The Chinese School of Archaeology

Article excerpt


In 1959, at a meeting reviewing the 'archaeological achievements of the past 10 years' in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the 'New China (1949-)', the leading archaeologist Yin Da (1906-1983), then director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), urged all the archaeologists in China "to cooperate fully, so that in the next three or five years, in the entire nation, we can build up a scientific and holistic system out of all cultural remains of all periods; that is to say, to build up a Marxist Chinese archaeological system" (Yin 1959: 123).

This call had two key words in it. One was 'Chinese'. Ever since the early twentieth century, growing nationalism had drum-beaten Chinese archaeologists to search for Chinese cultural origins (Liu & Chen 2001: 317). A particularly urgent matter for archaeologists of the 1950s was to dispel the notion of 'the western origin of Chinese culture' that was current among foreign and native archaeologists during the Nationalist Era (1911-1949). To achieve this goal, it was imperative to undertake archaeological investigation systematically so as to prove the autochthonous origins and undisrupted development of Chinese civilisations. The second word, 'Marxist', reflects a process of cutting the umbilical cord of the reborn archaeology of the 'New China' from the 'bourgeois archaeology' of the 'Old China' and swaddling the discipline with the mantle of Marxist theories and models.

Archaeology as a modern discipline came to China as a result of foreigners' exploration--partly research-oriented, partly treasure-oriented--in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Chen 1997: 42-49; Liu & Chen 2012: 5). As the Nationalist government curbed their activities from the late 1920s, native archaeologists, mostly western-trained, from a few isolated institutions (primarily the Cenozoic Research Laboratory of the Geological Survey of China, the Institute of History and Philology of Academic Sinica and the Society for Historical Studies of National Peking Academy), actively conducted research-oriented excavations at Anyang and other sites (Chen 1997: 185-204, 264-72). The political instability and economic feebleness of the time, however, restrained the discipline from desirable development. Although much progress was made in excavation techniques and typological analysis (Chen 1997: 227-50, 310-29), only a modest number of sites were excavated, and a small group of personnel trained (Xia 1954: 61-62; Chen 1997: 200, 274). Moreover, when the Communist Party took power in 1949, several major archaeologists followed the Nationalist regime to Taiwan, significantly curtailing the number of trained archaeologists left behind in mainland China.

The Marxist paradigm

The remaining archaeologists of the New China faced several challenges, not least how to adapt themselves to the changed political environment. Breaking ties with the West and creating bonds with the Soviet Union, the nascent Communist government modelled itself upon the latter to upgrade its science and education sectors (Pepper 1987: 197-203). Archaeologists, like other intellectuals mostly trained in Western universities and pro-West national universities, had little choice but to learn the 'advanced experiences (xianjin jingyan)' from their Soviet colleagues (Su 1984b [1950], 1984c [1953]; Xia 1952: 90; Zheng 1956: 15) through intense scholarly exchange and systematic translation of Soviet publications; as a result they revolutionised Chinese archaeological institutions, fieldwork methodology and interpretive paradigms (Zhang 2011).

A variety of publications, including textbooks, articles and course plans of Soviet archaeologists such as S.V. Kiselev (1905-1962), AV. Artsikhovskii (1902-1978) and AL. Mongait (1915-1974) inspired Chinese archaeologists to imbue the discipline with Marxist theories (Kiselev 1950: 5; Anonymous 1955; Artsikhovskh 1956; Avdushin 1956; Mongait 1963), and to provide the guidelines for the first Chinese archaeology textbooks in the 1950s. …