Building the Chronology of Early Chinese History

By Lee, Yun Kuen | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Building the Chronology of Early Chinese History


Lee, Yun Kuen, Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


IN THE STUDY OF THE PAST, CHRONOLOGY is one of the most important questions to learned individuals as well as to the general public. "How old is it?" is a legitimate question that every curious individual would ask about the past. When the answer is related to the age of an early culture, particularly to that past culture being regarded as the heritage of a specific human group, it might evoke sentiment from the audience. For historians and archaeologists, the answer to the question would have implications on the rate of change and evolution. China is one of the few pristine civilizations in the entire world. Firm dates of early Chinese civilization would, to a certain extent, facilitate the comparison between the processes of Chinese civilization and the other civilizations of the world. Nevertheless, the dates of early Chinese civilization have been debated for more than two millennia with no agreement.

The Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project was designed to build a credible chronology of early China for the general public and the academic community starting from the first dynasty. The project was commissioned by the Chinese government in 1996. It employed a multidisciplinary group of 200 specialists in history, astronomy, archaeology, and radiocarbon dating who collaborated to solve the chronological puzzle of early Chinese history. After four and a half years of intense work, a new chronological table of early China, starting from 2070 B.C., was disseminated in November 2000. The project immediately drew criticism from the news media (Eckholm 2000; Gilley and Zhou 2000) and circles of early Chinese studies experts in the Western world. This paper has two goals: to demonstrate how the project integrated different provenances of knowledge for the study of absolute dates; and to discuss the main debates around the project. These issues have general applicability to the study of other early civilizations.

One of the major criticisms of the project is that it was clearly motivated by a new wave of nationalism in China. However, study of the past has an intrinsic relationship with contemporary politics all over the world. Nationalistic-inspired studies of the past are not necessarily biased. I cannot find any indication that the chronology project ever tried to push back the dates of early Chinese civilization; all of the proposed dates have some reasonable supporting evidence, although the evidence is not always strong.

A more controversial issue is that the chronology project reinforces the notion that archaeology is a tool of historiography. The agenda of archaeology in China is set by history; and archaeological work that can answer historical questions is privileged. Archaeology in China does not have an independent epistemology that suits its unique characteristics. Thus, archaeological reconstruction of the past is based on a vision derived from history. The chronology project preserves the unilinear historical perspective of early China emanating from the documentary record, regardless that recent archaeology has indicated a more complex and multilinear developmental trajectory.

Another area of controversy is the compatibility of historical and archaeological dates. Historical and archaeological dates are two completely different types of knowledge. Historical dates extracted from documentary records often contain exact notations of time. On the contrary, archaeological dates are at best close approximations of time. To be more specific, all of the absolute dating methods used in archaeology are statistical estimations coded with margins of error of at least a few to hundreds and thousands of years. How to fuse the archaeological dates with historical dates is a challenge to all chronological studies of early civilization. The recent innovations in radiometric dating technology, coupled with creative strategies, enabled the chronology project to make some significant achievements in this area. …

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