On the Historiographical Orientation of Chinese Archaeology

By Falkenhausen, Lothar Von | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

On the Historiographical Orientation of Chinese Archaeology


Falkenhausen, Lothar Von, Antiquity


This year, as it seems every year, news comes from China of another spectacular archaeological discovery. What is the framework of ideas and research that studies these treasures? And how does the special character of Chinese history, with its long, near-continuous record of dynasties, written sources and encyclopedic texts, give archaeology a different place, whether higher or lower, among the other historical and social sciences?

1

The object of the study of archaeology is just the material remains, including both relics as objects and relics as traces. For this reason it is different from history in the narrow sense, which uses written documentary records, Although both archaeology and history in the narrow sense have the restoration of the shape of human history as it was as their goal, and both are the two major components of the science of history (i.e. history in the broad sense) and are like the two wheels of a cart or the two wings of a bird so that neither is dispensable, nevertheless, the two are independent, albeit closely related, departments of the science of history.

(Xia 1990: 62-3)

When the eminent Chinese archaeologist Xia Nai (1910-1985) wrote this definition of archaeology at the end of his career, he must have been aware that his vision was not widely shared. Field archaeology as currently practised in Mainland China is, in fact, rarely kept methodologically separate from what Xia calls 'history in the narrow sense'. Nowhere else in the world is archaeology as closely enmeshed in a millennia-old living tradition of national history. The present essay will examine the reasons and consequences of this situation.(1) 2

Since its beginnings, historiography in China has been intimately linked to the exercise of power. Court annals and chronicles may have been kept since the beginning of dynastic states, traditionally set at c. 2200 BC. Two such annals survive today in redactions dating from the 1st millennium BC, the Chunqiu (Springs and Autumns Annals) of the state of Lu (only covering the years 721-468 BC) (translation: Legge 1872), and the Zhushu jinian (Bamboo Annals) of Wei, which reaches back to mythical times (translated in Legge 1868). By the middle of the 1st millennium BC, they had developed from mainly ritual schedules to records of historical events, which were consulted as a mirror of government. The official record-keepers were to judge the ritual correctness of a ruler's behaviour and to record any transgressions. While carrying political risk, this task also entailed a certain amount of power and autonomy, resulting in an increasing professionalization of the historian's craft. A body of moralizing commentarial literature grew around the ancient chronicles. Original documents of government action played a role in this emerging historical consciousness; allegedly it was Confucius who edited the Shangshu (Classic of documents), a collection of proclamations of ancient rulers, which were regarded as a source of moral-political wisdom (Legge 1868). After the foundation, in 221 BC, of the Chinese empire, official historiography became a state institution (Pulleyblank 1964; Beasley & Pulleyblank 1961). Early in the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), Sima Qian (c. 145-80 BC) compiled China's first universal history, the Shi ji (Records of the historian) (Chavannes 1895-1905). Extending the scope of his enquiry to what he regarded as the beginnings of civilization, Sima Qian constructed a historical narrative proceeding from mythical culture heroes and sage rulers to the three pre-Imperial dynasties -- the Xia (traditionally 2205-1767 BC), Shang (traditionally 1766-1123 BC) (a more likely time range for the Shang is c. 1600-1050; the historical existence of the Xia remains to be established, see below) and Zhou (1122 (traditionally)-249 BC) -- and down into the historian's own time.

Even though his account was based on original documents including the surviving annals from earlier states, Sima Qian was by his own admission unable to reconstruct an exact chronology of events previous to the year 841 BC.

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