A Settlement Pattern Study in Northeast China: Results and Potential Contributions of Western Theory and Methods to Chinese Archaeology

By Shelach, Gideon | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

A Settlement Pattern Study in Northeast China: Results and Potential Contributions of Western Theory and Methods to Chinese Archaeology


Shelach, Gideon, Antiquity


Chinese scholarship well illustrates how research attitudes direct the spirit of research, and the tenor of the archaeological story which results. What happens when non-Chinese theory, approaches and field methods are brought to bear in a Chinese regional study?

Data only become data in the context of specific theories... we do not see the world as if we were indiscriminate sensing devices; on the contrary, the ideas that we have and the problems in which we are interested direct our attention to particular 'facts' or data which some chain of argument (implicit or explicit) leads us to believe are relevant to our problem.

SHENNAN (1989: 2)

For the first time, after more than 40 years of exclusion, western archaeologists are allowed now to cooperate with their Chinese colleagues and conduct fieldwork in China. A few western archaeologists have already seized this new opportunity to set up cooperative projects at different locations in China.(1) As we stand on this threshold of a new era of archaeological research in China, we should ask ourselves a few fundamental questions: What can we contribute to Chinese archaeology? How can the differences in the theoretical approaches between Chinese and western-style archaeology be reconciled? And, what are productive ways of cooperation among Chinese and western archaeologists?

In this paper the general results of a regional survey I recently conducted in the Chifeng area of northeast China are presented. From those results, and from my field-work experience, I argue that western-style research can contribute to Chinese archaeology by significantly broadening its theoretical foundation. As suggested by Shennan in the above quotation, new theoretical approaches will surely advance new research questions and will lead to the recovery of types of data given little attention in the past.

Differences in emphasis and methods between Chinese and western-style archaeology are the direct outcome of their different theoretical foundation. Rather than being associated with anthropology as is commonly practised in the USA, archaeology in China is traditionally a sub-discipline of history (Falkenhausen 1993). As a result, Chinese archaeologists formulate research questions not commonly asked by their western colleagues, and select research methods appropriate to address more historiographical questions.

The main objectives of archaeological research in China are the illustration of historical events and the discovery of sites and artefacts mentioned in written sources. A reliance on historical documents, most of them written centuries if not millennia after the events, has far-reaching theoretical and methodological implications. From a theoretical perspective, accepting the traditional paradigm encouraged many scholars to portray the rise of social complexity in north China in unilinear evolutionary terms (An 1989; Chen 1989) with the Yellow River Basin as the source of social, political, economic and cultural change (Du 1991; Sun 1987; Sun 1989; Tong 1986; Zheng 1988). This traditional view holds that the Chinese 'core' first developed in the Yellow River Basin and then spread outward toward 'peripheral' areas by way of political expansion and cultural diffusion, sinicizing over the next two millennia those areas it came in contact with.

Methodologically, as noted by Falkenhausen (1993) and Olsen (1987), the adaptation of the historical paradigm by Chinese archaeology has meant research programmes focused on excavating individual sites and devising artefact typologies. Regional surveys are conducted mainly as a way of locating sites - preferably ancient capitals or cities mentioned in historical texts - where excavations can take place. While spatial distribution of artefacts (mainly ceramic types) serve to define archaeological 'cultures', regional studies of the kind common in the west are not conducted in China.

The Chifeng Regional Survey: theory and methodology

A research project which I have recently carried out in the Chifeng area of northeast China (Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] adapted a theoretical approach different from - but in many ways complementary to - that which guided previous research in this area (Shelach 1996). …

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