The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China

The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China

The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China

The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China

Synopsis

In the 1920s an international team of scientists and miners unearthed the richest evidence of human evolution the world had ever seen: Peking Man. After the communist revolution of 1949, Peking Man became a prominent figure in the movement to bring science to the people. In a new state with twin goals of crushing "superstition" and establishing a socialist society, the story of human evolution was the first lesson in Marxist philosophy offered to the masses. At the same time, even Mao's populist commitment to mass participation in science failed to account for the power of popular culture- represented most strikingly in legends about the Bigfoot-like Wild Man- to reshape ideas about human nature. The People's Peking Manis a skilled social history of twentieth-century Chinese paleoanthropology and a compelling cultural- and at times comparative- history of assumptions and debates about what it means to be human. By focusing on issues that push against the boundaries of science and politics,The People's Peking Manoffers an innovative approach to modern Chinese history and the history of science.

Excerpt

Beginning in 1918, scientists exploring a mining town near Běijīng followed local legends through a lair of fox spirits and a trove of dragon bones to emerge in the late 1920s with the richest evidence of human evolution the world had ever seen: Peking Man. They began in an excavated crater of a limestone quarry where one pillar of clay filled with bird bones remained standing. According to local informants, the area had once been the home of foxes with an insatiable appetite for neighborhood chickens. Over time, the foxes became evil spirits, and one poor soul who interfered with them succeeded only in losing his own mind. Foreign scientists were not afraid of fox spirits but recognized the power such legends held as clues in the investigation of natural history.

“Chicken Bone Hill” did not turn up anything very interesting, but while they were excavating there one day a local man brought news of a more promising sort. “There's no use staying here any longer,” he told them. “Not far from here there is a place where you can collect much larger and better dragons' bones.” The scientists had heard of dragon bones before—in their lexicon, these were “fossils.” Chinese herbalists had long recognized their medicinal value, and apothecaries paid good money to the farmers and miners who knew where to find them. Adapting this

1. J. Gunnar Andersson, Children of the Yellow Earth (London: Kegan Paul, 1934),
96. Fox spirits are very common in Chinese folklore. They are typically pranksters
and shape-shifters and often seek sex, food, or other favors from humans. Robert
Ford Campany, Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1996), 254, 361, 389.

2. Students of Chinese history may be more familiar with dragon bones as

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