Borderland archaeology illustrates Chinese civilization’s prominent features

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-07-05

The Site of Xanadu in Inner Mongolia Photo: CFP

Borderland archaeology, as an important component of Chinese archaeology, has received increasing attention from the academic community due to its geographical scope and cultural connotations. Chinese civilization is the result of the collision, integration, and sublimation of multiple ethnic cultures, and the border ethnic groups have made important contributions to the formation of Chinese civilization. For decades, the practice of northern borderland archaeology has played an important role in explaining the five prominent features of Chinese civilization.

Consistency: The late Paleolithic Age, as well as the early and middle Neolithic Age, marked the beginning periods of Chinese civilization, during which distinct cultural characteristics of the region began to emerge. Over 30 Palaeolithic sites have been discovered in the northern border region, with only one site, the Jinsitai Site in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, exhibiting continuous stratigraphic accumulation from the middle and late Palaeolithic periods to the Bronze Age.

As the most complete site in terms of chronosequence and cultural sequence dating back 50,000 years in the northern region of China, the Jinsitai Site confirms the continuity of early Chinese civilization. There are more than 2,000 Neolithic sites in Inner Mongolia. Situated at the base of Yinshan Mountain, the central southern region of Inner Mongolia holds a significant place in the progression of northern China’s civilization. Around 5,000 years ago, it crossed the threshold of Chinese civilization, alongside the Central Plains region.

Unity: China as a unified multi-ethnic country was formed in the Qin and Han dynasties (221BCE–220CE). The unified national framework determines the prospects for national development and fundamentally determines the gradual integration of various ethnic cultures of the Chinese nation, which remains firmly united even when facing major setbacks. The Han Dynasty faced many threats, mainly from northern ethnic groups, and attached great importance to the construction of the northern border defense system. Through archaeological excavations and studies of the Juyan Site in Inner Mongolia, combined with previously unearthed bamboo slips, we can depict the scene of border guards taking turns guarding and setting beacon-fires to raise the border alarm. The Juyan Site still stands in the desert, demonstrating the unity of Chinese civilization, and firmly establishing the common belief that the territory is indivisible, the national order is unalterable, the ethnic groups are inseparable, and the civilization is continuous and enduring.

Originality: Chinese civilization, which has accumulated over thousands of years of history, contains many traditional cultures that have undergone innovative changes by absorbing and integrating foreign cultures. The collision and assimilation between the nomadic tribes of the north and the agricultural communities of the Central Plains have long been a central theme in the history of China’s northern frontier. This dynamic interaction has served as an important driving force for the ongoing development and innovation of Chinese civilization.

The Xianbei (Sienpi) was the first northern ethnic group to rule in the Central Plains, which founded the first dynasty in Chinese history to place nomadic areas and northern agricultural areas under the same political regime. In 494, Xiaowen Emperor of Northern Wei Tuoba Hong (467–499) relocated his capital to Luoyang and promoted communication and economic development among various ethnic groups. In particular, a series of measures, such as the excavation of Yungang Grottoes and Longmen Grottoes, promoted the process of hanization and national integration, and had a far-reaching impact.

The ongoing integration of various ethnic groups in surrounding areas, especially the northern ethnic groups, has continuously infused vitality into the Chinese nation, strengthening it over time.

Inclusivity: The inclusive nature of Chinese civilization is evident in its approach of seeking common ground while reserving differences and embracing diverse influences. The Chinese nation, known for its open-mindedness, sublimes various cultural elements, resulting in remarkable integration and creativity within Chinese civilization.

The Site of Tangchaodun is located in Qitai County, Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The discovery of everyday objects and intricate murals from sites such as a Tang dynasty “pubic bath,” a Buddhist temple, and a Nestorian church provides evidence of the diffusion, exchange, and fusion of architectural traditions and techniques from both the East and the West. These findings also shed light on the intermingling of Buddhist and Nestorian religious ideas and cultures along the Silk Road. They confirm the historical facts of multi-ethnic integration, religious coexistence, and multi-cultural compatibility in Xinjiang from the Tang to Yuan dynasties (618–1368), and provide vivid and solid physical materials for further research.

The Tangchaodun Site serves as a vivid illustration of the formation and evolution of the community for the Chinese nation, highlighting the remarkable inclusiveness of Chinese civilization. This inclusivity fundamentally determines the historical orientation of communication, exchange, and integration of the Chinese nation. It also determines a harmonious framework for the coexistence of diverse religious beliefs in China and the open-mindedness of Chinese culture in embracing global civilizations.

Peaceful nature: From a micro perspective, the peaceful nature of Chinese civilization emphasizes harmonious social relationships, while from a macro perspective, different forms of civilization and values must coexist, ultimately realizing the vision that “goals of self and others can be unified, thus the world can be harmonized.”

The Site of Xanadu is located on the Jinlianchuan prairie. Da’an Pavilion, as the most important palace in Xanadu, adopts the architectural style of the Central Plains, demonstrating the Mongolian-Yuan dynasty’s admiration of the Central Plains’ culture. Xanadu, as a significant hub linking Eurasian countries, has bridged the exchange of civilizations between the East and the West. Its historical role in facilitating cultural exchanges between China and foreign nations has been remarkable, further emphasizing the peaceful essence of Chinese civilization.

This site reflects the diverse and open epochal pattern of the Chinese nation with its majestic ethos. At its essence lies the peaceful nature of Chinese civilization. In 2012, this once highly prosperous grassland capital was listed as a world cultural heritage site. As a vital hallmark of the “diversity in unity” of Chinese civilization, it also contributes to the diversity of world culture.

The archaeological research’s advantages of “seeing a person through objects” are becoming increasingly evident, providing evidence for exploring the historical formation process of the Chinese nation’s “diversity in unity” with the development of borderland archaeological research.

Wei Jian is a professor from the School of Ethnology and Sociology at Minzu University of China. Tian Xiaodong is from the School of History at Renmin University of China.

Editor:Yu Hui

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