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Origins and Development of Archaeology in China
Around the time of the May 4th Movement (a political and cultural movement that arose in Beijing in 1919 as a reaction against imperialism and feudalism) Western ideas were making their way into China.

Alongside the introduction of new concepts of science and democracy from the West came the Euro-centric notion that Chinese culture had its roots in the West. This was trumpeted so loudly by the Western scholars of the day that many Chinese intellectuals began to waiver in their convictions as to the origins and evolution of ancient Chinese civilization.

It was against this background that some Chinese scholars became inspired to work to reestablish the national sense of self-confidence by tracing the true historical roots of Chinese culture.

And so in the 1920s and 1930s the first field work at Zhoukoudian in Beijing and Yinxu in Henan Province heralded the beginnings of archaeology in China.

No sooner had the People’s Republic of China been founded in 1949 than the central government set up the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and brought in legislation to preserve the nation’s historical relics.

During the 1950s and 1960s work resumed at Zhoukoudian and Yinxu and Chinese archaeologists undertook large-scale field surveys and excavations at various prehistoric sites. These included Banpo, Beishouling, Miaodigou, Qujialing and Dawenkou.

They investigated Erlitou, Zhengzhou and Fenggao dating back to the Shang (c.2100-1600 BC) and the Western Zhou (c.1100-771 BC); Houma from the Jin (265-420); the Chang’an city site of the Western Han (206 BC- AD 25) and Tang (618-907) and Yuandadu built during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

When a complete chariot pit came to light at Liulige in Hui County, Henan Province, it amazed archaeological circles around the world.

After 1976, archaeology in China saw rapid development. The Archaeological Society of China was established in April 1979.

The Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys have attracted particular attention from archaeologists, as have the prehistoric sites of the southwest frontiers and northern deserts.

Increasing frequent academic exchanges with foreign institutions have helped introduce the technology necessary to facilitate such new fields of study as underwater and aerial archaeology.

Since the well-known Zhoukoudian cave site was first excavated in the 1920s, many finds of early human fossils and Paleolithic sites have made China an important center for research into human origins and evolution.

Through systematic field survey and careful excavation, Chinese paleoanthropologists have been successful in lifting the veil on the way of life, means of survival and evolutionary path followed by Homo erectus, Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens in the area over the past one or two million years.

Archaeological investigations into the Neolithic period based on many years of fieldwork have shown conclusively that agriculture had started in China more than 10,000 years ago.

Research into the evolution of prehistoric settlements has made much headway with discoveries at village sites such as Banpo in Xi’an and Jiangzhai in Lintong, Shaanxi Province.

Discoveries of Neolithic cultures at Hongshan, Liangzhu, Longshan and elsewhere have drawn worldwide attention to the origins of Chinese civilization.

Excavating cities and grand tombs have brought the life of ancient societies back into the light of day. Historical insights have been gleaned from finds of inscribed tortoise shell and animal bone, bamboo slips and many texts written on silk. Archaeologists have extended their scientific enquiry to ancient mines, kilns, workshops and bridges and to ships sunk in antiquity.

Working alongside the major civil engineering and construction projects fuelled by the country’s now rapid economic development, archaeologists have in recent years dedicated themselves to saving endangered cultural relics.

The achievements of Chinese Archaeology have captured the imagination of the world. They make an impressive list: from Neolithic Banpo; Sanxingdui in Guanghan, Sichuan Province; the Qinshihuang Mausoleum (tomb of the first Qin Emperor) with its famous guardian terracotta warriors and horses; the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, Shanxi Province; the Dunhuang Grottoes in Gansu Province; ancient Luoyang City from the Sui and Tang dynasties and Beijing’s Dingling (tomb of the Ming Emperor Zhu Yijun). It is a list which seems to just go on and on.

Archaeologists have presented the story of the development of Chinese civilization from its early beginnings right through to maturity and prosperity.

(China.org.cn by Shao Da, February 6, 2003)

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