On Wednesday, November 8, 2023, Professor Xu Hong, Research Fellow of the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), delivered a lecture at Yenching Academy titled “Early China Through the Lens of Archaeology: Erlitou and Sanxingdui.” This lecture, part of the broader Topics in China Studies Lecture Series designed for the 2023/2024 Fall semester, was hosted by Professor Lu Yang, Yenching Academy Director of Graduate Studies. The class reviewed the pivotal role of the Erlitou and Sanxingdui archaeological sites and significant discoveries in understanding the ancient history and culture of China.
Prof. Xu Hong traced the historical development of the field of archaeology in China to 1921, highlighting the importance of the pioneering works of Johan Gunnar Andersson and Li Ji; Li Ji is considered the founder of the Chinese archaeological discipline. Next, he explained the nature and process of some techniques, stressing how the delicateness of the area and items to be excavated impact the choice of techniques and logic of the process. Advancements in science and technology, for instance, drone technologies, have also significantly influenced how the process is undertaken, giving archaeologists an edge in their work.
Prof. Xu discussed the division and integration of early China, stressing the role of technology and external influences, including the Eurasian bronze culture, in driving the social development trajectory of the ancient people. He outlined the early periods into chiefdoms, large centralized states, and empires. Nonetheless, Prof. Xu acknowledged that more questions than answers exist about early Chinese societies, requiring continuous efforts from archaeologists and historians to find clues. “I believe it is impossible to give credible answers to many questions about our history without written language. In pre-history areas, there are more unknown than known facts. It is the essential duty of archaeologists and historians to work hard to connect the excavated materials to historical texts, records, mythic ideas and oral traditions.”
The third part of the class examined several cultural relics unearthed across China, including sites in Shaanxi, Xinjiang, and Shimao. Prof. Xu also talked about the rise of the Central Plains civilization, stressing the vital position of the Luoyang Basin, an arable land of around 1000 square kilometres that served as the capital of thirteen dynasties.
He then delved into the discoveries at the Erlitou sites in Yanshi, Henan Province, traceable to the Xia Dynasty, that have revealed advanced urban arterial road network, bronze casting, and evidence of a sophisticated society. The guest lecturer stressed that the nature of several multi-courtyard palace architectures at the sites are similar to those at the Forbidden City. Also, they set up workshops to produce extensive bronzewares for religious and military warfare purposes. Prof. Xu stressed that the discoveries at Erlitou showcase the cultural evolution and technological progress of the diverse society towards a more centralized, organized, and standardized state.
Next, the lecture focused on Sanxingdui and the artefacts unearthed at the various sacrificial pits. The students learned about the remarkable discoveries, including large bronze masks, potteries and vessels, sculptures, bronze plaques, and other ceremonial items. Prof. Xu also discussed their unique and abstract styles, with several items featuring large protruding eyes, large trees, animals, and other intricate designs. Yenching Scholars gained insights into the cultural and historical experiences awaiting them on their study trip to Chengdu and Chongqing in fall, where they are scheduled to visit the Sanxingdui Ruins.
To round off the class, Prof. Xu undertook a global perspective to describe the evolution of the Chinese civilization, tracing the timelines of the waves and impacts of human progress.
Q：It is believed that Sanxingdui was influenced by cultures towards the North and Central Plains. Among the discovered artefacts at the Sanxingdui Ruins, there are items resembling those from other areas, such as the cong, and there is also evidence of the production of large artefacts, each with its own significance. How do you interpret this influence from external sources, and what insights can be gleaned from the differences in value systems among societies in the Central Plains?
A：Prof. Xu explained that the influence of the Central Plains on Sanxingdui culture is a remarkable aspect of archaeological significance because it suggests the prevalence of a complex system of cultural exchanges and interactions during the Bronze Age. The Sanxingdui people are believed to have had three major sources for their techniques: importation, the use of moulds, and spiritual inspiration. One reason they would have imported items is the depletion of raw materials. They are also believed to have used their artefacts for ritual purposes. The people in the Central Plains believe in paying respects to the deceased and elderly. The Sanxingdui people focused on the unique relationship between god and people. They have different values, and the differences in cultures are fascinating. He also added that there are ongoing debates over artefacts exported from the Central Plains and other places in China into Sanxingdui. So, one could argue that the transmission of culture is like the transmission of viruses.
Q: The lecture examined the three concepts: pre-historic, proto-history, and history. Are these concepts distinctively related to the same areas?
A: The guest lecturer noted that archaeologists in China usually talk about a grand concept of history. “I don’t think history and archaeology are mutually exclusive. Archaeologists consider ourselves as engineers, but our focus is in the humanities. We want to build an architecture to help people understand the past and appreciate the present times,” Prof. Xu described. He further explained that historians in China started to write history around the Warring States period. However, the discourse of archaeology did not start until about 100 years ago. So, while history draws on some existent form of documentation, archaeology offers insights into periods with scarce or missing writing systems by analyzing remnants of a people and the materials they used. This is where the concept of pre-historic and proto-history comes in. We can learn more about the past from archaeological research, especially since the genetics of Chinese culture have not changed. It has always drawn from a diverse cultural background.