Connection between Nationalism and Archaeology

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The development of Chinese archaeology was arguably both precarious and inflexible in nature, particularly during its formative years. Although changes have since been made to provide a much more accurate representation of findings, there is still ingrained ideologies that sway the way that Chinese archaeologists continue to interpret their findings. Archaeology in China has from its infancy, in the twentieth century, been utilized to work towards creating a collective identity, and to salvage a political and economic structure that was crumbling away (Liu, Jones 2008, 25). Thus, at one time academics were preoccupied with serving a particular narrative that they hoped would achieve this goal, that being a Marxist/Maoist approach.

The textbook states there are three types of archaeology and methodologies that fit into one of these categories: nationalist, colonialist, and imperialist (Liu and Chen, 2012). China in particular fits into the nationalist approach, and as such are largely preoccupied with giving credence to their existing natural history and to support the Marxist framework. This is not uncommon, as there are many instances of this approach occurring in Western countries such as Sweden and Germany during similar time periods. In the last twenty years, Chinese archaeology has expanded its methodology and has been more open minded to alternatives interpreted from their findings. As such when discussing Chinese Archaeology in terms of how and to what extent nationalism has affected it, it is important to consider why it became so. Rather, what made nationalism a central driving point for archaeological research in China, and why does it continue to persist? These are both questions to contemplate when looking at the past state of Chinese archaeology and its current presence.

        Arguably what sparked an increased interest in prehistory was the subsequent feelings of inferiority after years of imperialism. Foreign occupation and the opium wars had left its mark, and led many Chinese intellectuals to critically review the foundations of their world view, drawing on Confucianism and traditional textual histories (Liu, Jones 2008, 26). Predisposed thought, a product of high regard for the classics and history as it was written, was a salient driving point. However, history as it is written is not necessarily accurate, nor is it inclusive. Chinese history certainly did not consider ethnic minorities in written accounts, and its sphere does not go far beyond the upper class, dynasties, and grandiose rulers such as the sage-kings. The sage-kings were described as bringing the arts of civilization and government to China, inventing everything from farming to flood control. Modern scholars argue whether these sage-kings were early rulers around whom supernatural stories were built or ancient gods who were reinvented as historical rulers of a very ancient past (Rainey 2010, 2). Problematic is  the grand, sometimes bordering mythlike, stories were in the past largely taken as whole truths. Scholars grew able to recognize the grandiosity of these tales, but despite questioning them, they were very much set on finding proof behind them, as they were considered factual. What is more problematic is the process by which history and archaeology were synthesized early on in China. Instead of being viewed as its own field of study, archaeology is viewed as an extension of history, and its purpose it to provide evidence for the historical record as it exists rather than to be interpreted at a face value (Faulkenhausen 1993, 1).

It was after the period of continued forcible occupation by western influences and Japan, that Chinese scholars genuinely began to question antiquity, and prove China as a great country in the face of outside influences that had forced their way through its doors. Inadvertently, these years of unwelcome foreign involvement had piqued an enthusiasm for archaeological study. Up until this point little archaeological research had actually been done in China, however, in the late 19th  century scholars collected artifacts believing they were divine and highly regarded for their role in history. Modern Chinese archaeology would not  begin until some years later in 1921 when Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson, with the aid of Oscar Montelius a diffusionist, officially began excavations in Yangshao, in the Henan province of China in 1921. Some years later fieldwork led by the Institute of History and Philology began in 1928, where cultural ruminants were found in Anyang, Henan Province that proved the existence of the Shang dynasty. The latter was a crucial landmark and would later open many doors for future academics. These excavations continued for nine  years until the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war (Liu, Chen 2012, 2).

In the early stages, Chinese archaeology was heavily influenced by those very foreigners. Oscar Montelius, as a diffusionist believed that the birth of civilization began in the near east centering around great rivers such as the Nile. He believed from there, cultures developed and spread westward, to become modern day European societies. This thought was critical in developing Chinese archaeology, as it led to the eventual discovery of Yangshao. It also led to much debate over the origins of Chinese culture. Chinese scholars did not agree with this, because they felt as if Western scholars were thinking of China in terms of how it directly correlates to the west instead of being its own entity. The discovery of the Peking Man is 1927 helped to further distance China from the Western world. Scholars viewed this discovery has proof of an indigenous Chinese population as well as to add significance to the growing concept of racial nationalists who viewed the nation as a biological entity united by ties of blood, with a culture derived from immutable racial essence (Sautmen, 96). Due to this, the Peking Man was used as irrefutable evidence of a direct ancestor of contemporary Chinese. This idea was further ascertained by Franz Weidenreich, an anatomist from Germany. Although being later discredited for shoddy understanding of orthogenesis, the PRC nevertheless clings to this as the sire of the mongoloid race (Sautman 2001, 3).

It is this line of thought that encourages Chinese archaeologist to lean towards the multiple origins hypothesis as opposed to the widely accepted out of Africa.

For all intents and purposes, archaeology during the inception of the People's Republic of China was utilized as a tool for molding the people into a collective, one with a hive-mind mentality. There exists in China, 56 different ethnic groups, the largest of which being Han which consists

of over 90% of the population in modern times. Certain groups such as the Uyghurs of Xinjiang province face more persecution than others, but there is much discrimination between others as well. With this kind of disparity, and strong leaning towards the Han as being racially superior, the government sought to close the gap to ease tensions. One can infer that the People Republic of China did not necessarily intend on, nor did they ever think to entirely fill these gaps, but they did strive towards creating a conglomerate in which the different ethnic groups would function as parts of a whole. Rather, they strived to create a sum that is greater than its parts.  Nevertheless, Han Chinese were and continue to prevail as a dominant ethnic group, and racial tensions do not appear to be disappearing any time soon.

During the early 50's up into the mid 60's, many state-funded archaeological digs took place, and was a time in which cultural management was highly regarded. Ethno-nationalism was a persistent feature of the party's agenda, and archaeologists such as Xia Nai, who became the communist party's advisor (Liu, Jones 2008, 26), and Liyang Siyong, another prominent Chinese archaeologist worked towards these goals. The idea of ethno-nationalism, however, was not an original one. Although Xia Nai had revised multi-regional framework to fit his needs, this idea had already long since come to fruition. Lin Yan, in 1940, asserted that the Peking man was proof that the Chinese race had inhabited the area since the earliest stage of human history and development (Shwartz, Muller, Shaffer, Pradeu, 240). Archaeologists at this time had difficulty separating traditional studies of antiquities from archaeology, and because of this, the holistic approach the field has to offer was overlooked. Particular importance was, and to this day, remained seated on written documents and findings that provide evidence to their validity.

This changed dramatically after the end of the cultural revolution when ideologies became considerably lax in comparison to prior years, and it was more acceptable to adopt western frameworks for archaeological study. Although the umbrella of subjects expanded, modern Chinese archaeology still lacks many taxonomies that other archaeological research methods have. Regardless, scholars have made substantial progress in the last 40 years regarding the origins of early humans, agriculture, and civilization (Liu, Chen 2008, 14). Some struggle, however, still remains when separating nationalist ideologies and providing an accurate narrative arising from the evidence offered from sites.

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Connection Between Nationalism and Archaeology. (2019, Dec 18). Retrieved December 4, 2023 , from

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