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  • China before China: Johan Gunnar Andersson, Ding Wenjiang, and the Discovery of China's Prehistory
  • Yun Kuen Lee
China before China: Johan Gunnar Andersson, Ding Wenjiang, and the Discovery of China's Prehistory. Magnus Fiskesjo¨ and Chen Xingcan. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities Monograph Series No. 15. Stockholm, Sweden. 2004. 159 pp., bibliography. ISBN 91-970616-3-8.

China before China is a companion volume for the new exhibit under the same title at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquity (MFEA) in Stockholm. It comprises three major components. First, it chronicles the little-known stories of the discoveries of the founding collections of MFEA. Second, it discusses how archaeology and politics intertwine in China through the praises and criticisms directed to Johan Gunnar Andersson. Third, it reflects the future of these collections and their status as world cultural heritage.

Andersson and his Chinese colleagues gathered the prehistoric collections in question in the 1920s from sites distributed in the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River. Although they were not the first known Neolithic collections in what is now China (Torii Ryuzo discovered the Hongshan deposits in Japanese-controlled Manchuria in 1908), they were widely [End Page 287] known in the world because of the works of Andersson.

Andersson was widely regarded as the one foreign specialist in the history of Chinese archaeology who made the most substantial contributions toward the development of the science in the Chinese context. Prehistory and Neolithic were then notions exotic to China, a country of a long written tradition. By the early twentieth century, Chinese historians became increasingly skeptical about the authenticity of the documentation of the sage kings and legendary heroes handed down in the classical writing. Right at this time, Andersson discovered an early culture totally unknown before. Its relation to traditional Chinese culture naturally aroused a great deal of interest. Archaeology gradually became the major apparatus in the reconstruction of a national history of the preliterate past in the following decades.

Based on Andersson's journals, field notes, and correspondence housed and catalogued in MFEA, Fiskesjo¨ and Chen give a colorful account of his archaeological journey. The survey expedition from Xi'an to Lanzhou was particularly adventurous because this area was not controlled by the republic's government but by the warlords. The expedition had to be protected from bandits by armed guards and soldiers. The collections of artifacts were packed and floated down the Yellow River on yakskin rafts. These sound more like episodes from Indiana Jones than regular archaeological campaigns.

The reason why Andersson took such a dangerous journey demonstrates his scientific rigor. His motive was to test the hypothesis that the prehistoric tradition discovered in situ at Yangshao village in 1921 originated in the west. In his first published paper about Yangshao, Andersson noted a striking similarity in design between the Yangshao polychrome sherds and those of Anau in southern Turkmenia and Tripolje in the Ukraine. To supplement the authors, Andersson had consulted leading scholars of the time, sending them pictures of the Yangshao designs. Hubert Schmitt, a German archaeologist who participated in the excavation at Anau, maintained that those few elements of geometric designs selected by Andersson for comparison were very simple and that similarities, if any, were far from convincing. On the contrary, R. H. Hobson, then the Chinese ceramic specialist at the British Museum, argued that these geometric designs were first invented in Mesopotamia and diffused to the other parts of the world, including Yangshao China, in later dates (see Andersson 1973). The western expedition had a clear research question.

Chapter 3 is an interesting shift of focus from discussing the works of Andersson to discussing how the Chinese evaluate his works. The communist government has a reputation of high-handedly limiting the interpretive frameworks that humanities and social science scholars could use, and it does not hesitate to bend history to serve the present political goals. Therefore, the attitude toward Andersson's legacy and Andersson as a person is a reflection of the entire history of modern Chinese archaeology in particular and the relationship between contemporary politics and academic pursuits in general. This chapter should not only intrigue archaeologists but should also...


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