Review Article

A new benchmark for Chinese archaeology

Roderick B. Campbell
Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, 15 E 84th Street, New York, NY 10028, USA

Books Reviewed

ANNE P. UNDERHILL (ed.). A companion to Chinese archaeology (Blackwell Companions to Anthropology). xxiii+640 pages, 82 b&w illustrations. 2013. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. 978-1-444-335-293 hardback £120.

ROWAN K. FLAD & POCHAN CHEN. Ancient Central China: centers and peripheries along the Yangzi River (Case Studies in Ancient Societies). xxii+412 pages, 63 b&w illustrations, 16 maps, 7 tables. 2013. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 978-0-521-727-662 paperback £20.99 & $34.99.

Campbell image

In years to come 2013 will be remembered as a good year for Chinese archaeology. With the publication of Anne Underhill's editorial tour de force A companion to Chinese archaeology and Rowan Flad and Pochan Chen's provocative Ancient Central China, the world of English-language Chinese archaeology has achieved a new benchmark of complexity and variety. Too long the province of only one or two authors, large-scale English language syntheses now reflect something of the diversity and contentiousness of the field.

Beginning with A companion to Chinese archaeology, a collection of 30 state-of-the-field papers by leading authorities on each region and time period, this is perhaps the most important book on Chinese archaeology to be published since K.C. Chang's (1986) edition of The archaeology of ancient China. Nevertheless, it is a very different animal. While one might have expected that the primary goals of a book like A companion to Chinese archaeology would be to present an authoritative, comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date (theoretically, methodologically and empirically) overview, this is not entirely the case. Instead, A companion to Chinese archaeology is a smorgasbord of contemporary Chinese archaeological practice, displaying the richness and variety of current research, but also its shortcomings. The stated goals of the editor are 1) to "reveal the diverse methodological and theoretical approaches to understanding...Chinese archaeology" and 2) "to provide English readers with new data about...regional variation in social, economic and political organization over time" (p. 3). At the first of these laudable goals, the volume succeeds like no other book in the English language. The second goal, however, is only partially met—mitigated in large measure by the success of the first. The truth is that the variety of methods and theoretical approaches in Chinese archaeology include some—such as pots-equal-people culture historical assumptions and crypto-Marxist evolutionism—that would better be consigned to the dustbin of history. While the majority of the chapters are excellent, and all of them make contributions to the English literature, one could read the editor's gently worded suggestions for future work as a critique of some of the chapters in the book, and by extension, much work in Chinese archaeology today. To summarise, these suggestions are: the importance of understanding the specifics of given societies rather than pre-emptive evolutionary categorising; more explicit statements about research goals, and about how data are collected and interpreted, and how conclusions are formulated; consideration of alternative explanations; more consideration of particular regional developments (untethered from a totalising Nationalist perspective); more refined methods for using historical and ethnographic data; and further rapprochement with methodological and theoretical developments outside of China (although Chinese archaeology has come a long way in this regard).

The way in which the accuracy (or at least coherence) of the volume is sometimes sacrificed to plurality can be seen though the example of animal domestication. In Chapter 9 it is suggested that the cattle, sheep and 'chicken' remains found in late Peiligang sites (c. 5500–4500 BC) were domesticated, despite recent zooarchaeological and genetic studies demonstrating Chinese domestic cattle and sheep were of West Asian origin, while the archaeological identification of domestic chicken is likewise a matter of controversy. Chapter 9's assertions concerning animal domestication, moreover, are contradicted in Chapter 11, dealing with the same region but one thousand years later, where the author cites more recent research. Similar issues crop up in other chapters where animals seem to be classified as domestic (such as cattle, sheep, water buffalo and chicken) more on their status in traditional Chinese agriculture than any zooarchaeological evidence. Presentation of long-term socio-political development is, not surprisingly, even more contradictory, deploying theory ranging from Morgan to Flannery (but nearly always some flavour of evolutionism) and it is apparent that there is a wide variety of opinions on every other important topic as well—including the origins of writing, and plant domestication, intensification, and production. As a result, A companion to Chinese archaeology provides a wonderful intellectual map for new explorers (and even seasoned travellers) in the land of Chinese archaeology, but should not be uncritically fed to unsuspecting undergraduates. If one wants definitive answers to questions such as when and where particular animals were domesticated or what sort of economies or polities existed in different times and places in what is now the People's Republic of China (PRC), they will not find them here. In a vast, fast-moving and contentious field such as Chinese archaeology perhaps this is as it should be, but the task of reaching one's own conclusions could have been made a little easier had all of the authors taken more seriously the editor's suggestion concerning explicit argumentation (not to mention providing more citations for their assertions).

The dearth of illustrations is a major issue (an average of about two figures per chapter) preventing ease of comprehension in some places. And while the clarifying editorial notes are welcome throughout, there are still a few translation issues here and there (such as the translation of cheng 'walled site' as 'city' in a few places). A final quibble concerns the coverage of regions and periods. As the editor notes, the range covered is 7000–1000 BC encompassing most of the PRC, except Xinjiang, Tibet and the south-west. I would have preferred at least a brief summary of earlier periods throughout (such as provided in the chapters by Flad and Jiao). There are also gaps in coverage such as the Daixi culture of the middle Yangzi, and the second millennium BC is only covered in some regions—contributing to a sense of the Central Plains Bronze Age as more isolated than it actually was. Given this lack of comprehensiveness, the inclusion of entire chapters about individual sites (Jiahu, Hemudu, Taosi, Erlitou, Anyang) and specialised studies such as Fang on texts and Gunnar on experimental archaeology (much as I enjoyed the latter) was arguably misguided.

Many of the chapters are, nevertheless, first rate. Murowchick's chapter on Chinese heritage management is the best I know of in any language, while Peterson and Lu's sober re-consideration of the famous Hongshan culture is long overdue. Indeed, there are too many strong chapters to mention in such a short review. In the end, and despite its minor imperfections, I must commend Underhill for what must have been a Herculean exercise in 'cat herding'. As a collection of the current views of many of China's leading archaeologists, covering a sizable chunk of archaeology in the PRC, A companion to Chinese archaeology is a book that no one interested in the field—including those able to read Chinese—can afford to be without.

Flad and Chen's Ancient Central China is likewise an important book, but despite what the title might suggest, it is not really intended as a synthesis of Yangzi River valley archaeology—or rather, not merely. The authors have a more ambitious goal in mind: theorising landscape and understanding the Sichuan Basin, Three Gorges and Middle Yangzi in terms of what they term 'topographies'—political, economic and ritual. By juxtaposing what are essentially different maps of material cultural patterning, they attempt to de-familiarise and then re-imagine the meaning of centre and periphery in these regions. Indeed, the provocative title of the book attempts the same thing: what makes the Sichuan Basin, Three Gorges and Middle Yangzi 'central' is their geographic location within the PRC. The fact, however, that 'Central China' is peripheral to traditional Chinese historiography and thus to Chinese archaeological narratives, which all too frequently invoke anachronistic senses of China, is subversively ironic and lays bare some of the arbitrariness of the 'China' in Chinese archaeology.

Given that 'Central China' has been relatively overlooked in Chinese archaeology, Flad and Chen's book is especially welcome. Moreover, the authors' heavy involvement in key projects in the Three Gorges and Sichuan Basin puts them in a better position than anyone to relay the most recent findings in those areas (especially concerning the third and second millennia BC) to an English-reading audience.

The attempt to link Chinese archaeological synthesis to contemporary archaeological theory is also most welcome and will hopefully serve as an exemplar to the field which seems otherwise largely mired in 1980s neo-evolutionary approaches. Nevertheless, and despite sympathy with the idea of understanding the connections between 'central nodes' and the idea of non-isomorphic networks of political, economic or ritual practice, Flad and Chen are not always successful in bridging the gap between theory and data. Indeed, given the thinness of the information available—the strongest case being salt production at Zhongba, which has already received a book-length treatment by one of the authors—it is unclear that what frequently amounts to a discussion of spatial patterns of material culture based on very spotty and preliminary data really warranted a theoretical facelift.

In fact, the lack of good data for many of the times and places covered works strongly against the division of the book into sections on different topographies—like too little empirical jam spread over too much theoretical toast. At this stage of research, and considering the authors' ambitious attempts to cover everything from the Epipalaeolithic to the Qin conquest, more physical and intellectual space for the discussion of basic archaeological, historical and art-historical research in the region and its many issues would have been welcome. I would have preferred that the authors had written up their theoretical proposal and its supporting data in a journal article and made the book a more in-depth archaeological synthesis.

Nevertheless, Ancient Central China is replete with up-to-date information (especially on Sichuan and the Three Gorges) and the authors' work at Zhongba and on the Chengdu Plain is a shining example of what is possible in Chinese archaeology. The history of scholarship in the region is especially rich and the authors' synthesis of palaeo-climate and geography is the best I know of in Chinese archaeology. Moreover, the above criticisms notwithstanding, Ancient Central China contains simultaneously some of the most stimulating theoretical proposals in Chinese archaeology and a much needed synthesis of an understudied region presented in provocative fashion.

With no exaggeration, it can be said that both A companion to Chinese archaeology and Ancient Central China are without precedent in Chinese archaeology and that no one in the field can therefore afford to ignore them.

  • CHANG, K.C. 1986. The archaeology of ancient China. New Haven (CT): Yale University Press.