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Recasting the past

From:China Daily NetWriter:Wang KaihaoDate:2019-10-29

Modern technology and 60 years of historical analysis are shining fresh light on the earliest central dynasty of China, Wang Kaihao reports in Luoyang, Henan province.

Just as the ancient city of Troy is to Western civilization, the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century-16th century BC), the first central dynasty in recorded Chinese history, is the stuff of legend in China.

Generations of archaeologists have attempted to prove its existence as more than a mere myth through a succession of excavations across the Central China Plain-a region generally regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization.

But thanks to carbon dating at the ruins of the ancient capital that existed from 1750 to 1520 BC discovered at Erlitou in Luoyang, Henan province, fresh light is being cast on many of the puzzles archaeologists have struggled to solve over the years.

A turquoise-inlaid bronze plate with an animal mask pattern, which was unearthed from Erlitou site in 1984. [Photo provided to China Daily]

On Oct 20, the 164,000-square-meter Erlitou Relic Museum of the Xia Capital, which took 600 million yuan ($85 million) and 30 months to construct, opened to the public alongside a 700,000-square-meter archaeological ruins park.

They were welcomed by a large crowd of curious visitors eager to catch a glimpse of "earliest China", a term coined by Xu Hong, a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in his books.

As the head of archaeological projects on the site since 1999, Xu has taken on the role of host at Erlitou. He also organized an international academic symposium at the museum to mark its opening. However, Xu's views don't necessarily follow the norms of academia, and he still does not fully agree with the name chosen for the new museum.

"Erlitou marks the earliest central kingdom in a vast territory within East Asia," Xu says. "But we have to retain a scientific approach. It's still premature to link the findings of the past 60 years, however significant, to a certain dynasty appearing in ancient historical documents."

The city ruins cover an area of 3 sq km, and according to Xu, the Erlitou site contains the oldest quadrangle palatial complex ever discovered in China.

"It's the earliest prototype of the Forbidden City in the country," he explains.

Other than that, China's earliest known handicraft workshop and remains of a bronzeware production site and turquoise-processing facilities, an urban road network featuring paths as wide as 20 meters, and ruts made by double wagon wheels over the centuries, were all found at the Erlitou site.

In 2002, Xu unearthed a dragon-shaped decorative object made up of over 2,000 pieces of turquoise in a tomb together with several bronze bells. This crucial finding is widely interpreted by archaeologists as a symbol of kingship due to the presence of the dragon totem.

Turquoise-inlaid bronze plates bearing animal mask patterns were other important pieces unearthed during these excavations. And the abundance of ceremonial bronze and jade artifacts and exquisite works of pottery all marked this site out as an exceptional one.

Nevertheless, Xu says while no written evidence found on the objects at Erlitou directly prove its connection with the Xia Dynasty, the final pieces of the puzzle in identifying the dynasty have still yet to be found.

Only simple inscriptions carved into pottery have been found at the Erlitou site to date.

"Nevertheless, this lack of clarity is not an obstacle for us to understand the unparalleled significance of this site in early Chinese civilization," Xu adds.

Decoding history

During the 1920s, the 3,000-year-old Yinxu Ruins were discovered in Anyang, Henan province. An abundance of oracle bones-the earliest form of Chinese writing carved onto animal bones to be used as records-were unearthed, which helped to recast the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC) from a mythical entity into an indisputable part of Chinese history. Yinxu is now proved to be the location of the last capital city of the Shang era.

So, what about the earlier Xia Dynasty?

According to the Bamboo Annals, a collection of chronicles from the Warring States period (475-221 BC), the dynasty existed for 471 years before the Shang era and spanned the reigns of 14 kings over 11 generations.

In 1959, scholar Xu Xusheng led a research team on a field trip to Henan, following clues from key works of ancient historiography, including Shi Ji, or Records of the Grand Historian, from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24).

Xu Hong, leading archaeologist on Erlitou site, during an excavation in 2015. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Xu Xusheng discovered the vast site at Erlitou village, but later concluded that his findings marked out the capital of the early Shang Dynasty-historically known as Xibo-by analyzing the patterns of the cultural relics unearthed there.

His supposition remained the dominant theory in Chinese academia until the early 1980s, when a "younger" set of city ruins covering an area of some 2 sq km were found just 6 km away from Erlitou. As it appeared to date back to the early Shang Dynasty, another theory rose to become the mainstream hypothesis: namely that the Erlitou site was in fact Zhenxun, the last capital of the Xia Dynasty as recorded in the Bamboo Annals.

From 1996 to 2000, a national-level program for the specific periodization of the Xia and Shang dynasties was organized, involving a host of top Chinese archaeologists, paleographers, historians and astronomers.

According to the conclusion of that program, and based on a rigorous analysis of historical records, archaeological findings and astronomical records, the Shang people were found to have toppled the Xia Dynasty in around 1600 BC.

Li Boqian, a professor of archaeology at Peking University, was the chief scientist of the program. He cites their work as key to defining the Xia Dynasty as a proven historical fact.

"The richness of the historical records about ancient China were an advantage for us archaeologists, rather than a burden," Li says. "Erlitou was a key witness to the transition from the Xia Dynasty to the Shang era.

"During later archaeological analysis of the Erlitou site, we found a lot of evidence indicating social upheaval-such as former palaces being abandoned-at a time when Shang culture began to surface," he explains.

"However, the Shang Dynasty allowed Xia loyalists to remain in the area, and that's why their residence continued for a longer period of time."

While it remains controversial as to whether the Shang city near Erlitou is Xibo, their affinity at least shows that the Shang people wanted to keep a close eye on those loyal to the former dynasty in cas