The Uses of the Past: Historians and Archeologists Dig Up Evidence to Support China's Growing Nationalism

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Historians and archeologists dig up evidence to support China's growing nationalism

EACH SPRING, Archeologist Zheng Guang selects a wheat field near Erlitou and digs toward the origin of Chinese civilization. Since the 1960s he has unearthed an imposing imperial palace, extravagant tombs laden with pottery and ornamental jade, clay irrigation pipes and the oldest ritual bronze vessels yet discovered in China, all just meters below this farming village in central Henan province. The relics, most experts concur, establish the site as the last capital of China's oldest dynasty, the Hsia, which reigned supreme for some 500 years until it collapsed in the 17th century B.C. And the dig has barely begun. "So far," Zheng says, "we've excavated less than 5 percent."

Until recently, ruins like Erlitou yielded museumsful of relics but little history. The Chinese Communist Party took charge of the past, insisting that ancient societies be portrayed as unjust, corrupt and reactionary. "You could describe the clay pot you found: how big, what color," says a retired archeologist. "But you were not permitted to challenge the working-class perspective." Today's historians don't wear such tight shackles, but they do serve political masters. In order to retain power, the party has begun to recast itself as a patriotic organization, and history is a tool of nationalism. "Love China, restore the Great Wall," declared Deng Xiaoping in a 1984 campaign to make the ruin a patriotic symbol. And on June 10, the party announced plans to build 100 "patriotic education" bases to teach Chinese about their "glorious civilization," its "shame and humiliation" at the hands of foreigners and the "struggle for national independence" led by Mao Zedong and his followers.

The most ambitious historical endeavor has been launched by the cabinet-level State Science and Technology Commission. Known as the "Project to Divide Hsia, Shang and Chou History," it seeks to tackle the complex problem of dating China's early dynasties. Currently the accepted written chronology goes back only to 841 B.C. Project organizers hope modem astronomy, carbon dating and even DNA mapping might extend that time line back to the dawn of the Xia empire.

In 1995 California-based researchers Chou Hung-hsiang, a linguistics professor at UCLA, and Kevin Pang, a planetary astronomer, who spent 20 years at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, used celestial mechanics to plot astronomical events recorded in ancient China. They cross-referenced 17 heavenly events mentioned in texts with real astronomical data, using a supercomputer programmed to work out the dates.

Their research, described in a forthcoming book, "21st Century Chinese Astronomy," claims to have confirmed an eclipse recorded in ancient texts at the very start of Chinese history. In one text, a philosopher named Mozi wrote: "The three Miao tribes were in disarray. Heaven ordered their destruction. The Sun rose at night." The Miao tribes lived in present-day Hunan province--exactly where the team's computer plotted a solar eclipse at sunset on Sept. 24, 1912, B.C. The eclipse, the researchers theorize, darkened the sky as the sun went down, and when it ended, there was a burst of light in the western sky--a false sunrise. …