Oracle Bones

In Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present* I found the story of Xu Chaolong.(p.194) I found it interesting because of what it says about the current role of history and scholarship in China.

Xu is from Sichuan and got a degree in archeology from Sichuan University before going on to do graduate work at Kyoto. He now lives in Japan with his Japanese wife, and publishes his research on Chinese archeology exclusively in Japanese. He supports himself in by working for a Japanese cell-phone company.

Hessler suggests that Xu is to some extent an exile from the Chinese scholarly community, and he is that, at least in part because his work does not work with the traditional approach to early Chinese archeology. In China the field is still dominated by the Yellow River approach that attempts to use archeology to fill out the story of the creation of the one Chinese culture and its absorption and assimilation of lesser, regional cultures. Xu is an unabashed Sichuan regionalist, who is trying to advance a view that makes the rice areas equal to the North in the story of China “We need to recognize that Chinese civilization has more than one heart. There were two ancient centers that eventually became unified.”

Hessler is comparing Xu to the American Robert Bagley, who is also an archeologist although he teaches at Princeton rather than hawking cellphones. Bagley is also suspicious of the master narrative of China, and as he points out that is in part because he is a foreigner. I would point out that he is also an American and thus more likely to be suspicious of what a “melting pot” narrative might conceal. It struck me, however, that Xu is actually less like Bagley than Hessler seems to think. Both dislike the stultifying conservatism of Chinese archeology, but Xu is attempting to replace it with another unitary narrative, only this one with two sources instead of one. He also seems deeply interested in stealing the title of “first cultivators of rice” away from the Southeast Asians, not a quest that is likely to motivate most foreign scholars.

More importantly, perhaps, Bagley and Xu are in a different relationship with the scholarly world. Bagley is a tenured academic, and if asked what relationship his work has to China’s current economic development he would probably say “none.” Xu hints that finding out more about China’s rice past will accelerate development from an old, Northern, political China, to a new, Southern, economic China. Xu says

“Jiang Zemin recently vistied the Sanxingdui bronzes, and I know from a friend there that Jiang was very interested. Look at the rest of the government—why are so many leaders from the south?” They have their own great ancient civilization, and they need to discover it, to explore it. Once they explore their past, the people will have more confidence. They’ll have more power to develop their economy; they’ll have more voice in the political system. Politics, economic, and culture are inseparable.” (p.195)

More (maybe) on this later, but I thought it was an interesting bit on what academics are and what sort of narratives they try to create and why they matter.

*Harper Collins sent me this book for free without my even asking for it. Usually that happens only with American History textbooks. Publishers should be on notice that if I am sent a free book that seems interesting I will certainly read it. So far this one looks like a good book. The author is a New Yorker writer going around China looking for things to write about (always a danger sign) but he is well-enough hooked into scholarship to make it a good read for the likes of me

Yangtze Seen as Earliest Rice Site
Dennis Normile
Science > New Series, Vol. 275, No. 5298 (Jan., 1997), p. 309

Discusses Xu and rice

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