Chinese Archaeology Summarized

«Nauka-Oriental literature» Publishing House has released the first volume of an anthology on Chinese history «Earliest and Ancient History of China (based on archaeological data): from the Paleolithic age to the 5 B.C.» Experts consider it the fullest ever fundamental work on the earliest Chinese past. The team of authors includes prominent researchers from Novosibirsk State University and the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS.

This book opens a series of books on Chinese history up to the 21st century, which is to consist of 10 volumes. Such a scaled project has been developed under the supervision of academician Sergey L. Tikhvinsky, an outstanding Russian scholar in Chinese history, for about eight years. The publishing editor is Anatoly P. Derevyanko, a Russian historian, archaeologist, scientist in the field of Siberian and Far East`s Paleolith.

Another prominent researcher in the team is the Director of the Center on Chinese Language and Culture of the Institute for Humanities at NSU and a senior researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS, professor Sergey Komissarov, who reveals some details of the project.

— It is the first Russian project of such a scale,— says the researcher.— Numerous studies on particular periods of the earliest Chinese past have never been summarized in a fundamental work; no country made such an attempt. The book makes an inventory and summarizes the data collected. It is high time we did it as progress in science is impossible without regular reviews. The nine volumes of the series are based on the chronological framework with the tenth devoted to Hong Kong and Macau.

The data were analyzed at the confluence of science and liberal arts. Archaeological data compared to the information from historical documents helped to shed light on many important events in the earliest history of nation-building in China.

Sergey Komissarov points out that the arrival of the first volume now, when the whole project is almost complete, is quite natural in view of Chinese archaeology being at an all-time high level. Every year dozens of newly opened monuments and artifacts found are introduced, with some of the findings making headlines all over the world, such as the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang or Sanxingdui Bronzes. The amount of the material is so large that it is impossible to follow all the discoveries without summarizing the information now and then.

The first volume was prepared mainly by Novosibirsk scientists as the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of SB RAS has gathered the best collection of Chinese periodicals on the issue in Russia. Another reason for it was that the Novosibirsk school of oriental archaeology founded in the 1970s by Vitaly E. Larichev is considered prominent and has an international recognition.

— No other country features such a rich cultural history as China, — says the scientist.— A variety of natural environment was favorable for economic adaptation, which caused increase in population. Ancient China was leading among other countries with respect to this issue. Some four thousand years ago, Chinese ancestors had a developed culture with city centers rich in monumental architecture, social and military institutes, a religious cult, and, of course, their main achievement of the hieroglyphic system which, although modified, has been keeping its integrational role. All of the above explains why Chinese dynasties left many famous ancient monuments that are still around today.

While developing their culture, the Chinese constantly interacted with ancestors of other peoples, such as the Turks, the Mongols, members of the Sino-Tibetan language family, people speaking the Austroasiatic languages, etc. Hence, Chinese antiquities interest a wide range of researchers dealing with archaeology and ancient history of bordering countries.

The team of researchers working on this monumental summary of our knowledge of the Chinese civilization were well aware of the Cambridge History of China, an ongoing series of books published by Cambridge University Press and conceived by British historian Denis C. Twitchett and American historian John K. Fairbank in the late 1960s. The complete History is going to contain 15 volumes, with 13 volumes published and two more volumes underway.

Sergey Komissarov says that the creators of that series were originally against compiling their first volume based on archaeological data. They believed that our knowledge of ancient Chinese history had to change a lot under the influence of new archaeological findings and discoveries and, thus, was not true-to-fact. An independent volume, The Cambridge History of Ancient China, edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, which covers pre-imperial China from the origin of civilization till 221 BC, was published only in 1999. Since then, nothing so scaled has been published, but now we have magnitude more materials discovered.

The Russian scientists’ work revealed some drawbacks of accepted sinology, and some of the previously published materials were criticized.

— We cannot but agree that criticism is necessary,— explains the researcher. — But firstly we state it that the work is a tremendous contribution to world science. Our advantage is that we managed to put together a team of eminent scholars and their younger and enthusiastic colleagues, who met the challenges quite successfully. It is a stone of success for further research in Chinese archaeology. To sum it up, this first volume of our anthology is a great success for the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of SB RAS and Novosibirsk State University, where most authors work. The team includes Prof. Anatoly P. Derevyanko, Prof. Vyacheslav I. Molodin, Prof. Yuliy S. Khudyakov and others. As part of the 10-volume series, this work is certain to raise worldwide interest. We also highly appreciate close cooperation with our Chinese colleagues and the agreements signed with them, which helped us immensely.

Another feature of this volume is different points of view presented by individual Russian researchers in one edition. It was kind of a compromise, but such approach has allowed to engage researchers from various centers for oriental studies, for example, from Moscow State University, whose concepts differed from those common in archaeology.

— We also had discussions on how to present the material, — adds Sergey Komissarov. — The editors wanted a popular edition, while the members of the editorial board including Prof. Anatoly P. Derevyanko focused on scientific priorities. The compromise was found to exclude footnotes but to leave a comprehensive list of bibliography sources. It has been ten years since we started working on the volume, and, of course, now we could include additional data which appear every now and then. However, we have created a solid base for further research in ancient history of a whole region, not only China, but also Siberia, Central and Middle Asia and the whole Asia-Pacific Region.

The edition has been prepared by “Nauka-Oriental literature” Publishing House with the support from the Russian Foundation for the Humanities and is to appear in main Russian scientific libraries very soon.

By Anna Romanenko