You are here

Material Culture, Power, and Identity in Ancient China

Material Culture, Power, and Identity in Ancient China

By Xiaolong Wu. Pp. xvi + 244. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2017. $110.00. ISBN 978-1-107-13402-7 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Rather than delivering a synthetic treatment of the hot-button theoretical issues enumerated in its title, and far from covering all of ancient China, this book concentrates on a single case study from the latter part of the Eastern Zhou period (771–221 B.C.E.). Its subject is the small, marginal, and relatively short-lived kingdom of Zhongshan in the foothills of the Taihang Mountains, about 300 km southwest of present-day Beijing. Zhongshan is first attested in the late sixth century B.C.E. and was extinguished ca. 296 B.C.E.; its rulers had taken the royal title by 323 B.C.E. The kingdom’s archaeological remains, mostly in and around present-day Pingshan county (Hebei province), comprise its capital city of Lingshou, constructed ca. 380 B.C.E., two royal necropoleis, one inside Lingshou, the other nearby, as well as several cemeteries and minor sites. Wu thoughtfully melds the published evidence into a finely detailed synthesis that is informed by historical texts, anthropological theory, and visual analysis.

Textual sources associate Zhongshan with the Di, the northern neighbors of the Huaxia inhabitants of the Chinese heartland. The Di are often assumed—problematically, in my opinion—to have been steppe-dwelling nomads. Wu intelligently spells out (17–25) the methodological pitfalls of trying to extract ethnic identity from material culture and of using extraneous, later, and prejudiced texts in interpreting archaeological finds. Even so, throughout his analysis of the Zhongshan finds, Wu goes to considerable lengths to differentiate mainstream “Huaxia” traits from those of northern “alien” derivation. For instance, in his opinion, “vivid representations of animals in cast bronze (esp. animal combat scenes) indicate a strong affiliation with the arts of the frontier groups” (114). Such claims naturally entail the danger of reification, and Wu’s exclusive focus on Zhongshan raises the question to what degree the “hybridity” he observes in Zhongshan material culture is specific to that kingdom: for such mixing of elements of different origins is known to have occurred throughout late Eastern Zhou-period China. To evaluate in what way, if any, Zhongshan’s hybridity differed from that of other places, one would need statistically representative data, which, alas, are not available. Commendably, Wu finds that, despite its adaptation of some northern features and regardless of the ethnic descent of either its rulers or its population, Zhongshan during its heyday in the fourth century B.C.E. was a typical Huaxia-type state, fully integrated into Huaxia cultural and political structures (149–70). Both texts and archaeology strongly support this conclusion.

In his nuanced synthesis of mortuary data from Zhongshan and neighboring areas, Wu pinpoints considerable changes over time and great cultural diversity. While earlier Bronze Age tombs are basically similar to those of the Huaxia during the Shang (ca. 1600–1046 B.C.E.) and Western Zhou (ca. 1046–771 B.C.E.) periods, the data attest an increase of extraneous features during the first half of the first millennium B.C.E., occurring in ever-varying combinations with mainstream Huaxia material; this may indicate new groups moving in from the Inner Asian steppes and interacting with the established population (29–34). But after the foundation of the Lingshou capital, tombs show an overwhelming trend toward homogenization and assimilation to the material culture of the surrounding Huaxia kingdoms; moreover, in a parallel to general developments in late Eastern Zhou China, Wu documents (chs. 2, 3) a greatly exacerbated contrast between the tombs of the high elite and those of the ordinary population of Zhongshan.

The paramount Zhongshan-related archaeological discovery is the tomb of King Cuo (r. 327[?] to after 314 B.C.E.). It was part of a walled complex of five pyramid-like mounded tombs, an inlaid-bronze ground plan for which was found at the site. Although the king’s coffin chamber had been looted, subsidiary pits yielded numerous luxury objects of high artistic achievement—bronze vessels, high-level household furnishings made of inlaid and gilt bronze, jades, glass beads, and ceramics. Wu sensitively discusses all of them, revealing fascinating details about their craftsmanship, as well as examining the long inscriptions incised on several of the bronzes (an appendix provides full translations). Rather than trying to weigh in on whether King Cuo was Di or Huaxia, Wu argues that the king, in confronting the contentious political realities of the time, appropriated elements of Huaxia and non-Huaxia cultural origin to display his power and to forge a unique Zhongshan identity (see, e.g., 180–82).

This focus on the tomb occupant’s own agency is not only attractive in light of recent trends in anthropological theory, it also accords well with what we know about the increasing importance of personal preferences in accounting for funerary assemblages in late Eastern Zhou China. Wu’s approach may thus potentially lead to a nuanced understanding of King Cuo’s treasures in their historical context. But in building his narrative of King Cuo and his times, Wu tends to take his cues less from the rich excavated materials than from the sparse, scattered, and partly contradictory historical records about Zhongshan. In this way he risks creating an echo chamber, jettisoning the potential of the archaeological finds to illuminate phenomena not documented elsewhere. In the author’s handling of the texts, moreover, one would sometimes wish for more skepticism. He would be on safer ground if he could compare the contents of King Cuo’s tomb with materials from contemporary tombs of similarly exalted individuals elsewhere. So far, however, apart from the partly looted tomb of another Zhongshan ruler, King Cheng (r. mid fourth century B.C.E.), such evidence has not been found anywhere else in China. Ultimately, Wu’s account remains a (more or less plausible) just-so story.

Despite these caveats, this book is unquestionably an authoritative treatment of Zhongshan archaeology. Straightforwardly structured and accessibly written, it furnishes a wealth of information to anyone interested in Chinese archaeology but unable to read the relevant archaeological reports in the original language; even for those who can do so, it provides a useful summary. It lends itself for assignment in courses at undergraduate and graduate levels on preimperial Chinese history or archaeology.

Lothar von Falkenhausen
University of California Los Angeles

Book Review of Material Culture, Power, and Identity in Ancient China, by Xiaolong Wu

Reviewed by Lothar von Falkenhausen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.falkenhausen

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.