Far Eastern Economic Review, 20 July 2000

"Digging Into the Future"
By Bruce Gilley/ZHENGZHOU

An archaeological project to prove the existence of the mysterious Xia dynasty, believed by some to be the first Chinese civilization, is providing fuel for a potentially dangerous form of nationalism in China

THE CHINESE HISTORY lesson at the sparkling new provincial museum in Henan, central China, begins with the founding of the Xia dynasty in the 22nd century B.C. In the room that follows, an array of three-legged ewers, or water jugs, are displayed alongside stone tools and baked clay bowls from the subsequent 600 years, providing a pageant of the ancient peoples who lived in the dry plains south of the Yellow River. Yet the existence of the shadowy Xia dynasty--and with it Beijing's claims that China's civilization dates back 4,000 or even 5,000 years--has always been the subject of intense debate both in China and abroad.

All that is supposed to end later this year, however, when a government-appointed commission of 170 scholars is due to announce that after four years and $4 million of research, they have blown away the doubts about China's misty past.

"We have managed to provide evidence for the founding of Chinese civilization, which was for a long time only mythical and had many doubters," says Yang Yubin, a leader of the project and a former director of Henan's archaeology institute. "The party and the people are really proud of our work."

But the announcement is unlikely to settle the debate. Critics say Beijing's attempts to promote nationalism have driven the project, and that as a result the credibility of the findings has been compromised. Foreign archaeologists have been excluded from the study because, as officials note, they have been the biggest doubters of the Xia dynasty. While few domestic experts dare to question the Xia, even those who have attempted to inject some scepticism into the findings--on basic issues such as the Xia's territorial extent and the names of its emperors--have been silenced through a series of "work report" meetings, according to officials involved.

"There are many problems with this project because its purpose is to glorify the Chinese nation," says Yen Chuan-ying, head of archaeology at Taiwan's prestigious Academia Sinica research institute. "It is a major political project, not just a major archaeological project."

That could have major implications for the future. Analysts worry that the study could provide volatile new fuel to a growing fire of ethnocentric nationalism in China that could result in a more belligerent foreign-policy stance on issues such as Taiwan and China's leadership role in Asia. The claims about the Xia are already being promoted in China as evidence of the country's "sacred" past--a revealing echo of the claims Japan made in the 1930s about its own history, paving the way for its aggression in World War II.

"It should be a concern that Asia's fastest-growing power is promoting this kind of nationalism," says Barry Sautman, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies nationalism in China. "I'd see this project as more of a bad thing than a good thing."

The government launched what is officially called the "Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties Chronology Project" in 1996 in an attempt to pin down important dates in the foggy distances of China's ancient history. An elderly deputy premier, Song Jian, suggested the project as a way of mining the country's past to shore up its present leadership. Cash-starved archaeologists quickly took up the project as a way to secure funds for long-stalled digs.

Once the project became central-government policy, politicians around the country jumped on the bandwagon by promising public money or heading up project committees. Two prominent supporters included the then Communist Party chief of Henan province, Li Changchun--who is tipped to be China's next premier--and Deng Nan, a daughter of the since-deceased patriarch Deng Xiaoping, who is accused by some of having ignored traditional Chinese culture in the drive for economic reform. "Suddenly our career's work became the focus of everyone's attention," says Yang of the Henan institute.

Compared to the world's three other ancient civilizations--in present-day Egypt, India and Iraq--the origins of Chinese civilization have always been controversial. That's because of the long transition period between the various primitive cultures that existed along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers from roughly 8,000 to 3,000 B.C. and the beginning of the country's written record during the Zhou dynasty in 841 B.C.

The existence of the Shang dynasty (roughly 1,500 to 1,000 B.C.) was proved by the discovery of animal bones around Anyang in Henan in the 1920s and 1930s. Inscribed with an early form of Chinese characters, the relics described major events that were recorded in later, written histories. The Shang was a rather brutish civilization to be sure; this year, beneath the streets of the present-day Henan provincial capital of Zhengzhou, archaeologists dug up the bones of slaves and war prisoners who had been killed so that their skulls could be used as wine goblets. But its existence as a "civilization," with an organized state and a class system, is no longer in doubt.

The Xia, by contrast, has remained the stuff of legend. While it was mentioned by Sima Qian, a court historian in the 2nd century B.C., no artefacts have been unearthed to confirm his writings. That has been a cultural sore point in China, because it means the country cannot boast the world's most ancient civilization.

"Some people have raised strange slogans which people find hard to accept such as: 'China has only 3,000 years of history,'" the official magazine Henan Pictorial stated indignantly in a recent article about doubters of the Xia.

To remedy that, most of the Xia excavations during the current project have taken place around the village of Erlitou in Henan, where a settlement with a palace and relics dating from the 22nd century B.C. were first discovered in 1959. Hundreds more artefacts have been uncovered since then, but nothing like the Shang bones have surfaced to prove a dynasty existed.

"It's actually just stoked more debate," says Si Zhiping, deputy director of the Henan cultural-relics bureau. Many scholars, he says, think the Erlitou relics should be considered evidence of late primitive cultures, rather than full-blown civilizations. Others think they should just be considered a form of early Shang civilization. "There is a lot of disagreement--200 points at the last work-report meeting alone," he says.

The Xia project, however, isn't about academic debate. Several officials familiar with it say the evidence is being shoe-horned to fit the later histories of the Xia, rather than being allowed to speak for itself. Scholars like project leader Yang justify this approach by saying that since the classical texts were right about the Shang, they must be right about the Xia too. Yet as a foreign scholar notes: "The texts also said that the first Shang king was conceived when his mother stepped in the footprint of a giant bird."

The self-fulfilling approach of the project means that, for example, only the evidence dug up in the Henan area--which is where ancient texts said the Xia lived and ruled--is being considered part of the Xia heritage. But as one Peking University professor notes, the artefacts uncovered in different Henan sites often have more in common with others found in faraway provinces like Ningxia and Gansu than with each other.

Another example concerns the reigns of the 17 mythical emperors of the Xia named in ancient texts. Scholars have arbitrarily divided the 650 years of the Xia into 17 equal-sized segments. All the artefacts have then been carbon-dated and declared to belong to the corresponding reign. The result is an enticingly concise yet dangerously misleading "record" of the Xia dynasty.

Notes Li Yung-ti of the Academia Sinica in Taipei, one of the few Taiwan archaeologists allowed to work on ancient sites in China: "On a conservative basis, we should remain sceptical about the Xia. The details are too vague ever to offer conclusive evidence for its existence."

Despite the doubts, archaeologists working on the project say that the final report, whose publication is already a year overdue as a result of the internal disputes, will conclude that the Xia dynasty--and thus Chinese civilization--began around the year 2150 B.C. at Erlitou and continued for about 650 years until the Shang dynasty. The report also is likely to conclude that the reign of Emperor Yu, or the Great Yu--a mythical figure written about by Sima Qian--marked the dynasty's founding.

It will also trace the origins of the Xia back another 500 years by linking the Xia artefacts to those uncovered at a foundry site in northwestern Henan. Some scholars believe the site was used by a mythological figure called the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestor of all Chinese people. By this assertion, the site provides both an ethnocentric creation myth and a way to boast of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization all at once.

"The bottom line is people believe what they want to believe, and the Chinese today want to believe in the Xia dynasty," says a prominent Western scholar of ancient China who has followed the project closely. "There is a tremendous emotional investment in the truth of a Chinese historical tradition in which China is the grandest, oldest and most glorious of nations."

While it is too early to tell how the report will be used politically, the Xia myth is already becoming a powerful part of an emerging national mythology in China. For example, a mausoleum built in honour of the Great Yu in Zhejiang province last year has been used to attract Taiwanese who claim to have descended from him, which Beijing hopes will promote cross-straits reunification. Indeed, Beijing's rhetoric on the Taiwan issue is increasingly grounded in notions of shared ethnicity rather than territorial integrity.

Analysts worry that the tide of national mythology will overwhelm China's attempt to integrate itself into a new world of global cultures and values. Its role in Asia, especially its relationship to former tribute-bearing nations in Thailand, Burma and Vietnam, could also be coloured by an ethnocentric attitude, raising frictions and preventing cooperation as equals. Ultimately, virulent nationalism might be as self-destructive in China as it was in Japan. "There are many who believe that China cannot survive if it thinks it is a superior nation," says Sautman, the Hong Kong-based political scientist.

The key to which way it goes lies in Beijing. Says Sautman: "A lot will depend on whether future Chinese leaders continue to seek legitimacy through this sense of Chineseness."

Copyright 2000 Review Publishing Company Limited, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.