheritance
The concept of “zhonghe” presented in the layout of ancient capitals and palaces is viewed as part of traditional Chinese culture, because it has been recognized by all the ethnic groups in China over the 5,000 years of history. It has been proved by archaeological discoveries and historical documents. 
The Xianbei [proto-Mongolic ancient nomadic people that once resided in modern-day Mongolia and northeast China] headed south from Daxinganling [in northeast China] and established the Northern Wei Dynasty. After further development, they moved their capital to Luoyang, and adopted the layout of Han Dynasty Chang’an City and that of Luoyang City during the Han and Cao Wei (220–266) periods. It further deepened the idea of “zhonghe” in the construction of the capital city, created the “triple city format” [composed of the palace city where the ruling house was located, the inner city where government buildings were located, and the outer city which served as a space in which the various functions of the capital were coordinated], improved the “central axis” [buildings congregating along both sides of the east-west central axis of the inner city constitute a relatively centralized architectural complex for the central government] of the capital, and promoted the design of “que” gateways [the que is a freestanding, ceremonial gate tower used to form ceremonial gateways to tombs, palaces, and temples in ancient China] of the pre-Qin, Han, and Wei capitals. 
The archaeological discovery of the main gate of the palace city in Luoyang of the Northern Wei Dynasty—the layout of the Changhe Gate Site—had a profound influence on the gate design of successive dynasties. For example, the Meridian Gate in the Forbidden City inherited the layout of the Changhe Gate. The northern ethnic groups, including the Jurchen and Mongolians, ruled the Central Plain successively and established the Jin, Yuan, and Qing dynasties. They inherited the philosophy of “zhong” and “zhonghe” developed over thousands of years, which strengthened the national identity.
“Zhonghe” is also the “Plurality and Unity,” with “zhong” an equivalent of “Unity” and “he” an equivalent of “Plurality.” The “great unity” from the “zhong” and the tolerance and patience from the “he” become the genes of traditional Chinese culture.
Liu Qingzhu is a Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.