The Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ 2009 annual summer “Academic Leaders Lecture Series” took place on July 22nd, 2009, in the conference room at the Institute of Archaeology. The lecturers comprised Professor Wang Wei and Professor Xu Lianggao.
Professor Wang Wei selected “Regarding the Process of Investigating Chinese Civilization” as his topic, and primarily discussed the newest developments and results of the Exploration of Chinese civilization Project. He first briefly reviewed the background and significance of the project; second, he concisely narrated the tasks and important achievements of each stage of the research process.
Three stages of the research process have already been implemented, namely: the preliminary research stage (2001-2003), and the first and second stages of the investigative process (2004-2005 and 2006-2008, respectively).
The goal of the preliminary research stage was to explore the possibilities of archaeological research on Chinese civilization, using an integrated selection of methods from multiple disciplines. The results firmly established a path for using multidisciplinary techniques to tackle key problems, and proposed a feasible plan for implementing the project.
The research focus of the first stage (2004-2005) was the civilizing process that the Central Plains area underwent in the years 2500 to 1500 B.C.. The project comprised five major research tasks, including: a chronological genealogy of archaeological cultures; the relationship between changes to the natural environment and the evolution of civilization; the relationship between the growth of civilization and technological and economic developments; changes to social structure and spiritual culture; and a synthesis of the above. These questions formed the rational framework of the research project. The outstanding results of the project included:
1) Important discoveries in the excavations at some central settlements including Taosi and Erlitou.
2) With regard to the chronology project, the establishment of a series of technological methods for dating specimens and artifacts, and the acquisition of more accurate data for determining age.
3) On the topic of the environment, research into the climate changes that occurred in the Central Plains region between 2500 and 1500 B.C..
4) And with regard to economics and technology, a thorough study of the agriculture and bronze ware manufacturing techniques of the Central Plains area.
The second stage (2006-2008) expanded the scope of the research to the period from 3500 to 1500 B.C.; the regional focus encompassed the Yellow River drainage area, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze and the Liao River basin. Here the researchers truly began to comprehensively explore the formative process of Chinese civilization. During this stage, the researchers continued to utilize the rational framework established in the previous stage, examining the four main issues of chronology, environment, technology and economics, and social structure and spiritual culture. Important achievements from this stage included:
1) The dating of a large number of artifacts, along with analysis and synthesis of the results, and the establishment of a rudimentary new chronological framework for the archaeological cultures of the above regions during the periods from 3500 to 1500 B.C., which solved many of the flaws and problems of the previous chronological model.
2) With regards to the environment, exploration into the environmental background of the rises and falls of the civilizing process in each region, and significant progress on our understanding of such questions as the relationship between the unique geography and environment of the Central Plains region and the area’s abrupt rise to power, and the influence that geographical and environmental changes in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River had upon social transformations.
3) In terms of the economy and technology, original results regarding investigations into the economic foundations of the evolving Chinese civilization from multiple perspectives, the advantages of the multivalent economic model of the Central Plains region, and analysis of pottery manufacturing sites, technology for producing jadeware, and the emergence of metallurgy, along with other topics.
4) On the topic of social structure and spiritual culture, field excavations and investigations into more than twenty sites and village centers. At the Liangzhu ruins, an ancient city was discovered; at the Taosi ruins, the foundations for a large hall were excavated. In every region, examinations of village centers clearly emphasized that each settlement gradually evolved from an equal social structure to a hierarchical one. New research on human remains offered evidence of society’s progress toward complexity.
The research results of this stage provided a rich array of data on early Chinese civilization, including the time, region, and process by which Chinese civilization came into being, as well as information on certain distinctive characteristics of early Chinese civilization. The project leaders argue: Chinese civilization originated in approximately the year 3500 B.C.; the Yellow River drainage area, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and the Liao River basin comprise the main centers of early Chinese civilization; during its formation, Chinese civilization progressed from a situation in which multiple parties competed to one in which the Central Plains area took the lead; environmental factors had a great influence on the emergence and formation of Chinese civilization; the numerous geographical advantages of Central Plains region facilitated the area’s continuing development, gradually allowing it to become the structural core of a unified but diverse culture; economic and technological developments formed an important foundation for Chinese civilization; the numerous types of crops and domestic animals that the Central Plains region gradually cultivated as a livelihood served as a powerful material guarantee for the maintenance and development for the culture and society of the region; the diverse but unified social structure of early Chinese civilization was one of its most important traits.
In conclusion, the above three stages of research were formulated as a systematic, multidisciplinary project, which relied on original research to make preliminary confirmations of the credibility of Chinese civilization’s five thousand years of history, draw a basic outline of the civilizing process during which the Central Plains region had become increasingly important, offer rudimentary proof of Chinese civilization’s fundamental trait of “diverse but unified,” and discussed the environmental background and economic and technological foundation of the formation of civilization.
Currently, the program for the third stage of the investigative process is nearly complete. The program is meant to run from 2009 to 2015, in two separate stages: the first from 2009 to 2011, and the second from 2012 to 2015. The focus of the first stage is to research regional metropolitan settlements and the most representative central settlements.
Xu Lianggao’s lecture topic was “Using Archaeology to Reconstruct the History of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties (A Brief History of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Archaeology).” Setting 1949 as the boundary, he divided the history of archaeological research on these three dynasties into two stages.
Prior to 1949, Academia Sinica’s excavations of Shang dynasty ruins in Anyang, Henan. Su Bingqi’s excavation of the Doujitai site in Baoji, Shaanxi and his typological research on ancient utensils, and the discovery and research of the ruins and archaeological culture of Yanxiadu established a substantial foundation for the archaeological study of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties.
After 1949, researchers made countless achievements in the archaeological study of the above three dynasties. Xu Lianggao believes that the following points represent important advances in the field:
1) The establishment of a time-spatial framework of the archaeological cultures of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou.
2) Research into the origins of the Xia, Shang and Zhou.
3) The transition of research focus from chronology and typology to settlement pattern and regional investigations.
4) The expanded discovery and research of gravesites, which allows us to investigate social organization and burial customs.
5) The use of utensils, ruins and other material cultural remains to investigate the social structure and ideologies of various peoples.
6) The use of multidisciplinary methods, plurality of materials from ancient history that we can obtain, and multidirectional expansion of our field of vision in research.
Xu Lianggao argues that achievements in the archaeological study of the three dynasties (Xia, Shang and Zhou) to date have thoroughly changed the content of pre-Qin history, even in terms of methods of expression; the framework of the archaeological cultures of these three dynasties has already formed a systematic framework for pre-Qin history. Finally, Xu Lianggao discussed future directions that the archaeological study of the Xia, Shang and Zhou might take.
Translated by Carissa Fletcher