FP | Blatant ideological bias faded from scientific endeavors in the post-1978 reform era, but the ultimate goal of Chinese archaeology — to piece out the nation’s history — remained. The best-known example from that era is the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project, directly inspired by the achievements of Egyptian archaeology. State Councilor Song Jian toured Egypt in 1995 and was particularly impressed by a genealogy of the pharaohs that went back to the third millennium B.C. This prompted him to campaign for a project — included in the government’s ninth five-year plan — that would give Chinese dynasties a comparable record. Mobilizing over 200 experts on a budget of around $1.5 million over five years, the Chronology Project has been considered the largest state-sponsored project in the humanities since 1773, when the Qianlong emperor commissioned the Siku quanshu, an encyclopedia roughly 20 times the length of the Britannica.
Some questioned the Chronology Project’s motives. One of the most prominent detractors was University of Chicago historian Edward L. Shaughnessy, who complained, “There’s a chauvinistic desire to push the historical record back into the third millennium B.C., putting China on a par with Egypt. It’s much more a political and a nationalistic urge than a scholarly one.” Others criticized the project’s methods and results. The Stanford archaeologist Li Liu, for instance, took issue with the fact that it regarded the Xia as historical and fixed dates for it, when there is still no conclusive archaeological evidence for its existence.
But the project also had defenders, including Harvard anthropologist Yun Kuen Lee, who pointed out that “the intrinsic relationship between the study of the past and nationalism does not necessarily imply that the study of the past is inherently corrupted.” The usefulness of archaeology in bolstering a nation’s pride and legitimacy — explaining and, to some extent, justifying its language, culture, and territorial claims — means that most archaeological traditions have a nationalistic impulse behind them. Thus, in Israel, archaeology focuses on the period of the Old Testament; in the Scandinavian countries, it focuses on that of the Vikings. “The important question that we should ask,” Yun went on to say, “is if the scientists of the project were able to maintain scientific rigor.”
In some ways, Sun’s current theory is an unintended result of the Chronology Project’s scientific rigor. At the project’s launch in 1996, he was a Ph.D. student in the radiation laboratory of the University of Science and Technology. Of the 200 or so items of bronze ware he was responsible for analyzing, some came from the city of Yin. He found that the radioactivity of these Yin-Shang bronzes had almost exactly the same characteristics as that of ancient Egyptian bronzes, suggesting that their ores all came from the same source: African mines.
Perhaps anticipating serious controversy, Sun’s doctoral supervisor did not allow Sun to report his findings at the time. Sun was asked to hand over his data and switched to another project. Twenty years after the start of his research and now a professor in his own right, Sun is finally ready to say all he knows about the Yin-Shang and China’s Bronze Age culture.
Although the public has mostly received Sun’s theory with an open mind, it still lies outside the academic mainstream. Since the 1990s, most Chinese archaeologists have accepted that much of the nation’s Bronze Age technology came from regions outside of China. But it is not thought to have arrived directly from the Middle East in the course of an epic migration. The more prosaic consensus is that it was transmitted into China from Central Asia by a slow process of cultural exchange (trade, tribute, dowry) across the northern frontier, mediated by Eurasian steppe pastoralists who had contacts with indigenous groups in both regions.