Chinese frontier archaeological missions in new era

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-08-03

A chipped stone shovel dating back to approximately 6000 BCE - 5000 BCE, beautifully showcased at the Chinese Archaeological Museum. The historical significance of the Xinglongwa culture can be traced to its type site situated in Aohan Banner, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

On June 2, 2023, General Secretary Xi Jinping visited the Chinese Academy of History and the Chinese Archaeological Museum, and attended a symposium on cultural inheritance and development, at which he delivered an important speech. In his speech, he centered his discussion around the theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, elaborating on the enduring, innovative, unified, and peaceful nature of Chinese civilization. He emphasized the need to integrate the basic principles of Marxism with China’s realities, as well as with the splendid traditional Chinese culture. He also elaborated on the so-called “second combination” from five dimensions. Later in the symposium, General Secretary Xi made a decisive statement that the “second combination” represents yet another intellectual emancipation. At the current stage, the “second combination” is particularly relevant. Only by integrating the “two combinations” can we construct a modern Chinese civilization, and fully implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era in practice.

Embedding China’s spirits

By looking deep into history, we gain the ability to envision the future. Architect Wu Liangyong said that the rejuvenation of any nation’s culture begins with the inheritance of its own heritage. Chinese culture has a long and profound history. Its material cultural heritage represents the tangible remnants of human activities throughout history, and serves as the primary manifestation of ancient civilizations. China’s cultural heritage is the epitome of Chinese history, culture, and civilization, embodying the great spirit of the Chinese nation, and therefore requires earnest summarization and vigorous promotion.

In this sense, archaeologists and cultural heritage professionals play a pivotal role as the primary driving force behind the excavation, protection, inheritance, and promotion of Chinese cultural heritage. In September 2020, the 19th Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPC held the 23rd collective study on the latest archaeological discoveries in China and their significance. During the study, General Secretary Xi said that archaeology extends the historical axis, enhances historical credibility, enriches historical connotations, and revitalizes historical scenes. In his speech at the cultural inheritance and development symposium, he pointed out that archaeological work is vital for showcasing and constructing the historical and cultural treasures of the Chinese nation.

Through interdisciplinary collaboration and a multi-dimensional approach, we should continuously explore the history, stories, and values associated with each heritage. Additionally, we should refine, elevate, amend, and address any gaps in our understanding through new interpretations and comprehensive summaries, identifying the field exploration and excavation research tasks that need to be undertaken in the future.

Building a modern civilization

As an example from the border regions, the Beshbaliq ancient Turkic archaeological site located in Jimsar County, Changji Prefecture, Xinjiang, provides valuable insights when considering its nomination for the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List of the Silk Road: “Bashbaliq city used to be the largest city on the Tian-shan Northern Route of the Silk Roads and a major military, political, and transport center in the area north of Tian-shan Mountains. It was the seat of government of Ting Prefecture, Beiting Protectorate, and the Beiting Military Governor in Tang dynasty.” It is currently the largest and most well-preserved ancient city site in the area.

From the Qing dynasty to the present, through the exploration and research of scholars like the famous officials Ji Yun (1724-1805) and Xu Song (1781-1848), as well as continuous excavations and research by Chinese archaeologists, the attributes and unique value of Beshbaliq City included in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List have been recognized both nationally and globally. Nevertheless, there is still potential for further deepening and enhancing the city’s core value. With newfound insights, the following content can be incorporated to enrich its significance: “The Beiting Protectorate was coordinated with the Anxi Protectorate to the south and played a pivotal role in military and political administration, trade, and cultural exchange in the areas north of the Tian Shan Mountains from Tang to Yuan. It stands as tangible evidence of the Central Plains dynasties’ effective governance over the grassland areas and nomadic tribes. Beshbaliq City holds indispensable significance for promoting cultural integration in border regions, enhancing the historical, cultural, and political identity of various ethnic groups, and is also a crucial cultural heritage resource for building a community with a shared future for humanity and constructing modern Chinese civilization.”

This highlights the importance of considering not only the central dynasties’ pivotal role in maintaining the prosperity, stability, and unified political framework of border regions when it comes to cultural heritage, but also the significance of cultural heritage that reflects the shared beliefs of the border region’s inhabitants. These beliefs encompass loyalty to the Central Plains and shared convictions of an indivisible homeland, a unified nation, an undivided ethnicity, and an unbroken civilization. Furthermore, we should emphasize the cultural heritage’s embodiment of mutual communication and mutual learning between China and other countries, the integration and exchange between the different ethnic groups within the Chinese nation, the coexistence of diverse and harmonious religious beliefs in China, and the rich connotations of Chinese culture contributing to global civilization, promoting harmony, and contributing to a better and more peaceful world.

Promoting the cultural heritage of border regions also requires practical feasibility and convenience. Jimsar County, where Beshbaliq City was located, lies 165 kilometers from Urumqi City in the eastern segment of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region’s North Tianshan Economic Belt. The county not only enjoys proximity to Urumqi but is also conveniently located just a few kilometers away from national highways and expressways. With abundant coal and oil resources and significant economic potential, Jimsar County possesses favorable geographical advantages and a relatively mature platform foundation. The county has already established a national archaeological site park and founded the Beshbaliq Studies Research Institute, which is seen as a Xinjiang cadre education and training base by the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the CPC.

Also located in Jimsar County is town of Jinman, where the Wu Xiaowei (Wu Colonel) was stationed. In neighboring Qitai County lies the remnants of the Shule County (Shule Kingdom from the Han Dynasty), and the Pulei County (Pulei from the Tang Dynasty). Shule, Beshbaliq, and Pulei were all strategically planned and constructed by the central dynasties of the Han and Tang periods. They served as crucial military and administrative establishments, contributing to the stability of the unified nation and the prosperity of the Silk Road. Additionally, Fukang county-level city is home to the Dongyue Temple site, while Urumqi is home to historical red sites like the Wulabo Ancient City, the Eighth Route Army Xinjiang Office Memorial Hall, and the former residence of Mao Zedong. Shihezi, a sub-prefecture-level city, boasts the Museum of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

Moving deeper into the expansive Tianshan Mountain North Region, towards the western side, one can discover remarkable cultural heritage sites such as the General Office of Yili, the Yili Nine Towns. To the east, the ancient city of Dahe and the Qing-dynasty granary in Barkol Kazakh Autonomous County represent the country’s governance, unity, and ethnic solidarity. These fundamental cultural heritage sites constitute a comprehensive and well-organized assemblage of historical artifacts spanning various eras in the North Tianshan region. They offer profound insights into the core values that have shaped modern Chinese civilization, making a significant contribution to its development.

Cross-ethnic exchange

The history of China is a history of various ethnic groups converging and blending into the unified and diverse Chinese nation, a history of all ethnic groups jointly creating, developing, and consolidating our great motherland. The unity and integration of various ethnic groups originate from cultural inclusiveness, economic interdependence, and emotional closeness, and stem from the inherent driving force of the Chinese nation to pursue unity and harmony.

On Sep. 27, 2019, General Secretary Xi pointed out in his speech at the National Commendation Conference on Ethnic Unity and Progress, that our vast territory was jointly explored by all ethnic groups, our long history was co-written by all ethnic groups, our brilliant culture was jointly created by all ethnic groups, and our great spirit was nurtured collectively by all ethnic groups. He also emphasized that in the course of history, the Chinese nation has formed a great national spirit and an outstanding traditional culture. This is the cultural gene that makes the Chinese nation resilient and enduring, and it is also the spiritual force to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The “Four Combinations” represent the localization of Marxist national theory, as well as the CPC’s deepening understanding of Chinese history and ethnic issues. As emphasized by General Secretary Xi, it is crucial to enhance research on the historical and unified narrative of the Chinese nation. This includes integrating the education of the Chinese nation’s collective identity into the training of officials, youth, and society in Xinjiang. The aim is to guide all ethnic cadres and individuals to develop accurate perspectives on the country, history, nation, culture, religion, and other related aspects. Ultimately, the objective is to foster a profound and enduring sense of community among the Chinese nation.

Both from a historical perspective and in terms of the Party and the country’s work priorities, Xinjiang is an important region for achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and a key hub for promoting the Belt and Road Initiative. Though Xinjiang is located in the northwest frontier of China, it plays a central role from the Eurasian perspective. The ancient Silk Road, starting at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), progressed westward via Xinjiang, reaching Central Asia, West Asia, Europe and Africa, with Xinjiang serving as a crucial conduit for Chinese civilization. During the China-Central Asia Summit held in Xi’an, on May 18-19, 2023, China and five Central Asian countries reached a series of cooperative consensuses and jointly proposed in the Xi’an Declaration their determination to build a closer China-Central Asia community with a shared future. All parties believe that a stable, developed, and prosperous Central Asia serves the common interests of the six countries, as well as the global community at large.

Archaeological work in Xinjiang bears the significant responsibility of reconstructing history, bridging cultural understanding, and nurturing people’s sentiments, strengthening the sense of community within the Chinese nation, and promoting the construction of a shared future for humanity. Hence, we need to advance archaeological research in Xinjiang, particularly in light of the successful China-Central Asia Summit. By closely aligning with the new era’s strategies for governing Xinjiang, our efforts should focus on consolidating the sense of community within the Chinese nation and advancing the building of a shared future for humanity. We should center our work around serving cultural development in Xinjiang and the construction of a China-Central Asia community with a shared future, aiming to achieve a series of archaeologically discoveries and research outcomes.


Guo Wu is a research fellow of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor:Yu Hui

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