In China, Ancient History Kindles Modern Doubts

The New York Times

November 10, 2000


BEIJING. Everyone here knows that Chinese civilization has 5,000 years of uninterrupted history, a truism proudly repeated by schoolchildren and President Jiang Zemin alike. But as serious scholars have long conceded, hard proof of the first 2,000 years is missing.

Today, scholars announced the results of an urgent government-sponsored research program that -- using "the superiority of socialism to develop a multidisciplinary approach" -- has filled in key gaps in the ancient record of China's first kings and dynasties. The project, which mobilized more than 200 scholars for five years, has been hailed for shedding light on the murky origins of Chinese civilization. But it has also raised questions about the role of nationalism in scholarship.

Ample evidence does exist of early cultures in the Yellow River Valley, where legend holds that the Chinese language and imperial system took form under a mythical Yellow Emperor 5,000 years ago. But no firmly documented chronology of rulers, reigns and conquests -- of the sort that exists for ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia -- actually goes back beyond 841 B.C.

"This has been a major regret for Chinese history and world history," said Li Xueqin, a prominent historian, today at a news conference to disclose the results of the project.

Mr. Li, the project's director, was certainly understating the despair that many scholars and officials have felt about the history problem. China is a country obsessed with its past, as a source of national worth and an explanation for every foible.

Mr. Li announced that the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project, named for the three early dynasties under study, "has been able to solve a series of longstanding questions about early Chinese civilization." He said the project had yielded the most reliable time line yet for these dynasties, the earliest of which is said to date back more than 4,000 years.

He also said scholars in disciplines including archaeology, astronomical history, early manuscripts and the parsing of inscriptions on bronze vessels and divination bones had made many new discoveries and synthesized the sketchy evidence. Project leaders hope their newly detailed dating of early emperors will soon enter the world's textbooks and museum exhibits.

Tonight the report was featured in television news and newspapers, which ran headlines like "Chinese History Pushed Back 1,229 Years."

But the project has been questioned by other scholars, here and abroad, who say its authors, driven by a political urge to document Chinese culture's primacy and uniqueness, have tried to leapfrog the slow, disorderly march of science. Project researchers resolutely deny anyone told them what to find, but critics say they have forced an illusion of consensus in some cases.

"There's a chauvinistic desire to push the historical record back into the third millennium B.C., putting China on a par with Egypt," said Edward L. Shaughnessy, a historian at the University of Chicago. "It's much more a political and a nationalistic urge than a scholarly one."

Several Chinese historians and archaeologists have argued with the project leaders or refused to take part, said one scholar, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But today Mr. Li and others were adamant about the conclusions' having been drawn fairly and cautiously, through a form of "academic democracy."

The research enterprise was begun in 1995 by Song Jian, a senior official overseeing China's science policies. "A history without chronology is no history at all," Mr. Song wrote in a newspaper article this fall. "It can only be called rumor or myth."

Li Tieying, a member of the Communist Party Politburo as well as president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has said: "The project is an important scientific study and also has major political and cultural significance. Explicating Chinese civilization will necessarily strengthen our national cohesiveness and raise our national self-confidence and pride."

From the outset, the scholars acknowledged that they were unlikely to stretch history all the way back to the fabled Yellow Emperor. Instead they set out to enrich knowledge of three dynasties that they say reigned from about 2070 B.C., the beginning of the reputed Xia Dynasty, to 771 B.C., when the Zhou Dynasty fell. All are believed to have been agricultural societies with elaborate rituals of divination and sacrifice.

Evidence for the very existence of a Xia Dynasty remains slender.

Though it is mentioned in history books centuries later, the name does not appear on archaeological finds from the period, or even in inscriptions from the centuries that followed its supposed demise. Some Western scholars feel it remains more legend than fact.

Still, the project takes as already proven the existence of the Xia as a precursor empire to the better-established Shang, pointing to a site uncovered at Erlitou, Henan Province, in 1959 as the probable capital.

Today the presumed palace walls at Erlitou lie under farmland. After the site was excavated and documented, it was covered for protection and local farmers moved in. A few hundred yards away, trained villagers dig in a related excavation, and a few yards beyond them, new buildings are being built.

The report today concludes that the Xia ruled from around 2070 B.C. to 1600 B.C., though it does not try to date the reign of each Xia ruler.

The scholars were able to muster new findings about the Shang Dynasty, which is believed to have reigned in the Yellow River area centered on present-day Henan and Shaanxi Provinces for the following 550 years, but fixed rulers' exact dates only for the later Shang era, after 1300 B.C.

Early in the 20th century, many scholars doubted traditional claims of a Shang Dynasty, too. But then discoveries of "oracle bones" -- animal bones bearing inscriptions used to decipher the future -- proved its existence. There was also evidence that the Shang engaged in human sacrifice and may have held slaves.

By all accounts, the project has also helped clarify the formerly confused chronology of the early Zhou Dynasty, which produced beautiful bronzes seen in world museums.

But one of the most contentious and important questions involves the timing of the Zhou conquest of the Shang. The event's date is vital to chronology before and after, but scholars must sort out contradictory signs from early inscriptions, reports of Jupiter's position in the sky and accounts in ancient documents of disputed authenticity.

The project's decision to settle on 1046 B.C. as the probable date for the fall of the Shang -- the date became widely known when draft reports were circulated -- angered some scholars.

One historian, Jiang Xiaoyuan of Jiaotong University in Shanghai, complained in an interview that his published conclusions about the conquest year, developed under project auspices, had been set aside by project leaders to support the date they preferred. But Mr. Jiang also acknowledged that the project had brought fresh funding and modern equipment to starved disciplines and had "vastly advanced the study of China's ancient history."

David S. Nivison, emeritus professor of Chinese studies at Stanford University, said he was outraged by the selection of 1046, which he said contradicted research he had submitted to the project. His favored date is 1040, but whoever is right, he says, insisting on a single date now is intellectually dishonest.

"It's going to be a mess," Mr. Nivison said, adding that international scholars were likely to tear the report "to pieces."

"These are going to be seen as the dates pronounced to be correct by the Chinese government," Mr. Nivison said. "For the government of China to be in this position may poison scholarship for generations."

Mr. Li, the project director, replied today: "Our findings are, I believe, the best that can be obtained at present. That doesn't mean there can't be further progress."

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