Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Time in Archaeological Thought: China
and the West

Synnøve Vinsrygg

Summary This comparative study questions some of the basic ideas and values that were present at archaeology's birth, and examines some of the social conditions under which it could sprout. Archaeology developed independently in two parts of the world, in China and in northern Europe. In spite of an impressive and propitious head start, Chinese archaeology proved rather stagnant till the new impetus through confluence with European traditions came after 1920. The main focus of the paper is archaeology in Sung China as compared to its European counterpart in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The discussion is centered on the following ideas, considered crucial in relation to the concept of time: the three-age system, evolutionism, time depth, the experimental method, and archaeology and society.

The similarities between Chinese and European archaeology are actually more striking than the differences. The Chinese were well aware that human affairs could follow a linear, irreversible pattern, but the reliable predictability intrinsic to change, perceived as cyclic, proved equally important for making sense of archaeological data. In Europe the importance given to the linear, progressive time concept, combined with the theory of causality, created a reductionist approach that prepared the way for Western experimental method, so decisive for advances in modern archaeology. Archaeology also profited from its close links with geology, zoology, and other sciences.

Different uses of the concept of time may account for the Chinese readiness to bridge the time gap between people of different epochs, whereas the Europeans concentrated on exposing the same time gap to the gaze of research.


Introduction

As far back as we can see in the evolving story of human communities, people have formulated ideas of the past to explain how they became what they considered themselves to be, thus finding justification for their present and their future. This, I believe, is the worldwide beginning of archaeology, as it is of history. These ideas came to be structured in different manners, constituting important elements in myth and religion, following long and winding paths, before entering what we today call modern history and archaeology.

Archaeology developed independently in two parts of the world, in China and in northern Europe. An examination of the series of events that led to the creation of archaeology in China ought to be relevant to Western interests, not only because such study offers historical information from a remarkable country, but also because it involves a topic of the broadest intellectual concern when it comes to questioning the basic ideas and values that presided at the discipline's birth. What we find puts our methods of dealing with the

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