Blogs and Interviews
The Silk Roads: Past, Present, and Future

Interview | China’s Archaeology Along the “Belt and Road”

Rosemary Wang

Research Associate at the Center for Global Asia

With the introduction and implementation of the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), the historical role of the “Silk Roads” has been constantly re-defined and re-investigated. This has resulted in a widespread interest in the topic within and outside China. The emergence of relevant research centers in China has further stimulated the exploration of maritime and overland connections, both during the ancient and contemporary times.

In this series of blogs and interviews conducted by the Center for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai, we aim to provide insights into the “Silk Roads” and BRI-related exhibitions and research in conversation with research centers and scholars in China. The aim is to better apprehend the past, present, and future of the “Silk Roads.”

Li Yuqi, Associate Professor in the Faculty of History, Nankai University

Q: Center for Global Asia (CGA), NYU Shanghai 

A: Li Yuqi, Associate Professor in the Faculty of History, Nankai University

01.

As a scholar specializing in archaeology, could you please briefly introduce the BRI-related research projects that you have directed or participated in?

When I was doing my postdoctoral studies under the supervision of Professor Zhang Liangren at Nanjing University in 2019, I had the honor to participate in the China-Russian Altai Archaeological Project organized by him. Our collaborator was the Altai State University in Russia, and the working site was in the Altai Republic and Altai Krai, both locations not far from the northern tip of Xinjiang, China. The project was composed of two parts; an international archaeological excavation primarily serving students, the other a joint excavation for the purposes of scientific research.

In the international excavation, we mainly took undergraduates studying for various majors in Nanjing University, together with two outstanding high-school students selected from across the country, to participate in the excavation of prehistoric kurgans. The goal was to immerse everyone in feeling the sheer beauty of archaeology. At the same time, we aimed to impart theoretical knowledge, broaden everyone's horizon, and lay the foundations for further projects.

In the joint dig, we mainly excavated a Bronze-Age smelting site in order to understand the role local people played in developing the technology of bronze production in Eurasia. Research on the paleoenvironment and the spread of ancient crops was also undertaken.

Archaeological research in recent years has shown that, as early as the Bronze Age, before the formation of the Silk Road, a prehistoric Silk Road existed in Eurasia in embryo, which profoundly influenced the developmental trajectories of both eastern and western civilizations. Therefore, we considered the Altai region – an important node along the Road – to be a breakthrough in gaining a deeper understanding of the early exchanges in Eurasia.

Nanjing University Russian Altai Archaeological Project Excavation Site

Prof. Li carrying out flotation of plant remains, as part of the Russian Altai Archaeological Project of Nanjing University

02.

From your perspective, what impact is the BRI having on archaeological studies in China and its development?

Although the emphasis is placed on infrastructure, the BRI also attaches great importance to the role of culture. Following the proposal of this initiative, China began to vigorously encourage cultural exchanges with countries along the “Belt and Road.” China’s archaeology has thus obtained benefits, embracing a rapid process of internationalization. On the one hand, these archaeological projects overseas enable Chinese archaeologists to have a direct understanding of scholarship in other parts of the world. They have gained access to first-hand materials, had their voices articulated through independent interpretations, and ultimately strengthened the power and influence of Chinese archaeology within the international academic community.

On the other hand, these novel projects have also impacted China’s archaeology, prompting it to make changes. Measures have been taken to absorb unique, local excavation techniques and methods from various places, and to adopt more diverse perspectives and paradigms while investigating.

03.

As far as you know, how are the teachings related to the BRI carried out in Chinese universities? In your opinion, how could it be developed in the future, and what can be done to improve it?

In my opinion, overall the teaching on cultural relics and archaeology along the “Belt and Road” is still quite limited. In fact, in higher education in China, not only are the “Belt and Road” countries rarely involved, but the archaeological work of other countries lacks references. Except for a few universities such as Peking University, which have set up teaching and research offices for foreign archaeology, most universities do not have similar institutions, nor do they have dedicated personnel engaging in research as such. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it would be difficult to carry out relevant teaching.

I think that future development in this direction largely depends on support from the state. If stable policy and financial support can be ensured, I believe more scholars will choose this pathway, so that related teaching will naturally follow. In fact, this kind of archaeological work has great similarities to the study of World History. Since the latter is already a first-level discipline, the archaeology of the “Belt and Road,” and even world archaeology, should also be leveled up and win well-deserved attention.

04.

Is there any related work in progress in the Faculty of History, Nankai University? Can you briefly introduce to us the most noteworthy projects?

Unfortunately, Nankai University has traditionally placed its emphasis on the study of cultural relics and museology, and has seldom participated in field archaeology, let alone the archaeology of the “Belt and Road” countries.

However, in recent years, we have also gradually reinforced our archaeological strength. Grounded upon the existing streams of the study of burials and ceramic archaeology, we have developed uniquely new features including isotope study, irrigation archaeology, and urban archaeology. In addition, based on the established graduate programs, at the end of last year we were cleared to start offering an undergraduate degree in archaeology. Now we are about to embrace a brand-new stage of development. We hope that in the future we will also have the opportunity to participate in the archaeological work being conducted in the “Belt and Road” countries.

The distribution of overseas archaeological projects of China (as of the end of 2019)

Image courtesy of the interviewee

05.

China’s archaeology is rapidly going global. Can you briefly introduce the developmental trajectory and current situation of China’s archaeological work in countries along the “Belt and Road”? What are the areas of focus and representative work?

Generally speaking, China’s involvement in archaeological investigations along the “Belt and Road” parallels the development of its overseas archaeology. The reason for this is that, except for a few countries such as India and North Korea, all countries in which we have carried out archaeological investigations have joined the BRI. The developmental trajectory of China's overseas archaeology involves three stages, divided by the BRI proposal and the outbreak of the pandemic.

The first stage was marked by the excavation of the Chau Say Tevoda in Angkor, sponsored by China since 1998, and lasting until 2013, to help with the preservation of the site. During this period, the growth in China's overseas archaeological projects was relatively slow and stable. However, the period also witnessed a profound transformation, from the works’ being unknown in the first few years to attracting huge attention more recently. For the first time, these overseas projects acquired a place of their own within the Chinese archaeological community. Except for the Kenyan project, most of the work at this stage was located around China, and culturally there was a close correlation. Even if the Kenyan project was far away in East Africa, it could still be associated with China through Zheng He's voyages.

The second stage began in 2014 and lasted until 2019, a period of rapid development for overseas archaeology. Thanks to the state’s call and policy, as well as its financial support, the number of relevant archaeological projects increased rapidly, with the durations simultaneously extended. The number of projects being undertaken in the same year increased substantially. During this period, some overseas projects actually managed to expand to the hinterland of other civilizations, and methods of examining foreign cultures were further highlighted.

From 2020 until now, we can be said to be in a period of suspension where overseas archaeology is concerned. Relevant fieldwork has basically stagnated, though certain exchange activities are happening in cyberspace. Nevertheless, on the whole, the general momentum of development remains good. With the shift in the Covid-19 policy, activities are expected to gradually resume, leading to new developments ahead.

Speaking of current areas of focus, most of China's overseas archaeological projects are concentrated in neighboring countries, with the largest number being undertaken in Russia. However, in recent years, China has also developed new archaeological projects in some relatively distant countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Honduras, Kenya, Romania, Egypt and others. Among all these, the most representative ones include the archaeological investigations of the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya, the Ming tepe fortification site in Uzbekistan, and the Copán Maya site in Honduras.

A deep trench dug by the Nanjing University Archaeology Team, in the Tepe Naderi in Iran (photo by Zhang Liangren)

06.

What limitations does Chinese archaeology face in the process of "going global"? What are the major problems that need to be solved?

Although China has initiated quite a few archaeological projects overseas, its influence in the international academic community remains limited. An important reason is that we have not yet been able to integrate ourselves better into the archaeological trends in the world today, nor to carry out effective conversations with many Euro-American archaeologists and compete for the right to speak. The language barrier speaks for itself. If more archaeologists can publish their research results in foreign languages in the future, more positive changes may appear. However, more significantly, our mainstream archaeology is quite different from that of Europe and the United States in terms of theory and method. This has affected the exchanges between the two sides. For example, Chinese archaeology has always tended to adopt historical perspectives and methodologies. Many scholars still take “revising and supplementing historical texts” as the highest goal in the use of archaeological materials, as is vividly reflected in a large number of archaeological articles arguing for the existence of the Xia Dynasty. Even if they conduct investigations abroad, many still focus primarily on the connections between those sites and China, as a means to prove the value of their research. With regard to methodology, although China has begun to bring in a large number of new technologies, its mainstream archaeology still places great emphasis on the centrality of typologies. This is very different from many Euro-American archaeological works that tend to investigate from anthropological perspectives, endeavor to apply various scientific methods, and engage with worldwide archaeological materials in order to reconstruct the behavior and perceptions of ancient people. Therefore, the works of Chinese archaeologists often lack attention from their Euro-American counterparts. To solve this problem, we need to adopt a more diverse paradigm to work on overseas archaeology, integrate ourselves further into archaeological trends in the world today, and compete with European and American scholars with strength and confidence.

07.

In your opinion, what opportunities and challenges does the BRI-related archaeological research face, especially during the pandemic?

The negative impact of the pandemic on archaeological investigations along the "Belt and Road" is obvious. Due to the problems of international travel, many projects that were originally planned had to be postponed, or even canceled. “Opportunity” does not seem to be an appropriate word, given this situation: it is more of a challenge.

To be more specific, the pandemic has brought about uncertainties at the policy level, both domestic and foreign, all of which make it ever more difficult to travel abroad for investigations. In addition, the huge cost of fighting the pandemic has also impacted on local finances. It remains to be seen whether those self-sponsored institutes can still obtain sufficient funding after the pandemic and resume their previous projects immediately.

08.

This year witnesses the tenth anniversary of the BRI. Can you tell us how the archaeological community in China would imagine its prospect in three key words?

Obviously, I cannot represent the entire archaeological community. I can only use three key words to express my personal vision for the future of the BRI.

I think the first key word should be “mutual learning among civilizations.” I hope that the "Belt and Road" will guide more scholars to participate in overseas archaeology, to study foreign civilizations that we are not familiar with, and to revise their understanding of Chinese civilization through comparative research. Ultimately we should regain a macroscopic understanding of human civilization as a whole.

My second key word is “integration.” I hope that overseas archaeological projects in “Belt and Road” countries can promote the integration of the Chinese archaeological community and the world’s archaeological trends, expanding the former’s international influence.

The third key word is “soft power.” I hope that scholars engaged in overseas archaeology will not forget their mission. While dedicating themselves to academic research, they should pay attention to using various methods to enhance our country’s soft power.

All images courtesy of the interviewee
Special thanks to Dr Wang Shujing

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