Exploring Chinese History
- Archaeology -

Published Articles

These articles are from Archaeology Magazine.




Archaeology Magazine, Volume 52 Number 2 March/April 1999

Only after the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 did large-scale excavations begin in China, research that has proved so fruitful that the second half of the twentieth century may be remembered by Chinese archaeologists as a golden age. This unprecedented efflorescence has been brought about largely by the enormous scale of industrial development, leading to the discovery of ancient sites. Also crucial is state support, forthcoming because discoveries are seen as confirming the Marxist interpretation of history, in which societies defined by class struggle are viewed as evolving toward communism. Such discoveries also foster a sense of nationalism and cultural pride.

Traditional Confucian principles stress the importance of precedent and universal truths articulated by sages of the past, so a deep interest in antiquity has always pervaded China. But this past was seen to consist of heroes and wise kings such as the mythic Yellow Emperor, who led the Chinese from savagery to civilization. As early as the first and second centuries CE, one finds accounts of a historical transition from a stone age throught successive jade, bronze, and iron ages, but this sequence was speculation based on legend, not historical investigation. Antiquarian interest emerged in the Song Dynasty (CE 960-1279) but was largely limited to collecting and publishing ancient bronze vessels and ink rubbings of inscriptions on bronze and stone, reflecting an interest in epigraphy that has continued to the present.

Westerners introduced modern techniques of prehistoric archaeology to China. One early example was J.G. Andersson, a Swede working for the Chinese Geological Survey in the 1920s, who led the team that discovered Peking Man (Homo erectus) at Zhoukoudian, southwest of Beijing, and the Neolithic site at Yangshao, in Shanxi. Western-trained Chinese soon took up the task. A series of fortuitous discoveries of writing on bone, used in divinations, led to large-scale excavations at Anyang, a capital of the Shang Dynasty, sponsored by Academia Sinica, a national research institute in Taipei, Taiwan, and directed by the Harvard-trained Li Chi and others between 1928 and 1937. Wartime conditions led to a hiatus in archaeological activity, which was not resumed in a systematic way until 1949.

China has a vast written record extending far into the past. It has been estimated that a translation only of official histories, compiled from the second century BCE on, would fill 400 volumes of 500 pages each. There is in addition an enormous body of classical literature, non-standard historical works, philosophy, and so forth, which sheds light on still earlier periods. But while the written materials have provided tremendous insight, little was known about how the ancients lived, and almost nothing was known about the prehistoric period beyond legend. Recent discoveries allow us for the first time to place people in their own temporal contexts, to know how a person of the Han Dynasty differed from one of the Tang.

Despite the limitations of the Marxist interpretation of history, archaeological discoveries of the past 50 years have had a significant impact on the way in which the past is viewed in China. After a long-standing insistence that the Yellow River basin was the birthplace of Chinese civilization, the archaeological establishment is recognizing, rather grudgingly, that ancient remains found on the peripheries of China may represent independently evolved cultures.

ALBERT E. DIEN is emeritus professor of Asian languages at Stanford University. He is completing a book, Six Dynasties Civilization, to be published by Yale University Press as part of their Early Chinese Civilizations series.

Archaeology Magazine



Archaeology Magazine, May 11, 2000

The Chinese government last week spent millions at auction buying back treasures looted from Beijing's Summer Palace by British and French troops 140 years ago. The purchase took place after the Chinese State Relics Bureau wrote letters to Sotheby's and Christie's Hong Kong protesting the sales. Both houses allowed their sales to proceed and the China Poly Group Corp, a Beijing-based state-owned corporation, stepped in to win bids on three of the four contested objects--bronze animal heads that once decorated a Zodiac fountain at the Summer Palace.

The Poly Group, which until last year was owned by the People's Liberation Army and was known as an arms dealer, has more recently opened a small museum in the capital dedicated to ancient bronzes. The animal heads, which the Poly Group bought for $4 million, will soon be displayed there. The Old Summer Palace was built in the seventeenth and eighteenth century by Qing emperors, who used it as a summer retreat. The vast estate, composed of traditional buildings decorated with China's finest arts, was ransacked and burnt to the ground by colonial powers forcing China to accept the opium trade. Known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness, the Old Summer Palace and the story of of its ignominious fate is well known throughout the country and remains a sore spot today. Sotheby's Hong Kong has over the past 27 years of its operation has reportedly sold other relics from the Old Summer Palace without objections from Chinese authorities.

"China's priority has been technology, not cultural heritage," says Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, a New York art historian who has chronicled the destruction of antiquities during the Three Gorges Dam project along the Yangtze River. "Too many antiquities have left, and there's been too much corruption. Now it's coming back to slap them [the government] in the face."

He Shuzhong of Cultural Heritage Watch, a mainland China-based lobbying group that reported on the auction, says China's experience buying back national treasures presents "a very, very good chance to improve the laws" preventing the export of antiquities from the mainland. Childs-Johnson likewise predicts changes that will tighten Chinese antiquities legislation. If such changes are not forthcoming, further purchases at auction may be expected.



Archaeology Magazine, May 14, 1998

An unprecedented rash of looting is following in the wake of construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the middle reaches of China's Yangtze River. The dam is the largest hydroelectric project ever undertaken; 13 cities, 140 towns, more than 1,600 villages, and 300 factories will be submerged, and nearly 1.5 million people relocated. Salvage archaeology in the region has been impoverished; the initial budget of nearly two billion yuan ($250 million) for excavation and preservation was reduced to 300 million ($37.5 million), and only a small amount of that sum has been distributed to local authorities because government officials have been unable to decide which agency should administer the funds. Full articles documenting the Yangtze looting crisis are located on the International Rivers Network website. Capsule summaries follow.

A four-foot bronze candelabrum dating to the Han Dynasty (first-third century CE) that sold for $2.5 million at the International Asian Art Fair in New York in late March may have been illegally excavated and smuggled from the city of Baidicheng in Fengjie county, according to Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, an art historian affiliated with New York University. The sum paid to Brussels dealer Gisèle Croës was the highest ever paid for a Chinese antiquity. The candelabrum is called both a yaoqian shu, "money tree," and a shen shu, "spirit tree," and only two other intact examples are known to exist in China. Childs-Johnson calls the money-tree an "exceptional work of art" and says it is of national importance. If looted and smuggled, she says "China's loss of this piece is a travesty." Alerted of the sale last week, Yu Weichao, Director of Conservation of Cultural Relics in the Three Gorges area, is investigating the source of the candelabrum.

One of China's premier Buddhist cave sites, Dazu has repeatedly been the target of thieves.

A Chongqing court sentenced seven people to one to 15 years in jail for ransacking the Buddhist Cave Temple site of Dazu in Sichuan Province. Dazu encompasses 44 grottoes carved with Buddha images between the ninth and fourteenth centuries CE and is among the greatest of China's cave sculpture sites. Five times the thieves targeted one of the caves, Baoding, making away with a clay statue of a seated Guanyin (goddess of compassion) dating to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They also sawed off two heads of luohan, a Buddhist saint, and those of two attendants.

Looting is epidemic in Wushan and Fengjie counties, Sichuan, where scientific excavations in advance of the dam project have been thwarted by a lack of funds. Flush with money from sales of pillaged artifacts, looters are reported to carry high-frequency radios, cellular phones, and prospecting equipment. Burial grounds in both counties are known to have been dynamited to make way for construction projects. One thousand tombs dating between the Han and Ming periods (206 BCE to CE 1644) were blasted away to make way for a new country seat in Baotaping, Fengjie. Peasants scavenging for artifacts exposed by the dynamiting and bulldozers assaulted Fengjie cultural relics officials who attempted to stop them. Another thousand tombs are estimated to have been destroyed at another construction site in Ziyangcheng, Fengjie.



Archaeology Magazine, Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000

The ancient fossil site of Renzidong (Renzi Cave) in Anhui Province, eastern China, is yielding animal bones and possible stone tools showing that Homo erectus may have established itself here 2.25 million years ago, more than 400,000 years earlier than previously thought. Renzidong appears to be the oldest among a growing number of sites suggesting great antiquity for hominins (humans and close ancestors) in East Asia. The site, a large fissure, is also fueling a debate on the origins of our genus Homo, with some Chinese scientists proposing an evolution ofH. erectus in China parallel to that already observed in Africa.

Renzidong was discovered in a Fangshang County cliff face as workers were quarrying surrounding limestone. Digging for two years now, excavation leader Jin Changzhu of Beijing's Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and Han Ligang and Zheng Longting of Hefei, Anhui Province, have found some 3,000 bones of animals that had fallen into the fissure. Among nearly 60 species represented, the elephant-like Sinomastodon, an ancient tapir, and the monkey Procynocephalus show that Renzidong was open briefly between 2.5 and 2 million years ago.

But the most exciting evidence is archaeological: about 50 stones and bones fractured to make flakes and scrapers. Early hominins apparently descended into the fissure to butcher the animals that fell in. The problem is that their technology in East Asia was simple; archaeologists frequently have trouble distinguishing real knapped tools from similar objects splintered by natural forces. Moreover, fissure infills never preserve the kind of evidence of habitation we know so well from contemporary sites in East Africa, such as at Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. But the 1999 campaign began to show something different. The skeletons of a mastodon and a tapir, both victims of falls, were found together in the dig's lower levels. The mastodon bones lie piled along one wall, while the tapir remains seem to have been laid out for butchering; tools were found scattered about. Under this stratum there appears to be a level of Procynocephalus skeletons. This primate, like H. erectus, preferred open environments. Fossils of H. erectus and similar monkeys are often found together at Asian and East African sites.

Renzidong is comparable to a half dozen other sites in China dating (more or less convincingly) to between 1.8 million and 800,000 years ago. A limestone cave site not far from Renzidong lies at the center of the East-West debate over the origins of Homo. A few score stone tools and Pliocene (5-1.8 million years ago) mammal bones were found at Longgupo ("Dragon Hill") in Wushan County, eastern Sichuan Province (see "The First Asians," January/February 1996). Our own geochronological studies suggest the infill is nearly 2 million years old. Longgupo has produced tantalizing fossils of Procynocephalus and Homo, the latter including a jaw fragment with two very worn molars. For some Western scientists, the teeth share features with earliest Homo in East Africa--leading us to suggest a direct link, a "dispersal" of African hominins to East Asia about 2 million years ago. But Chinese paleoanthropologists tend to see these same primitive features as deriving from Asian apes and suggest a local Asian origin for H. erectus. Renzidong supplies this "Asian hypothesis" with tools as old as any fashioned by H. erectus in Africa, but most Western scholars favor an early dispersal of Homo out of Africa into Asia, few would support an Asian origin of the genus Homo. The Pliocene record of hominins in Africa preceding Homo is extensive, while such a record has yet to be unearthed in Asia.

Both sides of the culturally charged hominin-emergence debate point to the effect of plate tectonics in climate change. Between 9 and 4 million years ago, the convergence of the Indian and Eurasian continental plates gave rise to the Tibet Plateau, which caused the climates from East Africa to East Asia to become more seasonal and arid. Western scientists believe that these events triggered forest-dwelling apes in equatorial Africa to beget open-dwelling hominins. But Chinese scientists use the tectonic evidence to suggest a parallel hominin emergence in East Asia. In their view, a ten-million-year-old forest ape was the putative ancestor of H. erectus, orangutans, and the extinct Gigantopithecus, the largest ape that ever lived. With Longgupo's primitive teeth and Renzidong's ancient stone tools, the Asian hypothesis is gaining (mostly Chinese) converts.

Whether one favors African or Asian origins, early hominins were ferociously migratory, and this led to the worldwide diaspora of our species, H. sapiens. Early humans repeatedly passed between Africa and Asia, and their movements correspond to those of other large mammals, including carnivores--early Homo and the dagger-toothed cat Megantereon, the remains of which have been found at Renzidong, could have been such traveling companions.

Are the Renzidong tools real? Do the half dozen other Chinese sites reveal the earliest colony of dispersing African hominins--or do they constitute the heartland of the genus Homo? While the Chinese sites pose interpretive problems, the Asian hypothesis for the origin of Homo has energized Chinese scientists and loosed important funding from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other Beijing-based government agencies.

RUSSELL CIOCHON and ROY LARICK of the University of Iowa have authored a book about early dispersals of Homo erectus for Oxford University Press.



Archaeology Magazine, Volume 50 Number 6 November/December 1997

In December 1929 a sell-out crowd gathered at the Lowell Institute in Boston to hear Sir Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-born linguist and archaeologist-explorer, tell of his adventures on the ancient Silk Road. Sir Leonard Woolley, the discoverer of the Royal Cemetery at Ur in Mesopotamia, had called Stein's forays "the most daring and adventurous raid upon the ancient world that any archaeologist had attempted." Stein's three expeditions over freezing 18,000-foot Himalayan passes and across the scorching deserts of Chinese Turkestan, tracing ancient caravan routes while documenting the spread of Buddhism from India to China, had filled whole rooms in London's British Museum and Delhi's Museum of Central-Asian Antiquities (now the National Museum). It took 182 packing cases to hold the finds of his third expedition (1913-1916) to the region, which he called Serindia (the Greeks referred to China as Seres, from the word for silkworm).

Stein's fourth expedition to Central Asia, however, ended in a failure so humiliating that he never wrote about it and seldom referred to it. Nor was it mentioned in his obituaries. Both of Stein's biographers, Jeannette Mirsky in 1977 and Annabel Walker in 1995, mention this debacle but fail to explore the circumstances surrounding it. This prompted my own investigations in the Harvard archives. The story they revealed is one of assorted rivalries: between British and American diplomats in China, between Harvard's Fogg Museum and the British Museum, and finally, between the two Harvard sponsors of the expedition. It also reveals much about how awakening nationalism changed the rules of archaeology.

SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC is coauthor with Karl E. Meyer of the forthcoming A Tournament of Shadows, about the exploration of Central Asia.

The antiquities market is destroying China's Buddhist statuary.


Archaeology Magazine, October 28, 1999

One of 18 Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty arhats
One of 18 Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty arhats

On August 18, 1999, police reinforcements were brought in to restrain hundreds of villagers and out-of-towners crowding into Zishou Temple in Lingshi county, Shanxi province. The throng was not straining to view the Ming Dynasty murals for which the temple is renowned, but to glimpse the "eyes being opened" on the serene faces of the temple's 18 arhats, exquisite Ming (CE 1368-1644) clay sculptures whose heads had been removed six years previously by robbers and scattered around the globe. The heads of this group of arhats, enlightened beings peculiar to Chinese Buddhism who care for the poor, had now been returned to their rightful place. In China the practice of eye opening is the most important process in consecrating a new icon; the arhats are painted with their eyes opened, but the ceremony is thought to endow them with a lifelike gaze. Once the officiating Buddhist priest had opened the eyes of the arhats for a second time, they were again ready to respond to the locals' prayers for rain, as they had for the past five centuries.

The international antiques market drives the pillaging of archaeological and cultural sites in China. Motivated by poverty and greed and imbued with the disrespect for tradition born during the Cultural Revolution, local thieves receive draconian punishments if sentenced. Consumers, on the other hand, remain largely unscathed and anonymous. Collectors of taste in New York, London, and Paris may be more reluctant these days to risk openly displaying legally dubious offcut statuary from Angkor in Cambodia or Gandhara in northwest Pakistan, but any slack in the market has been taken up by Asian businessmen, who have created a demand for Buddhist statuary that now graces the marbled foyers of corporate headquarters. The source of most authentic Buddhist sculpture has been mainland China and collectors have often been able to select their future pieces in situ, consulting with their partners on the aesthetics and pricing of their choice on portable phones.

   This flourishing international market for Buddhist sculpture has resulted in the disappearance of the heads of figures from Longmen, Datong, and other vulnerable major outdoor Buddhist sites in China. The Longmen Grottoes in Henan province constitute an architecturally monumental cliff site where Buddhist stone carvings from the Northern Wei (CE 386-535) through to the Song (CE 960-1280) Dynasties are preserved. The Tang (CE 618-906) Dynasty sculptures at this long protected and well managed site are considered to be masterpieces of world sculpture. Yet in 1997 a Tang Dynasty standing stone Buddha was stolen from the Dongshan area to the east of the Longmen site. And between June 1996 and early 1997, five raids, two of them successful, were made by robbers on outdoor Buddhist cave sites at Dazu, outside Chongqing in Sichuan province. In fact, no outdoor site housing China's sculptural heritage seems to have emerged totally unscathed in recent years.

Yung-tai, a Taiwanese businessman, was responsible for purchasing all 18 arhats and restoring them to the Zishou temple
Yung-tai, a Taiwanese businessman, was responsible for purchasing all 18 arhats and restoring them to the Zishou temple

Central Shanxi province is particularly rich in cultural relics of all Chinese dynasties, but the area is also renowned for rural poverty and tomb robbing has become a local profession. On Christmas night in 1993 the 18 arhats housed in Zishou Temple were decapitated by robbers. After scaling the wall of the temple, forcing their way into the main hall and sawing the heads from the figures, the thieves headed for Guangzhou the same night with the heads concealed in bags of carrots. Although the robbery resulted in the arrest of the gang and their driver, the man to whom they sold them successfully crossed the border into Hong Kong. Buddhist statuary has been reportedly impounded by most major customs offices in China, from Tibet to Shandong, but in this case the treasures passed through customs undetected.

Not only have Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and arhats been losing their heads, thieves have desecrated statuary lining the "spirit way" of the tombs of the Northern Song Dynasty (CE 960-1127) to the southwest of Gongyi in central China's Henan province. This necropolis contains eight mausolea belonging to Northern Song emperors, as well as the tombs of 22 empresses buried to the northwest of their husbands. The spirit way was a processional avenue along which royal relatives approached imperial mausoleums. Pairs of well preserved stone statues and observation towers line the spirit way leading up to the southern gate of the complex. Since 1994, a total of eight heads have been removed from statues at the Northern Song royal cemetery. In 1998 one of these was returned by no less a visitor to China than US President Clinton. In February this year a ninth head was removed, this time from a stone warrior lining the "spirit way" leading to the Yongtai Mausoleum of Emperor Zhexong (r. 1086-1100) and standing directly opposite the warrior whose head Clinton returned last year!

Yung-tai, a Taiwanese businessman, was responsible for purchasing all 18 arhats and restoring them to the Zishou temple.
Yung-tai, a Taiwanese businessman, was responsible for purchasing all 18 arhats and restoring them to the Zishou temple.

The rules governing the layout of the statuary along the spirit way were largely formulated in the Tang Dynasty, and some of the finest examples of statuary from this period decorate the 18 imperial mausolea found in the valleys of the Guanzhong Plain that lie beyond the Tang capital Chang'an (today's Xi'an) in Shaanxi province. Although animal sculptures lining the spirit way tend to be more fantastic than those at the Northern Song imperial tombs, and their size has for the most part guaranteed their safety, the human stone figures have been targeted by thieves. In May 1997 five heads were removed from stone human figures lining the nearly 1,500-foot-long spirit way of the Tang Dynasty Zhuangling Mausoleum of Emperor Jingzong (r. 809-827), located northeast of Sanyuan county in Shaanxi.

Dancers performing in Lingshi county celebrate the "eyes being opened" of the 18 arhats. The Buddhist practice of eye opening invests the statues with a lifelike gaze and an ability to help the poor.
Dancers performing in Lingshi county celebrate the "eyes being opened" of the 18 arhats. The Buddhist practice of eye opening invests the statues with a lifelike gaze and an ability to help the poor.

To stem the tide of antiquities pouring out of the country, Chinese law enforcement has been meting out harsh penalties to local tomb robbers and thieves, the bottom rung in the international antiquities smuggling racket. Although most middlemen and almost all dealers evade prosecution, the hapless people who supply the market, often to order, are hit with the full force of the law. On January 15 this year Gao Yunjiu, a farmer, was executed by firing squad in Luoyang in Henan province for the theft in March 1997 of the head of a standing Buddha of the Tang period from Longmen, and it was reported in July 1999 that prison sentences ranging from three to 13 years were handed out by the Luoyang Intermediate Court to the thieves who stole a head from the Northern Song imperial tombs. The ringleader who had been arrested the previous month will most certainly receive a harsher sentence if found guilty by the court. The two thieves who removed the heads from the spirit way at the Zhuangling Mausoleum were executed in 1998, ironically in front of the mausoleum itself. Only one of the five missing heads has been recovered, and four are presumed to be already on the international market.

The outflow of Buddhist pieces is causing pangs of nationalist sentiment among some Chinese, who feel their heritage is slipping away. In February 1998 it was reported that Ch'en Yung-t'ai, director of Taiwan's Aurora Foundation, an educational foundation, had located and purchased the stolen heads of all 18 arhats from Zishou Temple on the international market. Ch'en wished to return the arhats to the temple; in order to do this, he had to arrange for special dispensation from the authorities in Taiwan to override regulations forbidding objects more than 100 years old from being taken from the island. With the help of diplomatic organizations in Taipei and Shanghai, Ch'en eventually succeeded in presenting all 18 heads to China's cultural relics authorities. After being briefly displayed in the Shanghai Museum, the clay heads have been faithfully restored with the help of a team of scholars from the Shanxi Cultural Relics Association. The crowds who flocked to the August 18th consecration ceremony at the Zishou Temple were delighted that no wounds were visible on the arhats after four months of restoration and a six-year odyssey around the world.

BRUCE DOAR is editor of China Archaeology and Art Digest.


Scroll to Top