- China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization by Robert L. Thorp
In his English-language overview of Shang 商 civilization incorporating up-to-date archaeological, art-historical, and transmitted textual and epigraphic information, Thorp attempts a Herculean task. This is a much needed contribution to a field that has not [End Page 313] had a synthetic treatment of the subject in English since K. C. Chang’s work in the early eighties (1980 (1983). As the jacket cover states, China in the Early Bronze Age aims to be both an introduction to Shang civilization for those who can’t read Chinese and “a handbook and research guide” for those who can. Given the pace of archaeological work in China, its rapidly multiplying and frequently scattered publications, and the difficulty of accessing, let alone synthesizing, the results of such diverse and esoteric sources of information as oracle-bone and bronze vessel epigraphy, transmitted texts with their millennia-deep commentarial traditions, and current art-historical and archaeological approaches to material culture and its interpretation, Thorp’s relative success or failure to achieve his stated goals must be seen in the context of the enormity of his task.
Thorp’s preface is a Western scholar’s thirty-some-year backward glance at the context and development of archaeological practice in the PRC during what has been termed “the Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology.” Here, as throughout the work, the writing style is straightforward, the language simple, and the text amazingly jargon-free. Thorp’s informative use of subject boxes aimed at an introductory audience supplement the text and introduce such concepts and institutions as “mythic narratives,” “cultural relic (wenwu 文物),” and “Institute of Archaeology (Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo 中國社會科學院考古研究所).”
The introductory chapter provides the geographical setting and Neolithic cultural background to the Chinese Bronze Age. Thorp tackles the important but tricky issue of de-linking geographical China from the modern Chinese nation-state and Han 漢 ethnicity in a manner that is both concise and easy to understand. The idea of providing a regional geographical context for ancient societies in China is a good one, but Thorp’s use of Skinner’s (1985) map of Qing 清 dynasty macroregions (which are not, contra Thorp, entirely “natural” in the sense of being independent of human economic, cultural, and technological developments) is perhaps not ideal. A topographical map would have been more useful, and one or a series of maps that took into account the paleo-environment and the distribution of archaeological cultures within it would have been even better.
The 12 pages on the Late Neolithic begins with a 6-page discussion of terms such as “Terminal Neolithic” and “Age of Jade” and a brief overview, followed by a history of the changing meaning of “Longshan 龍山” and some sites associated with this historical narrative. This history-of-the-discipline approach provides a common thread among most of the topics in the book and is a valuable contextual addition when it does not get in the way of an overview of what is currently known on a particular subject. For the purpose of introducing students unfamiliar with Chinese archaeology to the topic, I would have preferred to have more systematically presented information on what is presently known than the history of particular sites or concepts, especially in a short treatment of a huge topic (or rather, a huge complex of topics). In the six pages left to an overview of the Late Neolithic, Thorp covers the concept of a Chinese interaction sphere, lists walled sites and briefly discusses some of them, and defines “early states.” He then ties these threads together to argue for the presence of “complex societies, some possibly incipient states” in the Terminal Neolithic (20).
While I do not necessarily disagree with his conclusions, there are some problems with Thorp’s presentation of the material that are symptomatic of more general problems with the work. First of all, the focus on walled sites to the exclusion of non...