Published: July 2003

The New Story of China's Ancient Past

By Peter Hessler
Photographs by O. Louis Mazzatenta
At the archaeological site called Huanbei Shang City, a young girl peeks at the excavation of the largest building ever discovered from the Shang dynasty, which ruled on China's Yellow River plain from about 1600 to 1045 b.c. The structure might have been a palace, suggesting that this area once served as the Shang capital. According to the late K. C. Chang, a preeminent authority on early China, "The Shang civilization . . . not only became a society of great sophistication, but was also the first of the great Chinese political 'kingdoms.' "

When ancient cities get lost in China, they get lost in places like Anyang. The ebbs and flows of 20th-century history rushed across this part of the Yellow River plain, leaving their traces like so much jumbled driftwood. Outside of Anyang stands the tomb of warlord Yuan Shikai, who briefly seized control of the nation in the 1910s. Anyang's new downtown—white tile, blue glass—is a monument to another conqueror, the modernization of post-reform China. Wedged between the tomb and the town, there's an old airstrip that was built by Japanese imperialists during their occupation in the 1930s.

Directly beneath the Japanese airstrip, an entire city had waited for over 3,000 years to be rediscovered. When I first visited in September 2000, the underground city was poised to reappear as one of China's most significant archaeological discoveries.

But Zhichun Jing wasn't in a hurry. The 36-year-old, who has degrees in archaeology and geology from universities in China and the United States, moved to his own rhythms. He was careful, precise. He smiled easily. His open face was a work of simple geometry: round head, round cheeks, round-rimmed glasses.

"You have to look at the landscape in a dynamic way," he told me, as we walked through recently harvested stalks of corn that bordered the old airfield. "It might be completely different now from what it was 3,000 years ago."

Beneath our feet the earth was riddled with tiny holes, the work of a joint project of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the University of Minnesota, with support from the National Geographic Society. The holes were about two inches (five centimeters) in diameter, and they had been dug with Luoyang spades—a tubular blade attached to a long pole. Each hole extended straight down for more than eight feet (2.5 meters), deep enough to extract sediment cores containing traces of buried man-made features. At a glance, archaeologists can "read" such cores and tell whether they are standing above a buried wall, a tomb, or a rubbish pit.

Jing and the others called this site Huanbei Shang City. Since 1996, when a systematic survey revealed evidence of a buried settlement, they had been mapping it with Luoyang spades, and by 1999 they had traced the city wall, which encloses an area of nearly two square miles (five square kilometers). The site dates from roughly the 14th century b.c., during the peak of the Shang culture that flourished on the Yellow River plain from about 1600 to 1045 b.c. Because Huanbei might be the area's first urban settlement, archaeologists see it as a rare opportunity to trace the early stages of civilization in China.

Huanbei also represents the latest chapter in the rediscovery of the Shang and other Bronze Age cultures. A hundred years ago the Shang dynasty was as lost as this ancient city, existing only in historical texts that dated from the Zhou dynasty—hundreds of years after the Shang fell. While most Chinese scholars traditionally accepted such sources, Westerners often dismissed them as mythical.

But over the course of the 20th century, the Shang steadily reappeared, the myths replaced by tangible artifacts: massive bronzes, eloquent oracle bones, burial complexes where thousands of people had been sacrificed to a hungry faith. China's recorded history starts with the Shang: Their writing is the earliest known script in East Asia. And history always seems to return to the Shang, because the search for this ancient culture has been shaped in part by the trials of modern China. Archaeologists like Jing uncover not only artifacts but also the subtle interplay between past and present.

Jing paused in the middle of the pock­marked field. He told me that in other parts of China archaeologists can recognize features on the horizon: a hill may represent a burial mound, and a ridge might reflect an old wall. But in this corner of Henan Province, river floods and redeposited loess soil have buried the past deep beneath the surface.

"We're looking at human society in three dimensions," Jing said. "It's not just the surface that matters. We had to add a third dimension: the time dimension." He squinted into the distance: cornstalks, soybean fields, parasol trees. Peasants working steadily. "You can look all around and see nothing," he continued. "But in fact this was the first city in the area. If you don't add time, you'll find nothing."

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