Academic Freedom, Political Correctness, and Early Civilisation in Chinese Archaeology: The Debate on Xia-Erlitou Relations

By Liu, Li | Antiquity, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom, Political Correctness, and Early Civilisation in Chinese Archaeology: The Debate on Xia-Erlitou Relations


Liu, Li, Antiquity


Introduction

The interpretation of archaeology is inevitably affected by the social, cultural and intellectual background of researchers. This is certainly the situation in the study of early Chinese civilisations and their material remains, particularly in regard to the Erlitou culture in the middle Yellow River region in China (c. 1900-1500 BC). The spatial and temporal definitions of the Erlitou culture are partially coincident with those of the Xia dynasty as recorded in ancient texts. The type-site of Erlitou, in Yanshi, Henan province, has revealed much evidence indicating the development of a large and complex political centre there. But the historical or dynastic affiliation of the Erlitou site/culture has generated much debate among archaeologists and historians in recent years. A general tendency in the debate, as seen in publications, is that most Chinese archaeologists and historians believe that the Erlitou site represents the material culture of an early dynasty, Xia or Shang, while most scholars in the West have reservations regarding such interpretations (Liu & Chen 2003: 26-35; Liu 2004: 223-38; Liu & Xu 2007). The debate is not merely academic, but reflects broader social issues. In 2007 I conducted a survey of opinions held by scholars and students worldwide concerning relationships between the Erlitou culture and prehistoric dynastic regimes, particularly Xia. The survey's purpose was to understand why people develop different viewpoints--whether cultural, political, economic, intellectual, or a combination thereof--toward this particular issue.

The Xia-Erlitou relationship

For the majority of Chinese people, there is little doubt that Xia was the first dynasty in Chinese history. This popular view arises in part from the dramatic successes achieved in decipherment of oracle-bone inscriptions and in archaeological excavations at Xiaotun in Anyang, Henan, since the early twentieth century. Many names of kings found in the oracle-bone inscriptions unearthed from Xiaotun match the Shang royal genealogy recorded in Shiji, written by Sima Qian around the first century BC (Wang 1959). Archaeological investigations by Li Chi and many other archaeologists in Anyang during the past 80 years have also confirmed that locale as the late Shang city of Yinxu, which is recorded in ancient texts (Li 1977; Institute of Archaeology 1994, 2000, 2003). These achievements, revealing Shang as a true historical dynasty, greatly encouraged people's belief in ancient texts, particularly Shiji, which also gives a royal genealogy of the Xia dynasty (Wang 1994; Institute of Archaeology 2003: 21-3;). So it is inferred that Sima Qian must have had access to ancient documents which recorded the earliest dynasties of Xia and Shang, but were later lost in antiquity. In fact, few archaeologists or historians in China today express in publication any doubt regarding the existence of Xia, either as a dynasty or as a people.

The whereabouts of the Xia dynasty's material remains has been a major unsolved question since the early decades of modern archaeological research in China. In the 1950s Xu Xusheng and his colleagues conducted a survey project to search for the 'ruins of Xia' and discovered Erlitou in Yanshi; he suspected that the site belonged to a Shang capital (Xu 1959). Subsequent archaeological investigations further indicate that a coherent zone of material remains, similar to those at the Editou site proper and known as the Erlitou culture, is found across western Henan and southern Shanxi, a region which overlaps the territory of the Xia and Shang dynasties as recorded in ancient texts. Since then Chinese archaeologists have been engaged in extended discussion and debate, focusing on the ethnic and historical affiliations of the Erlitou site and Erlitou culture. Numerous opinions have been put forward, and viewpoints have changed through time as new data have become available (Du & Xu 2005, 2006). …

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