How Archeologists Became China’s Newest Diplomats

How Archeologists Became China’s Newest Diplomats
Photo Credit:童閔崧、蕭孟凡攝,時藝多媒體提供
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After years of isolation, the country’s scientists are heading abroad to dig up the past, while building future relationships.

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The next time you see photographs of Chinese people working in a pit somewhere, don’t assume they are there to build a high-speed rail line, dig a mine, or install internet equipment. They might actually be archaeologists.

At present, more and more Chinese archaeologists are going abroad, where they are responsible for directing surveys and excavations. Previously, Chinese archaeologists often relied on methods imported from the West when excavating historical sites within China. Now, however, they are building their reputations in the global archaeological community.

The roots of Chinese archaeology can be traced back to 1921, when Swedish scholar Johan Gunnar Andersson organized a dig that uncovered ancient remains in what is now central China’s Henan province. Two years later, Andersson published the first article to posit the existence of the ancient Yangshao culture. Due to similarities between pieces of pottery unearthed at Yangshao and others in Central Asia, he said, the origins of Chinese culture may lie farther to the west than originally thought.

This hypothesis inspired Chinese scholars to take an interest in archaeology. In 1926, two Chinese archaeologists, Li Ji and Yuan Fuli, conducted excavations in an area of northern China’s Shanxi province located northwest of the Yangshao site. In 1928, the research institute Academia Sinica was established, overseeing the creation of the Institute of History and Philology. The institute assigned Chinese archaeologist Dong Zuobin to conduct fieldwork in Henan province. There, he excavated the Yinxu ruins, which originated in the Shang Dynasty — an ancient state dating back to the second millennium B.C.

A series of excavations around Yinxu uncovered a significant quantity of material that later formed the basis for Chinese scholar Wang Guowei’s “method of double proof,” in which he argued that information gathered from China’s classical texts — generally seen as orthodox versions of history — should be backed up with empirical archeological evidence.

In the period between Andersson’s arrival in China and the Communist reunification of the country in 1949, Chinese organizations invited a succession of foreign scholars to local archaeological digs. The China Geological Survey, for example, worked with the then-American-run Peking Union Medical College on an excavation in Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, where the “Peking Man” bones were discovered. Unfortunately, these remains vanished during the Sino-Japanese War.

The Communist victory in 1949, however, meant that cooperation with Western countries in the field of archeology was suspended. It is worth noting that while China drew heavily on Soviet politics, thought, and academics during this period, there was not a single instance of archeological cooperation between the two until the 1980s. Other than a few excavations carried out in partnership with North Korea, Chinese archeology was almost completely cut off from the outside world during this time.

It was left to K.C. Chang, an archeologist renowned both within and outside of China, to restore ties with the international community. Beginning in 1982, he devoted himself to promoting cooperation between China and the United States in the field of archaeological research. Ten years later, China finally repaired its relationships with foreign academic organizations when the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage approved a series of international projects.

One of the most important among these was a Sino-Japanese joint archaeological excavation of the Niya Ruins in southern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in northwestern China. In 1995, a Japanese member of the team discovered a tomb containing a silk brocade embroidered with the phrase: “The appearance of the five stars in the east is favorable to China.” The find was named one of the country’s top archaeological discoveries that year.

Chinese archaeologists were going abroad, too. After years of negotiations, researchers from institutes in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces joined forces with the National Museum of Vietnamese History to sponsor an excavation in northern Vietnam. This dig uncovered a tomb containing a fire pit used in religious sacrifices, as well as a beautifully preserved ceremonial jade axe.

To date, China has partnered with around a dozen countries on archaeological projects. These programs have been highly successful and include efforts such as an excavation on Kenya’s Lamu Island, an aid project assisting the Cambodian authorities in repairing the Ta Keo temple complex in Angkor, and a 2014 archaeological collaboration at Honduras’ Copan site.

As the number of Chinese archaeologists working abroad continues to grow, accusations of neocolonialism have occasionally been leveled against them. Locals understandably take issue with foreigners coming in and digging up their cultural artifacts, especially if the relics belong to a country that was previously colonized. However, China’s cooperative plans are all approved by the government and carried out in conjunction with willing foreign scholars or organizations. This principle forms the foundation of all of China’s archaeological work abroad.

Our approach is fundamentally different from the behavior of colonial explorers when they transported artifacts out of China. When Chinese archeologists go on digs abroad, they do so supported by strong bilateral agreements between governments on an equal footing, and they certainly do not intend to plunder the cultural resources of other countries. We must also bear in mind that historical cultures do not always fit neatly into current borders, and in order to fully understand them, it is necessary to cooperate internationally. Research into the interactions among various cultures is also heavily reliant on international archaeological cooperation.

The powerful symbolism of archaeology for cultural relations cannot be ignored, however. Internationally, helping less developed nations protect their cultures is one of the responsibilities of a regional power. As China continues in this role, it will try to play an active and significant part in cultural exchange across the region. This means that China’s promotion of, and participation in, international archaeological projects will inevitably take on a certain level of political significance.

According to China’s international strategy, as exemplified by the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, cultural and economic cooperation are both seen as methods for strengthening relationships between countries. Just as in the 1970s, when China dispelled international hostility through ping-pong diplomacy and the exchange of cultural artifacts, the country’s current international archaeological projects can be seen as a form of “archeological diplomacy,” using the science to raise China’s cultural profile in the cooperating countries, as well as its international standing.

Chinese archeologists have only just started plying their trade across borders and must refine their abilities further before assuming world leader status. The success of recent projects, however, gives me hope that we will continue to use archeology as a means to ensure our international relationships have a strong future even while we’re digging up the past.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

Editor: Olivia Yang