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Gatekeepers of heritage —Four Chinese archaeologists

LIU YINGYING | 2020-08-19
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Jia Lanpo (right) working at the archaeological site of Zhoukoudian, the home of Peking Man Photo: PEOPLE’S DAILY


“You have all the Chinese archaeologists on your side. In the future, you will be a rockstar in the field of archaeology.” Recently, Zhong Fangrong, a “left-behind girl” (children in rural areas who are usually taken care of by their grandparents while their parents work better-paying jobs in the city) from Leiyang, Hunan Province, scored 676 out of 750 on this year’s national college entrance exam (the score allowed her to choose almost any major at any school in China). She then drew online attention when she decided to study archaeology at Peking University, largely because many Chinese netizens believed that archaeology could not promise a lucrative career. However, China’s archaeological sector cheered the news. A number of museums and archaeology research institutes have taken to social media to back Zhong’s choice or send gifts to this aspiring archaeologist. Fan Jinshi, a female archaeologist who has deeply inspired Zhong, sent Zhong a letter to encourage her to stay true to her dreams and to work hard. 
 
This news has made the low-profile archaeological world a trending topic on the internet. What it is like to be an archaeologist? The answer may lie in the experiences of four pioneering Chinese archaeologists. 
 
A self-taught archaeologist 
Jia Lanpo (1908–2001) was a paleoanthropologist and an archaeologist specializing in Paleolithic archaeology. He never received professional training in archaeology because he didn’t go to college after graduating from high school. However, he unearthed three fossilized skulls (which were about 600,000 years old) at the Zhoukoudian cave complex near Beijing during the 1930s. 
 
In 1931, recommended by a friend, Jia went on to work for the Geological Survey of China. “Archaeology is hard work. Why do you want to be an archaeologist?” the director of the institute asked him. “To make a living,” Jia answered. Though his pursuit was “simple,” Jia became one of the most preeminent archaeologists in China because of his inquiring attitude towards learning and hard work. 
 
In November 1931, a worker at the Zhoukoudian site found a piece of walnut-sized bone and put it in a twig basket. Jia picked it up, realizing that it was a piece of a human skull. Later, he dug up all the pieces of the skull one by one, washing, drying, restoring and sticking them together. After all this was done, a complete fossilized skull appeared, marking the beginning of China’s field of archaeological anthropology. Later, Jia helped excavate the fossilized remains of the Dingcun Man (from about 120,000–100,000 years ago) and the Lantian Man (from about 1,500,000–700,000 years ago). These discoveries pushed the origin-narrative of humans on the Chinese mainland back over one million years. 
 
In his later years, Jia wrote many scientific articles for children. What he was concerned about most was the shortage of archaeological talent. So Jia taught and trained many archaeologists himself, making another great contribution to archaeology in China. 
 
We are not treasure-hunters 
Highly regarded artifacts, such as the silk funeral banners from Mawangdui (the most famous artifact from Mawangdui, depicting the Chinese cosmos and the afterlife at the time of the Western Han Dynasty) and the golden crown of the Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty excavated from Dingling, were all discovered by Xia Nai (1910–1985), regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern Chinese archaeology. 
 
Xia was the first archaeologist to use strict scientific methods to carry out field excavations in China. In 1950, Xia conducted the excavation of the horse and chariot sacrificial pits of the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) in Liulige, Henan Province. It was in winter and the site was covered with snow and ice. Jia spent days working in the sacrificial pits, warming himself by a charcoal fire and digging. Finally, the remains of 19 wooden chariots were unearthed from the pits. Later, he directed the excavations of Dingling (the mausoleum in which the Wanli Emperor was buried) and Mawangdui (the burial place of a high-ranking official of the Han Dynasty), which was a real shock to the entire archaeological academe. 
 
Xia also promoted the application of scientific techniques in archaeology. He launched the first Carbon-14 dating laboratory in China in 1955, resulting in a great leap forward for China’s archaeological research. 
 
Despite having unearthed many national treasures, Xia insisted that archaeologists were not treasure hunters. He believed that the significance of archaeology didn’t lie in cultural relics, but in the possibility to “reconstruct” ancient society and life. This belief has influenced later generations ever since. 
 
The first female Chinese archaeologist 
In May 1979, a 3,000-year-old giant tomb was unearthed in Anyang, Henan Province. This tomb was identified as the final resting place of Fu Hao, the queen of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and also the first female military general whose role has been evidenced by archaeological findings. The archaeologist who led the excavation of Fu Hao’s tomb was the first female Chinese archaeologist, Zheng Zhenxiang. 
 
In 1962, Zheng arrived at Yin Xu (the ruins of the ancient Shang Dynasty capital Yin) within the modern city of Anyang, where she spent over 30 years conducting excavations and archaeological surveys. Before her arrival, excavations at Yin Xu had been held for a long time, however, nothing significant had been found. As the new team leader, Zheng overcame enormous skepticism to continue the excavations. A rare, lavish tomb of the Shang Dynasty was finally discovered. The find left other archaeologists stunned and the tomb of Fu Hao was listed among the world’s top 10 archaeological discoveries of the year. After this, Zheng chose to stay at Yin Xu, where she continued working at the forefront of archaeology up until 2002. 
 
Dunhuang is where my heart belongs 
“When I lie down to sleep, I’m thinking of Dunhuang; when I wake up, I still think of Dunhuang.” In 1963, a Shanghai young woman named Fan Jinshi graduated from the School of Archaeology and Museology in Peking University. She went to the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, a magnificent treasure trove of Buddhist art deep in the middle of the deserts in Northwest China. This place turned out to be Fan’s working place and residence for more than half a century. 
 
The early days in Dunhuang were difficult. However, the terrible living conditions and shortage of water and electricity didn’t bother Fan much, as she was overwhelmed by the magnificent Buddhist art in those caves. Over the years, she has made outstanding contributions to the cause of preserving and researching the Dunhuang Grottoes. 
 
With Fan’s efforts, a complete set of digital technologies focusing on the preservation of the Dunhuang Grottoes has been established. The Chinese and English versions of the online “Digital Dunhuang” allow a global audience to enjoy the high-definition murals and painted sculptures found within the 30 grottoes. 
 
This article was edited and translated from People’s Daily. 
 
edited by REN GUANHONG