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Digging for China: A Political, Cultural and Social History of Chinese Archaeology


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Professor Julia Lovell
  • Assessment: a 5500-word essay (100%) plus 60% attendance requirement (0%)

Module description

This module explores the role of Chinese archaeology - a discipline of Western origin but developed exclusively on Chinese soil - in the process of modern nation-building and national history writing in China since the early twentieth century. You will examine critical historical moments and influential figures in the development of archaeology and ancient history, discoveries of national and world significance and debates as well as controversies that they have generated. Analysing a variety of sources, you will identify key factors, central issues and historical changes with regard to intellectual conceptions of civilisational origin, historical continuity, ethnicity, cultural identity and political unity of the land that became China today, from the birth of Chinese archaeology at the moment of grave national crises in the early twentieth century to its flourishing present when Chinese archaeology enjoys tremendous state investments and attracts unprecedented public attention as China’s economic and political power strengthens.

Through the lens of Chinese archaeology and the histories that it has supported to write and rewrite, this module will help you develop solid historical knowledge and utilise appropriate analytical tools to critically engage China as a modern nation state from the perspectives of how its pasts have been unearthed and told.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Introduction to the outlines of modern Chinese history: crisis, iconoclasm, nationalism
  • Introduction to the history of archaeology, empire, the nation-state; comparative study of museums and cultural heritage
  • The origins of Chinese archaeology: from antiquarianism to oracle bones
  • The discovery of prehistory: Andersson, Yangshao and Peking Man
  • Anyang and the Shang dynasty: the Chinese nation-state’s first commissioned excavation
  • Japanese archaeology, empire-building and the dismantling of China, 1930s-40s
  • 1949-76: Chinese communist ideology and the archaeological record
  • The post-Mao thaw, the rise of regional archaeologies and Sanxingdui
  • Competing in the global marketplace of antiquity: the Search for the Origins of Chinese Civilisation project
  • Chinese archaeology goes global: Chinese-sponsored projects along the Silk Road

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • display a good knowledge of the major approaches to, and stages of, Chinese archaeology, key concepts and methods
  • be able to compare and contrast modern scholars’ approaches
  • be able to handle primary sources with confidence and use them as a means of critiquing past and present paradigms.