The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology provides a revolution in Chinese history

265 works discovered by Chinese archaeologists, mostly over the last twenty-five years, are on loan in an exhibition that shows why the textbooks have had to be rewritten.


The timing could not have been better. Just six weeks after the United States agreed to pay China $4.5 million in compensation for bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo campaign (killing three members of staff in the process), the National Gallery in Washington DC is playing host to a monumental exhibition celebrating the achievements of Chinese archaeologists over the last half century.

Five years in the making, the show opens two weeks before China marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. It is a tribute to Sino-American diplomacy and was helped along its way by senior staff at the Chinese embassy in Washington and the American embassy in Beijing. The catalogue is graced with forwards by the President of the People’s Republic, Jiang Zemin, and the American President, Bill Clinton.

Ping-pong politics aside, the exhibition presents 265 artefacts on loan from thirty-seven provincial museums and archaeological institutions throughout China. The works on view span 6,000 years and include jades, laquerware, silks, ceramics, objects in gold and silver and sculptures in terracotta, wood, stone, and bronze.

Most of the exhibits have been discovered in the course of the last twenty-five years as Chinese archaeologists began a systematic exploration of their country’s material past for the first time. Their discoveries have revolutionised our understanding of Chinese civilization.

According to Xiaoneng Yang, curator of Chinese art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and organiser of the exhibition, “modern field archaeology has come to be practiced in China only recently, starting in the early twentieth century. It is a young sibling if compared with Roman, Greek or Egyptian archaeology.”The first excavations began in the wake of the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1911. As Chinese intellectuals embraced Western scholarship, they flung open the doors to foreign scientists and archaeologists. American, English, French, German, Russian, and Swedish explorers began organising trips to China.

Many of them are chiefly remembered for what they removed. Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born citizen of Great Britain was responsible for taking more than 10,000 paintings, textiles, prints, manuscripts, and other objects from the Mogaoku Grottoes (the artefacts are now in the British Museum and the British Library in London and the National Museum, New Delhi). French, Japanese, American, and Russian explorers also acquired a large number of the remaining Mogaoku treasures.

Over the following seventy-five years Chinese archaeology eventually came to be a province of Chinese intellectuals. The discipline developed rapidly and became a State regulated enterprise with the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The ensuing boom in urban construction dictated most of the nation’s archaeological priorities. According to Dr Yang, this continues to be true today with the limited resources available being allocated to rescue digs before building works. It is primarily the building of the Three Gorges Dam that has alarmed beleaguered archaeologists. It is estimated that once it is completed in 2009, 1,300 unexcavated sites that lie on its course will be submerged. There is not enough time or money to document the sites that will be lost forever (The Art Newspaper, No.75, November 1997, pp.1;3). But, according to Dr Yang, the greatest threat to archaeology today is the existence of highly organised bands of armed smugglers who are willing to risk the mandatory death penalty for illicitly exporting cultural objects and selling them on the highly profitable black market. Another pressing problem is the potential lack of young Chinese archaeologists—“archaeology is hard work and low pay and does not attract many young students”, says Dr Yang—and the lack of museums with state of the art facilities to store and safeguard the multitude of artefacts that are coming to light.

Despite these problems, the discipline is racking up success after success. Until this century, China’s remote past was known mainly from historical narratives dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Today, the origins of Chinese civilization have been rewritten.

It had been long believed, for example, that Chinese civilization had originated in the Yellow River valley in the north of the country and spread from there to the rest of the country. Excavations over the past few decades have revealed that prehistoric societies also flourished along the Yangzi River to the South and at remote sites in far northeastern China, demonstrating that Chinese civilization developed from the gradual blending of several distinct cultures.

Other startling discoveries include the verification of vague references in the historical narratives to a “jade age” which scholars had dismissed as the stuff of legend. Excavations at some 300 sites associated with the Liangzhu culture (3300-2200BC) at the Yangzi river basin near modern Shanghai have yielded more than 3,000 carved jades, lending credence to ancient historians’ claims that a Jade Age preceded the Bronze Age.

Cristina Ruiz

o “The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology” is at the National Gallery, Washington 19 September-2 January 2000; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 13 February-7 May; the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco 17 June-11 September

o A painted marble relief of female musicians performing a concert, dating from 924AD. It was discovered in 1995 in the tomb of Wang Chuzhi. Ever since the Shang dynasty, the Chinese had considered the afterlife unthinkable without music. In the Bronze Age making music on majestic sets of bells was a solemn rite honouring ancestral spirits. This female orchestra playing for Wang Chuzhi’s eternal pleasure illustrates a fundamental change that occurred over the period covered by the exhibition: initially focused on religious ritual, Chinese art gradually embraced the secular realm to express worldly pleasures. Hebei Provincial Cultural Relics Institute, Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province

o Right, a bronze plaque inlaid with turquoise created by a prehistoric people (circa 1900-1500BC) that lived near Erlitou near the middle reaches of the Yellow River in northern central China. The first known bronze vessels were found at this site. Most archaeologists now identify this site with the Xia dynasty (2100-1600 BC), the earliest of the Three Dynasties, Xia, Shang, and Zhou, mentioned in ancient texts. Modern scholars had dismissed the Xia as the legendary invention of Zhou historians until the excavations at Erlitou provided strong evidence for their existence. The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing

o A bronze human head decorated with gold leaf and from the sixteenth to the eleventh century BC, is contemporary with the Bronze Age Shang dynasty. It was discovered in 1986 at Sanxingdui, a site in southwestern China on a tributary of the Yangzi river. Outside the walls of an ancient city, workers from a local brick factory found two large pits filled with sixty elephant tusks, more than fifty life-sized bronze heads, twenty bronze masks, gold and silver objects, ritual vessels, jades, and the only life-sized human bronze figure known from Bronze Age China. The bronze heads have several features in common: broad, slanted brows, almond-shaped eyes, a pronounced nose with cheeklines extending to each side, a tightly closed straight mouth, and squared ears with holes for earrings. No ancient texts identify with any certainty this previously unknown culture. The pits were not graves as they contain no trace of human skeletons. The fact that many of the objects had been burned before burial suggests that they could have been offerings to deities or ancestral spirits. The discovery revolutionised the traditionally held view that Chinese history was essentially a succession of dynastic rulers whose culture was the radiating source for the entire country. Excavations at sites outside the Shang sphere of influence reveal that Bronze Age civilization was more varied and complex than has been thought. Such finds show that the long held view of the south as a cultural backwater is no longer tenable. Sanxingdui Museum, Sanxingdui, Guanghan, Sichuan Province

o Below, detail of a jade hair ornament inlaid with turquoise associated with the Shandong Longshan Culture (2500-2000 BC) was excavated from a large, rectangular tomb in north central Shandong province in 1989. The object lay beside the head of a skeleton discovered encased in a wood coffin inside the tomb. It is not known whether this ornament was worn in life or made for burial. The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘A revolution in Chinese history'