As one of the world’s four great ancient civilizations and with a history of 5,000 years, China stands out for its archaeological significance. Since the early twentieth century, Chinese archaeologists have presented the world with a considerable number of major findings, solving many historical mysteries.
In 1920, the French missionary Emile Licent (1876–1952) found at Qingyang county of Gansu some lithic pieces—one core and two flakes which turned out to be the first Paleolithic artifacts discovered in China. Archaeological achievements in the following eighty years show that cultural relics from the Paleolithic Age were scattered throughout the country. They include sites of the Xihoudu culture and Yuanmou Man dating back 1.8 and 1.7 million years respectively, where fossils of China’s oldest hominids and their flaked stone tools were found, and sites of the famous Peking Man and Upper Cave Man in Zhoukoudian, Beijing.
China’s Neolithic archaeology began in 1921 when the Swedish geologist and archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson discovered at Yangshao village in Henan the Yangshao culture, which featured painted pottery and polished stoneware. Thereafter, relevant sites were discovered across China. According to incomplete statistics, identified Chinese Neolithic sites exceeded 7,000, with over 400 of them already excavated, among them the Longshan culture along the middle and lower Yellow River, Hemudu culture to the south of the lower Yangtze River, and Hongshan culture in northeastern China.
China’s earliest historical written record dates back to the beginning of the Gonghe Regency (841 BCE) in the Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100–771 BCE)) while the history of the preceding two millennia, featuring the Three Sovereigns, Five Emperors, and the Xia (ca. 2100–ca. 1600 BCE) and Shang (ca. 1600–ca. 1100 BCE) dynasties, which only existed in myths, is widely questioned for its credibility. Not until the accidental discovery of oracle bones at the Yin Ruins in 1900 were scholars able to decode the myth of the immemorial Shang dynasty through the inscriptions on those bones. Since the 1950s, more historical sites, such as the Xia capital at Erlitou and the Shang capital at Zhengzhou in Henan province, as well as the Sanxingdui site in Sichuan province, have been excavated. The large number of historical villages and mausoleums scattered along the Yellow River, Huai River, and the Yangtze River have proved the existence of the Xia and Shang dynasties, and enabled us to examine the life of the ancient Chinese people.
In 221 BCE, China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang (First Emperor of the Qin, r. 246–210 BCE) ordered the construction of his imperial mausoleum after having conquered the other six rival states and established the first unified multiethnic monarchy in Chinese history. His prime minister Li Si (ca. 280–208 BCE) persuaded him to use terracotta figurines instead of living people to be his funerary objects. In 1974, peasants from Lintong county in Shaanxi discovered a terracotta figurine while digging a well. The subsequent discovery of the terracotta horses and warriors of Qin Shihuang was designated the “eighth wonder of the world.” Over 7,000 terracotta statues have been unearthed from three pits covering an area of 20,000 square meters. These human-sized terracotta warriors, placed in precise formation according to ranks and military branch of the Qin army, and equipped with commensurate chariots and horses, were artistically made with distinctive nuanced facial expressions.
The Han and other ethnic groups underwent a series of integrations throughout Chinese history, leaving behind plentiful ruins with distinctive historical characteristics. For example, the architectural layout of both Pingcheng, capital of the Northern Wei dynasty in Shanxi, and Luoyang, the succeeding capital of the Han-Wei period in Henan, reflects the Sinicization of the Tuoba regime. The political tolerance and cultural diversity of the Tang dynasty are demonstrated by sites of its many administrative establishments and minority regimes on the border area, such as the Chanyu Protectorate, Kuqa Qiuci, Tubo (Tibet), Nanzhao, and Goguryeo ruins.
Buddhism reached its golden age during the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, with numerous well-preserved temples, grottoes, and statues of high archaeological value throughout China, such as the underground palace of the Famen Temple and Dunhuang caves, two major sites for modern archaeological study and research on Buddhism.
During excavation, each shovelful may open the door to an unknown maze. So what is the next major archaeological discovery? Let’s see what the future brings.