A Tribute to Jia Lanpo (1908-2001)

By Olsen, John W. | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

A Tribute to Jia Lanpo (1908-2001)


Olsen, John W., Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


BORN DURING THE TWILIGHT YEARS OF CHINA'S LAST IMPERIAL DYNASTY, Jia Lanpo was known nearly universally to his Chinese-speaking colleagues and students as Jia Lao, a referent of supreme respect that may be translated roughly as Elder Jia. In the traditional Chinese worldview--still very much central to the ways in which ethnic Chinese reckon social relationships, irrespective of their national origins--one accumulates wisdom and, consequently, reverence with advancing years. In middle age, Jia Lanpo had become a scholar and mentor of such universal respect that the more common age-based honorific, Lao Jia (Older Jia), and the equally formal, though less adulatory, forms of address--Jia Jiaoshou (Professor Jia) and Jia Laoshi (Teacher Jia)--were no longer often used in reference to this truly extraordinary man. By the beginning of his tenth decade, Jia Lanpo was lauded for his scholarly accomplishments and leadership qualities by scores of Chinese and foreign scientists alike (e.g., Clark 2002:261-263; Wei 1999; Wen 1999).

Assessing the significance of Jia Lanpo's scientific research in China and its impact on global paleoanthropology is no simple task. As Dennis Etler has so correctly observed in his definitive obituary, Jia Lanpo "... was an indefatigable worker and meticulous scholar, the author of hundreds of scientific and popular articles, treatises, and books detailing archaeological discoveries in China spanning over six decades" (Etler 2002 : 297).

Understanding Jia and his contributions requires contextualization on several historical and social levels. Many Western scholars assume that Chinese academics of Jia's generation labored solely under restrictive intellectual paradigms ranging from virtual foreign domination in the years prior to 1949 to hard-line Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought during and immediately after the repressive decade known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In spite of the fact that the bulk of Jia's scholarly career played out during an isolationist period, when China had very little officially sanctioned scientific interchange with the Western world, the earliest and latest phases of his life were conspicuously influenced by regular and fruitful collaboration with a wide range of non-Chinese and non-Communist Bloc colleagues.

Like scholars everywhere, Jia Lanpo was in measure a product of his intellectual milieu, especially that of his formative years. The Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), the smallest of the many diverse research organs of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been characterized throughout its long history by relatively intensive collaborative ties with non-Chinese intellectual traditions, even during the bleakest years of the Cultural Revolution. The progressive intellectual environment nurtured at the IVPP made it possible for Jia and many of his colleagues to foster and maintain contact with non-Communist Bloc foreign colleagues while other institutions' research activities were severely constrained or even curtailed completely. To be sure, many IVPP scientists paid a hefty price for their openness--during the Cultural Revolution the great vertebrate paleontologist of the Dinosauria and then IVPP Director, Yang Zhongjian (C. C. Young), was ridiculed by being forced to wear a dunce cap in public, surrounded by posters proclaiming that Teilhard de Chardin was his father! Nonetheless, the atmosphere of openness and intellectual cross-fertilization characteristic of the IVPP survived Red Guard hysteria to become inculcated in the generations of paleontologists and paleoanthropologists who succeeded the Cultural Revolution.

As China began tentatively to implement its Open Door Policy, in the late 1970s, it became known among the global scholarly community that Jia Lanpo had for decades been soi-disant conservator of the Zhoukoudian archives, a rich collection of original excavation notes, correspondence, and thousands of photographs and negatives.

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