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An Jiayao: Archaeology bridges past and future

REN GUANHONG | 2021-02-04
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

An Jiayao has long engaged in archaeological research of the Han and Tang dynasties, ancient glass items, ancient city ruins, and the preservation of archaeological sites. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST


An Jiayao is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a researcher from the China Central Institute for Culture and History, and a corresponding member of the German Archaeological Institute. In a recent interview with CSST, this renowned archaeologist shed light on the archaeological excavations and studies of relics from the Han (202 BCE–220 CE) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, the history of Chinese glass, and her own experiences. 
 
CSST: Could you elaborate on the Tang Dynasty's capital city and architecture, and their influences? 
 
An Jiayao: Sure. The Tang Dynasty is considered an age of political unity, economic prosperity, cultural splendor, and flourishing international communication. As the capital of the Tang Dynasty, Chang'an (in present-day Xi’an, Shaanxi Province) was a great cosmopolitan city with a population of over one million. Since 1957, the Institute of Archaeology at CASS has done comprehensive surveys and excavations of Chang’an sites. The structural layout and history of this ancient city has been substantially clarified. 
 
The Tang capital, Chang'an, was built upon the foundation of Daxing city, the capital of the Sui Dynasty (581–618). As the most magnificent city in the world at that time, the city of Chang'an was built upon past achievements and inspired the capital planning of later dynasties, evidenced by the circular mound altar (huanqiu) located in Chang'an and the dragon-ramps in front of the Hanyuan Hall, the main hall of the Tang Dynasty imperial palace complex, also known as the Daming Palace. 
 
We finished the excavation of the huanqiu in 1999. The circular mound altar was a sacrificial building where the emperors offered sacrifices to heaven and prayed for successful harvests. Constructed as early as the Sui Dynasty and used by the Tang rulers for over 300 years, this altar is more than 1,000 years older than the Circular Mound Altar within the Temple of Heaven complex in Beijing, and is the only one in China (found so far) pre-dating the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). 
 
Different from the magnificent design of the Circular Mound Altar in Beijing, a triple-tiered white stone terrace decorated with lavishly carved white marble, the Sui and Tang altar looked simple and plain. It was constructed of rammed earth and covered with a layer of gray-white paste. This building style can be traced back to Neolithic times. After the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE), all the sacrificial activities conducted by kings and emperors were performed on the basis of the Li ritual system, which was established during the Zhou era. However, interpretation and understanding of these rituals have varied from dynasty to dynasty. According to historical records, Emperor Wu of Han (156–87 BCE) conducted rituals on an altar that was beautifully ornamented. By contrast, Emperor Cheng of Han (51–7 BCE) took advice from his chancellor Kuang Heng, who suggested that less ornaments represented a deeper respect for heaven. Emperor Cheng built a circular altar to worship heaven and a square altar to worship earth in the suburbs of Chang’an, the capital city of Han. This design was adopted by the Eastern Han (25–220), Wei, Jin, and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (220–589). The design of the altar in Sui and Tang reflected a resurgence in rites conducted by Emperor Cheng of Han. It indicated that people at that time used natural materials and sought simplicity to show their respect and sincerity for heaven. 
 
Dragon-ramps usually refer to long, steep ramps. Before excavations of the Hanyuan Hall, inspired by the three stairways to the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City of the Ming and Qing (1368–1911) dynasties, people believed that a standard imperial hall was equipped with three dragon-ramps, including a central stairway reserved exclusively for the emperor, and two stairways on its right and left sides, leading court officials into the hall. However, archaeological excavations in the Hanyuan Hall site disprove the dominance of this deep-rooted idea. 
 
In 1995, I took charge of the second excavation of the Hanyuan Hall. We discovered the remains of two dragon-ramps in front of the Xiangluan Pavilion and the Qifeng Pavilion, which were located in the east and west of the Hanyuan Hall respectively, connected to the hall by corridors. However, we found no trace of the central ramp that was supposed to be exclusively for the emperor to walk into the hall. I rechecked my excavation procedure, but didn't find any mistakes. Moreover, we did find the undamaged ground and brickwork of the Tang Dynasty, but did not find any traces of such a central path. Therefore, a bold idea struck: maybe there were only two dragon-ramps during the Tang era. After scrupulous research and discussions, my inference was eventually acknowledged and accepted by other archaeologists. This finding updated our knowledge of how a Tang emperor reached the Hanyuan Hall to hold court. The hall where Tang emperors lived was north of the Hanyuan Hall. Logically, emperors likely entered the Hanyuan Hall through its northern gate. 
 
Japan communicated frequently with the Tang Empire. Traces of dragon-ramps can also be found on ancient building grounds in Japan. When excavating the First Great Hall of the Heijō Palace, Mr. Akira Machida, former director of Japan's Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, discovered two circuitous ramps on the eastern and western sides leading to the hall. This discovery was questioned by Japan's architectural historians, as they wondered how the rulers entered the First Great Hall in ancient times. Mr. Akira Machida was excited when he heard the discovery of the dragon-ramps leading to the Hanyuan Hall, because it explained why there were only two ramps leading to the hall of the Heijō Palace: The First Great Hall was modeled after China's Hanyuan Hall. 
 
CSST: The origin of Chinese glassware has been debated. According to your research, the earliest glass items in China might be imported. How did glass-making grow and develop in ancient China? 
 
An Jiayao: Archaeological evidence suggests that glass was first made in Mesopotamia between the 25th and 23rd century BCE. However, the origin of Chinese glass is still uncertain. Studies of unearthed glass artifacts in China suggest that between the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) and the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), there were two types of glass objects in China—imported glass and indigenous glass. The indigenous objects varied greatly in chemical composition from the imported. The indigenous glasses of this period were mostly lead glass with lead oxide as a flux, distinguishing them from the soda-lime glasses of Western Asia that mostly used soda as a flux. 
 
"Eye beads," or "dragonfly-eyed beads," play a crucial role in studying the origins of Chinese glasses. Eye beads, which originated in Western Asia, were beads covered in several layers of colored glass to produce concentric circles. The patterns of circles resemble eyes, giving the beads their name. Glass beads evolved over a long period of time in the West. In China, however, the earliest eye beads and the other glass objects appeared almost simultaneously during the late Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE). Chemical analyses showed that these were soda-lime glassware. These findings indicate that the earliest glass objects which appeared in China were imported. During the middle of the Warring States Period, the eye beads and the other glass items emerged in large numbers, and they had a high lead and barium content. These glass items were probably made by Chinese craftsmen as imitations of Western Asian glassware. They represent the earliest archaeological evidence for glass manufacturing in China. 
 
Although the impetus for production of indigenous glasses might have been inspired by Western Asia, indigenous glasses were more than just imitations of Western Asian glasses: they were made with strong traditional Chinese features. For example, the double-handled glass cups unearthed from the tomb of Liu Sheng from Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE–8 CE), were traditional Chinese shapes. Vessels in this form were normally made out of lacquer, which were most common in Han Dynasty tombs. In Hunan, Hubei, and Henan provinces, we also discovered a large number of indigenous eye beads dating to the Warring States Period. Compared with imported eye beads, these indigenous eye beads were bigger in size and brighter in color, and the concentric circles on the beads were changed into eccentric circles. These eccentric circles were combined with different geometrical figures, thus creating more complex designs, making the indigenous eye beads more beautiful than foreign beads of the time. 
 
CSST: Some people assume that most archaeologists are male since archaeology is a hard labor. Do you believe that women face more challenges in the field of archaeology? 
 
An Jiayao: I don't think so. In China, we may have more male archaeologists than female ones. However, in the West, the proportion of women in this field may be higher. When I was young, people were very independent and advocated gender equality. Hence, I don't think being a woman imposes an extra load on my career. On contrary, a woman's attention to detail and the ability to analyze empathically benefits my work a lot. 
 
Admittedly, the conditions for archaeological work were really awful in the past. I still remember the time when we were excavating the Linde Hall site of the Daming Palace complex in Xi'an. It was in winter, but we still had to use mosquito nets to surround our beds, because there were many rats running on the roof, which made plaster fall from ceiling. However, the sense of accomplishment and fun that archaeological work has brought to me far exceeds the hardships. 
 
I was once invited to take part in an archaeological project in the US. At the excavation site, the American archaeologists and I spent the night in tents. It was so cold that I couldn't fall asleep. However, with stars twinkling in the sky and the rustlings of cows somewhere distant, it was such much fun. 

Edited by REN GUANHONG