History of Chinese archaeology

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Chinese archaeology has been practiced since the Song Dynasty.


A cylindrical bronze wine container made during the late Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1050 BC); such items were excavated by gentry scholars of the Song Dynasty (960–1279).[1]

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the scholar Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) analyzed alleged ancient artifacts bearing archaic inscriptions in bronze and stone, which he preserved in a collection of some 400 rubbings;[2] Patricia Ebrey writes that he pioneered early ideas in epigraphy.[3]

The Kaogutu (考古圖) or "Illustrated Catalogue of Examined Antiquity" (preface dated 1092) compiled by Lü Dalin (呂大臨) (1046–1092) is one of the oldest known catalogues to systematically describe and classify ancient artifacts which were unearthed.[4] Another catalogue was the Chong xiu Xuanhe bogutu (重修宣和博古圖) or "Revised Illustrated Catalogue of Xuanhe Profoundly Learned Antiquity" (compiled from 1111 to 1125), commissioned by Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100 – 1125), and also featured illustrations of some 840 vessels and rubbings.[1][2][5] This catalogue was criticized by Hong Mai (洪迈) (1123–1202), who found that descriptions of certain ancient vessels dating to the Han Dynasty were incorrect when he compared them to actual Han Dynasty specimens he obtained for study.[5]

Song scholars established a formal system of dating these artifacts by examining their inscriptions, decorative motif styles, and physical shapes.[4] Zhao Mingcheng (1081–1129) stressed the importance of utilizing ancient inscriptions to correct discrepancies and errors in later texts discussing ancient events, such as with dates, geographical locations of historical events, genealogies, and official titles.[2][4][6]

Bruce G. Trigger writes that interests in antiquarian studies of ancient inscriptions and artifacts waned after the Song Dynasty, but were revived by early Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) scholars such as Gu Yanwu (1613–1682) and Yan Ruoju (1636–1704).[1] Craig Clunas also states that epigraphic studies weren't revived until the Qing Dynasty, but that printed copies of the Chong xiu Xuanhe bogutu were widely circulated in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).[7] Trigger asserts that archaeology as a discipline of its own never developed in China and was always considered a branch of historiography instead.[8]


  1. ^ a b c Trigger (2006), 74–75.
  2. ^ a b c Clunas (2004), 95.
  3. ^ Ebrey (1999), 148.
  4. ^ a b c Trigger (2006), 74.
  5. ^ a b Rudolph (1963), 171.
  6. ^ Rudolph (1963), 170.
  7. ^ Clunas (2004), 97.
  8. ^ Trigger (2006), 75–76.


  • Clunas, Craig. (2004). Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-2820-8.
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1999). The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-66991-X (paperback).
  • Rudolph, R.C. "Preliminary Notes on Sung Archaeology," The Journal of Asian Studies (Volume 22, Number 2, 1963): 169–177.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. (2006). A History of Archaeological Thought: Second Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-84076-7.