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China now loves archeology. It has more to do with politics than excavations

Xi Jinping’s new Silk Road is being established through excavations as well. China wants to prove the reach of its history – from Tibet to Central Asia.

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Archaeology has become a hot topic in China in recent years. Even the five-year plan for 2021-2025 seeks to elevate archaeology. On 17 January, Li Qun announced that China would “roll out and implement plans for archaeological work in the 14th five-rear plan period”. Li, head of China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration, was speaking at a conference where he said that 1,388 archaeological projects were conducted in 2021. 

“Previous five-year plans on cultural relics were mainly drafted by specific government departments. For the first time, it’s improved to a national-level plan, which reflects the country’s great emphasis on the field,” Li Qun had said in 2021. The latest five-year plan has even set the ambitious goal of conducting archaeological research before major urban construction.

For Beijing, history has a strong political angle. Keeping a hold on how the past is understood is an important project for the Chinese Communist Party.

Even President Xi Jinping has spoken about promoting archaeology.

In October 2021, Xi called for the development of “archaeology with Chinese characteristics”. The phrase “archaeology with Chinese characteristics” is now enshrined in official documents. What makes Xi different from Mao is that he isn’t scared of the past or wants to dismantle it as Mao did during the Cultural Revolution. Xi takes much joy in promoting China’s history as the driving force for its future.

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Archaeology comes to China

Archaeological research is a growing venture in China, with government departments and research institutions at universities conducting more ambitious excavations every year. The Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sits at the top of this chain.

Earlier in the 20th century, the study of archaeology was seen as a Western import that wasn’t accepted as a method to study China’s history. A Swedish geologist named Johan Gunnar Andersson sparked the interest of the Chinese in archaeology. Andersson’s early expedition eventually led to discovering the famed pre-historic fossil of “Peking Man”. 

The early interest in archaeology in China started with the Gushi bian school or “Doubters of antiquity” school in the early 20thCentury. The school’s founder was Gu Jiegang, who problematised China’s idea of the past in the 1920s. Gu’s work is considered one of the most robust bodies of work on the modern history of the Chinese nation and he is widely regarded as the figure who re-envisioned the myths in early Chinese history.

Gu rejected the idea of the “Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors” thesis, which identifies three sovereigns dating back to 2852 BC as the earliest historical figures of Chinese history. China has traditionally traced back the domestication of animals, agriculture, silk clothing, writing, wooden houses and carts to this period of “three sovereigns”.

Gu instead proposed the need to rigorously examine the archaeological evidence to arrive at a “correct” approach to classify Chinese history. Gu’s ideas started a revolution in Chinese archaeology, following which both amateurs and experts of Chinese history and archaeology took an interest in excavations.

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Father of Chinese archaeology

The work of popularising archaeology, however, would fall on another scholar named Li Ji. Li is today known as the “father of Chinese archaeology” and is credited for leading the excavation of Yin ruins, which confirmed the existence of the Shang dynasty capital.

The bewildering discoveries made at the recent excavations at the site of Sanxingdui have reinvigorated the Chinese public’s interest in archaeology. Sanxingdui is a mysterious archaeological site located 40 km from Chengdu city in the province of Sichuan. And it is approximately 3,000 years old. Multiple giant statues of a human-like figure with large eyes discovered at Sanxingdui has inspired many theories about the origins of this mysterious culture.

Inhabitants of Sanxingdui had mastered the use of bronze in making their complex statues. But they didn’t leave any written text and their origins remain unclear.

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New Silk Road of history

New and tantalising archaeological discoveries are being made in China every month. “Archaeologists have discovered more than 400 tombs dating back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 B.C.-256 B.C.) and the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.) in north China’s Shanxi Province,” Xinhua News Agency reported on 17 January.

Archaeological research in China’s minority regions isn’t as straightforward. In Tibet, the discovery of new archaeological sites from pre-historic periods has been used by State institutions to suggest that Tibet was always integrated with the Chinese mainland – denying Tibet’s unique history. The past then becomes a political tool in the hands of the Chinese State.

“Tibetan archaeology isn’t a localized topic, but it is closely linked to the civilizations of its neighbouring countries and regions, and it is an important part of the cultural pattern of the ‘Belt and Road’. Therefore, its important research findings have profound effects on Chinese civilization and world civilization,” wrote Huo Wei of Sichuan University’s Tibetology Institute.

Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promotes the idea of a “new silk road”, reviving the old historical connections that linked Beijing to the rest of the world. Archaeology is central to cementing these claims about China’s importance in world history.

“The BRI comprises reinvented traditions in which history, ancient figures, and archaeology serve China’s chronopolitics. For Xi Jinping, the Silk Road is the ‘great heritage of human civilisation’, a legacy of ‘peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit’,” wrote Maria Adele Carrai in the essay titled “The Chronopolitics of the Belt and Road Initiative and Its Reinvented Histories”.

Excavating around the world

Chinese archaeologists aren’t just working at home, but they are now sending teams worldwide to excavate major sites. In 2016, a team of archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences excavated the Harappan-era site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana. Chinese archaeologists have also been involved in excavations at Montu Temple in Egypt’s Luxor.

For Beijing, archaeology isn’t just a tool to understand its past, but a mechanism to translate the prehistory of the rest of the world for its citizens.

China’s newfound fascination with archaeology is a project to place it in world history.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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