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Reviewed by:
  • Hepu Han Tombs by Zhaoming Xiong and Xia Fu
  • Francis Allard
Hepu Han Tombs. Zhaoming Xiong and Xia Fu, translated by Michèle H. S. Demandt. Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2022. xiv + 243 pp., 27 b&w, 200 color illustrations. Hardcover US $110, ISBN 9789811946592; Softcover US $110, ISBN 9789811946622; eBook US $85, ISBN 9789811946608.

Located some 12 km from the present-day coast of the Beibu Gulf—Vietnam's "Gulf of Tonkin"—in southern China's Guangxi Province, the site of Hepu has received continual attention from archaeologists over the past half century. This book focuses on Hepu's Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.c.e. 220) burials, which are presently estimated at numbering over 10,000. Of these, about 1200 have been excavated so far and have yielded tens of thousands of artifacts. Even though the burials are unevenly distributed over a large area of 68 km2, the authors identify Hepu as a single burial ground, "the biggest and one of the best-preserved Han-period cemeteries ever discovered in China" (p. vi). Although burials dating to the following Three Kingdoms period (c.e. 200280) and Jin-Southern Dynasties (c.e. 280589) have also been found, the authors concentrate on Hepu's rich and plentiful Han Period remains.

Beyond the notable scale and wealth of its Han Period funerary landscape, Hepu stands out in another significant way, namely as an active participant in the early Maritime Silk Road. The authors note that Hepu not only became "the 'flagship' of the Han Dynasty's foreign policy, but also the main port of departure of the Early Maritime Silk Road" (p. v), an assessment supported by a revealing historical passage (see below), as well as by large numbers of burial goods found at Hepu that either originated or were styled to mimic objects from Southeast Asia, India, Sri Lanka, and in some cases regions even further west. Together with its recognized role in early maritime trade networks, Hepu's archaeological remains help explain the attention which it has received nationally, culminating in its 1996 designation as a "Fourth Batch Key National Heritage Site" by China's State Council (p. 238).

It is worth noting that the present volume is a concise translation of an earlier and fuller account in Chinese on the same topic (Xiong 2018). While historians and archaeologists of China interested in the archaeology of Hepu are likely to consult the more detailed Chinese publication, which includes several lists of objects of nonlocal origin, this English translation offers other scholars interested in maritime trading contacts in Southeast and South Asia an opportunity to learn about China's participation in what were truly extensive exchange networks. Still, one cannot ignore two additional driving forces behind the current promotion of Hepu's archaeological heritage to a broader audience beyond China. The first of these is China's current application for recognition of Hepu's Han tombs, along with the nearby port city of Beihai, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the application also bringing attention to the area's further significance as a "Cultural Route Heritage" site (p. 240). No less revealing, Hepu archaeology also plays a role in "assisting the One Belt One Road Initiative" (p. 241). Introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the initiative is "dedicated to establishing and strengthening partnerships between the continents and adjacent seas in Asia, Europe, and Africa, and to promote economic prosperity and regional cooperation between these individual countries" (p. 241). In recognition of Hepu's importance in this regard, President Xi visited its Han Culture Museum in 2017. Serving as a demonstration of what the book argues was peaceful interregional interaction and cultural exchange during the Han period, Hepu is likely to continue playing a role in the promotion of China's current One Belt One Road Initiative.

Relying on a combination of textual analysis and environmental research, chapter 1 ("Administrative Division and Historical Geography of Han-Period Hepu") provides a brief overview of Hepu's administrative and [End Page 135] geographical background, with the limited sources painting a somewhat consistent picture of Hepu's political standing and geographical setting during the Han Dynasty. In...