Wang Binghua: digging for history in Xinjiang

By ZHANG WEI / 11-26-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The brocade armband embroidered with the words “Five Stars Rising in the East Favor the Middle Kingdom” unearthed from Xinjiang Photo: CFP

The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is located in northwest China, covering approximately one-sixth of China’s land area. Since ancient times, it has been an indispensible pivot along the Silk Road, and served as an important bridge for the cultural, political, and economic exchanges between the East and the West on the Eurasian continent. 

Its unique geographical environment, climate, and culture make Xinjiang a treasure trove of archaeology. Though being one of the harshest places for archaeological studies, Xinjiang has kindled the imagination and passions of archaeologists throughout time.
Way to archaeology
The Institute of Archaeology at the Xinjiang Branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) was established in 1958. At that time, both the government and academia were aware of the importance and cultural value of archaeological studies in Xinjiang. However, many specific tasks couldn’t be carried out due to the lack of professionals. 
In 1960, Wang Binghua, a student from Peking University, decided to work at the Institute of Archaeology at CAS’s Xinjiang Branch. “Xinjiang is quiet. It suits me well. It’s a place where I can do research in peace. There is also a lot of room for archaeological development in Xinjiang, and I might find something there,” Wang said.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeological work in Xinjiang was faced with challenges from complicated domestic and international circumstances—the Western powers had wantonly plundered while Chinese scholars had just started to explore in the field of archaeology with great difficulty. It was after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that archaeology in Xinjiang was established as a discipline and began to flourish. 
Meng Xianshi, a professor from the College of History at Renmin University of China, commented that archaeology in Xinjiang provides the most authoritative information for interpreting the history of this region, as well as precious first-hand information for exploring the history of the Central Plain and the Silk Road. 
“Wang Binghua rushed to Xinjiang after graduating from Peking University with a major in archaeology, and worked at the forefront for 40 years. He is one of the first generation of archaeologists who worked in Xinjiang after the founding of the PRC. He has been to all the archaeological sites in Xinjiang,” Meng said.
Ancient civilizations in Xinjiang
Xinjiang has been inhabited by various ethnic groups. Extant archaeological evidence shows that at least since the Bronze Age, ancient people from West and East have crossed mountains and the Gobi Desert, leaving traces of their cultures in Xinjiang. From the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) to the Tang (618–907) dynasties, a period when the Silk Road thrived, envoys, merchants, and monks from East and West brought products, languages, arts, and religions from all over Eurasia. Various civilizations blended here and made Xinjiang an aggregation of civilizations.
Western explorers started treasure hunting in Xinjiang as early as the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century. Explorers such as Marc Aurel Stein from Britain, Paul Pelliot from France, Albert von Le Coq from Germany, Ōtani Kōzui from Japan, and others from Russia and the United States flooded into Xinjiang, excavated, and took away a large number of priceless cultural relics. A large number of precious cultural relics caused a sensation in the West. However, at that time China suffered from frequent wars and its national strength was weak, and Chinese scholars were absent from archaeological work and exploration in Xinjiang. It was not until 1927–1935 that the Chinese archaeologist Huang Wenbi had the opportunity to go to Xinjiang to conduct archaeological surveys and excavations by participating in the Chinese-Swedish expedition, and became a pioneer in Xinjiang archaeology.
In 1976, the portion of the southern Xinjiang railway crossing a gorge in the Tianshan Mountains was under construction, and many cultural relics were discovered along the way. When the news reached Urumqi [the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region], Wang immediately decided to go to Alagou. Alagou is located in the southern part of the Tianshan Mountains. It used to be the “Tianshan Route” of the ancient Silk Road, which was very precipitous.
When the Silk Road was opened in the Han Dynasty, Loulan was an important stop along the ancient route. However, this ancient oasis city declined after the 4th century for some reason, and finally disappeared. In 1979, China’s CCTV cooperated with Japan’s NHK to create a documentary series called “Silk Road.” The news that the film crew had the opportunity to enter the Loulan area spread like a wildfire, attracting many non-academic people from Europe and America to this area. 
In 1900, the Swedish explorer Sven Anders Hedin had discovered the ruins of ancient Loulan. More than half a century later, the Loulan site was back in the spotlight—it was the first time that Chinese archaeologists entered this area, and the team was led by Wang Binghua.
At the end of 1979, Wang Binghua led an archaeological team into the Kongque River valley in the northwest of Lop Nor for an investigation. They discovered the Gumugou cemetery based on the instructions of the officers and soldiers from the Malan Base. It was in the Kongque River valley that the world-famous “Loulan Beauty” [an extremely well-preserved mummy dated back to approximately 3,800 years ago] was discovered. Research shows that the human skulls found in the Gumugou cemetery have obvious European characteristics. The inhabitants of the Gumugou culture were known at the time as “the earliest and most easterly-inhabited type of ancient Europeans on the Eurasian continent.” Lop Nor was an important channel for communication between East Asia, Western Asia, and the European continent. Migration of ethnic groups left traces in this region. 
Academia realized that the excavations of the Gumugou cemetery overthrew the previous simple understanding of connecting all the cultural relics from Lop Nor with Han-Dynasty Loulan, and proved that human beings had been in Lop Nor even earlier. The further discoveries of Loulan are undoubtedly one of the most important achievements in the history of Xinjiang archaeology.
Discovery of Jingjue
The oases in the Tarim Basin used to serve as important post stations along the ancient Silk Road, breeding brilliant ancient civilizations. However, many ancient ruins dated from the Han to the Tang dynasties were lost, buried in the Taklamakan Desert due to environmental changes. With the improvement of environmental and economic conditions, Wang was finally able to enter the region where only Western explorers had previously set foot. A series of ruins, such as Niya, Dandan Oilik, and Karadong, are no longer just images appearing in Western explorers’ archaeological reports.
The Niya site is located deep in the desert north of Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang. It is where Jingjue, an independent oasis state during the Han Dynasty, was located. In the 1980s, the exploitation of the Tazhong Oilfield [lit. Middle-Taklamakan-Desert Oilfield] brought about a comprehensive survey of the Taklamakan Desert. Wang participated in the survey, which became an important opportunity for him to conduct desert archaeology. 
In 1995, when leading an expedition in the desert, Wang accidentally discovered a part of a coffin made from Euphrates poplar, which led to the discovery of Niya Cemetery No. 1. The cemetery was well preserved. The burial artifacts unearthed from a tomb named M3 are extraordinarily delicate. A brocade armband embroidered with the words “Five Stars Rising in the East Favor the Middle Kingdom” [the Middle Kingdom refers here to China] was found on a corpse in this tomb. This brocade is decorated with gorgeous patterns and bright colors. It is designated a national treasure. The unearthed relics reflect that the Silk Road was unobstructed at that time, trade and exchanges along the route were thriving, and envoys from the Central Plain could reach oasis city-states without difficulty. A further analysis reveals that in the process of governing the Western Regions, the Han Empire applied different policies to different city-states. Wang published his paper “Excavation of Jingjue King’s Tomb” in 2007, recording this excavation and his achievements in detail.
“Never too old to work”
Wang retired in 2000, but he continued his dedication to Xinjiang archaeology in another way—writing and teaching. 
Wang published his Xiyu Kaogu Lishi Lunji (Collection of Archaeological History of Western Regions) in 2008. This work includes the latest archaeological excavations and incorporates various Chinese and foreign archives. It covers the geography, agriculture, cotton fabrics, corpses, bronzeware, jade articles, and rock paintings featuring fertility worship in the Western Regions, as well as the historical changes of Taklamakan desert towns. The book also presents a large number of important ancient ruins and precious cultural relics, providing vivid materials for the study of the Western Regions. Silu Kaogu Liangti (Two Archaeological Issues of the Silk Road) published in 2010 shows Wang’s contribution to the study of the Silk Road from the perspective of Xinjiang archaeology, as well as his new findings on the Julu Zicang site [in present-day Ruoqiang County in Xinjiang] of the Western Han Dynasty.
Wang has dedicated himself to archaeological study in Xinjiang, but he still has many regrets about his academic career. He wants to write a book about the investigations and discoveries in Xinjiang over the past few decades. He wants to further investigate Daxia and Tokhara, and look into the relationship between them. Moreover, he wants to get in touch with the British Museum and integrate his ideas on Xinjiang archaeology with Marc Aurel Stein’s discoveries, so as to realize a major advancement in archaeological research in Xinjiang. “A lot of requirements need to be met to complete this task, such as policy, funding, time, and talent. I’m old, and I don’t know how much I can do,” Wang said. His words and hope are quite simple, filled with his great expectations for Xinjiang archaeology and tracing ancient civilizations.