Establishing the Chinese Archaeological School: Su Bingqi and Contemporary Chinese Archaeology

By Tao, Wang | Antiquity, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Establishing the Chinese Archaeological School: Su Bingqi and Contemporary Chinese Archaeology


Tao, Wang, Antiquity


Most of what is heard in the West of Chinese archaeology is about the physical stuff - the astonishing string of major finds; some, like soldiers from the Terracotta Army of the First Emperor's tumulus, have been exhibited outside China. All archaeological material is excavated, described and explained by reference to some frame of ideas. This essay on the thinking of a leading Chinese archaeologist of our day, Su Bingqi, is accompanied by an article of his in translation.

Contemporary Chinese archaeology has yet to be taken seriously as an academic subject in the West. Uniquely in the last few decades, Chinese archaeologists have been announcing spectacular discovery after spectacular discovery of the greatest significance: evidence for the possible origins of human existence, the earliest evidence of rice cultivation, royal tombs filled to the brim with elaborate bronzes, jades and countless other precious objects. Chinese archaeology is truly enjoying a 'Golden Age'. But, behind all the newspaper headlines and astonishing exhibitions, some questions cry out. How much do we really know about the archaeological thinking that influences the archaeologists and their work? What kind of interpretations are they giving to the new archaeological material? How do the Chinese archaeologists see themselves in the picture of world archaeology? This paper examines the archaeological thought of one of the leading Chinese archaeologists today, Su Bingqi.

Su Bingqi

Su was born in 1909 in Gaoyang county, Hebei Province. He studied history at Peking Normal University from 1928 to 1934, then joined the Institute of Historical Studies, Peking Academy, and participated in the excavations of the Doujitai site at Baoji, Shaanxi province from 1934 to 1937. The excavation report was completed in 1945, but was not published until 1948, after the end of the Second World War. He had also written a book on the pottery litripods from Doujitai in 1940, but the manuscript was lost during the war; the main contents of that study were included in the excavation report as a supplement, and the abridged version of the book was eventually published 40 years later (Su 1984: 91-136). It is probably the most ambitious and systematic project of pottery typology in modern Chinese archaeology and has been hailed as a great success (Yu & Zhang 1984).

Soon after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Su was employed as a research fellow at the Institute of Archaeology and has been working there ever since. The Institute was first set up in 1950, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and later became part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences established in 1977. Su is also one of the founders and leading teachers of the first university programme of archaeology at Peking University. A number of archaeologists in China today are his loyal former students and Su's influence is apparent in their working practice. In 1986, Su was elected as the President of the Association for Chinese Archaeology to succeed Xia Nai (1910-1985), the former Director of the Institute of Archaeology. He is held in high regard in China as the doyen of contemporary Chinese archaeology.

Su Bingqi's archaeological thought, in particular, his theory of the regional divisions and cultural series (quxi lilun) in the development of Chinese civilization, has influenced, indeed shaped, current archaeological trends in China (Su 1994: 236-51; Zhao 1993). This theory has caused great debate and has split Chinese archaeologists into factions. For instance, An Zhimin, also a prominent archaeologist in China, voiced his resentment towards the dominant role of Su's theory at the 3rd International Conference on Archaeology around the Bohai Sea, held in Shijiazhuang, August 1992 (An 1993). An understanding, and - more important - a thorough critical examination of this theory would help us to appreciate the present situation of archaeology in China, as well as issues that have persistently concerned many Chinese archaeologists over the last two decades, and it might help us to predict the future development of Chinese archaeology. …

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