Multidisciplinary cooperation in tracing the origins of Chinese civilization

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2022-07-19

The national-level project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization was launched in 2002, involving nearly 20 disciplines, among which, 13 or 14 are natural science disciplines. It is the project that studies major issues in the humanities with the largest number of participating disciplines in the world.

Interdisciplinary cooperation

To truly achieve the organic integration of multiple disciplines, we have taken the following measures: First, we have equipped each research group with two team leaders: an archaeologist and a scholar in each related discipline serving as team leaders for timely consultation on the integration of multiple disciplines. Second, team leaders from each research group came together to form an expert project implementation group. Members of the expert implementation group discussed the project’s technical roadmap, with the goal of solving academic issues that may arise during project implementation in a timely manner. Many group meetings were held at the archaeological capital-level city ruins, where scholars from various disciplines discussed the role their disciplines could play and put forward corresponding requirements for field archaeologists. Third, scholars engaged in “sci-tech archaeology” were required to go to the field and archaeological excavation sites, to take samples themselves, and to observe the stratigraphy and remains in the original setting in order to better understand the historical period and social context of these specimens, and to interpret information more accurately. These measures have led to a deeper understanding of each discipline, while promoting organic integration and ensuring smooth project implementation.

In the third and fourth phases of the project, on the basis of the results achieved by each research group, we put forward further requests to promote research on the relationship between research in each discipline and the evolution of civilizations, shedding light on relationships between environmental changes, the development of agriculture and handicrafts, and the relationship between the development of spiritual culture and civilization. This initiative yielded good results, and the awareness of “seeing an object and thinking of the owner” was greatly enhanced in each discipline, providing conditions for studying and explaining more complex issues such as the background, causes, and mechanisms of Chinese civilization’s formation process.

Fruitful achievements

With joint efforts from all members, the project achieved satisfactory results.

After more than ten years of multidisciplinary research, we have achieved a clearer understanding of Chinese civilization’s formation process. Around 5,000 years ago, in some regions with rapid cultural and social development in the Yangtze River, Yellow River, and Liaohe River basins, the division of labor and differentiation in the society intensified, kingship, class, and state emerged, and these regions entered the stage of ancient-state civilization—one after another. Research indicates that the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization is not a legend, but stems from a real and credible history.

From a series of archaeological discoveries about multiple places where civilization originated, the key features that are consistent with Chinese civilization are summarized, and the key characteristics of a society’s entry into civilization are identified, which enriched theories of the origins of world civilizations.

Through multidisciplinary research, we have gained a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between changes in the natural environment and the rise and fall of regional civilizations, the development of agriculture and handicrafts and the acquisition of important resources during the formation of civilizations, and their relationship with the evolution of local civilizations. The project has also provided experience and reference for future multidisciplinary integration in archaeology and humanities scientific research.

There is a clearer understanding of the process of exchange and interaction among regional civilizations, and the eventual formation of a historical pattern in the Central Plains region between 5,500 and 4,000 years ago. Results indicate that civilizations in each region exchanged with, borrowed from, absorbed, fused with, and reorganized each other, and around 4,000 years ago, the first dynasty in Chinese history, the Xia dynasty (c. 21st–16th century BCE), was formed in the Central Plains based on the convergence of advanced cultural factors from all over the world. Since then, the Xia Dynasty exerted a strong influence on surrounding regions with its original rituals and systems, forming the first “dynastic ethos” in Chinese history. To Chinese civilization’s formation, prehistoric cultures from all over the world made contributions. It is important to reveal the historical process of pluralistic integration in Chinese civilization to enhance cohesion of the Chinese nation.


Wang Wei is a research fellow, CASS Member, and director of the Academic Division of History at CASS.

Editor:Yu Hui

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