The Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project (XSZCP) sponsored by the government that cost the taxpayer tens of millions of yuans has become well known in the mainland China as the “greatest event in the cultural history”, surpassing the Yong-Le Dictionary. The “abbreviated report” of the project was officially accepted by the government and given one of the “Ten Great Scientific Progress Awards”. As the report is officially accepted in China, the wave of criticism started to show up overseas. Some considered it politically motivated and nationalistic while others criticized it from academic perspectives. Professor David Nivison from Stanford claimed on New York Times that he would “tear it into pieces”. The Chinese media portrayed the international criticizers as the “imperialists” and “hostile forces”. In April of 2001, the director of the project Li Xueqin (李学勤) and the chief scientist Qiu Shihua (仇世华) participated in an academic conference, when the two sides faced each other for the first time and had a frank exchange. The overseas scholars sharply criticized the methodology and the conclusion of the project. … Here, we will ignore the political background and the fierce debates on the media, and focus on the academic aspect of the project.
Chinese have all heard about the “five thousand years of civilization” as the history books used to mention the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou Dynasties. But the chronology as Sima Qian put it on his Shi-Ji only covered up to Gonghe Year One (841 BC), while the earlier kings had no date. Thus, the so-called “five thousand years” of civilization could only be dated to about three thousand years ago. The situation is considered frustrating to some Chinese and the non-recognition by the western scholars caused deep resentment among certain Chinese historians.
To fill in the gap, XSZCP was initiated in 1996 and became the “focus project” of the Ninth Five-Year Plan” (of the PRC government). The State Council established a board headed by Deng Nan (邓楠), while Li Tieying (李铁映) and Song Jian (宋健) functioned as the consultants. Li Xueqin, Qiu Shihua and Xi Zezong (席泽宗) formed the expert group … … More than 200 experts participated in the project. … …
The objectives were to (1) establish the exact chronology of the Western Zhou Dynasty; (2) establish the relatively reliable chronology of the late Shang Dynasty; (3) propose a detailed chronological framework of the early Shang Dynasty; (4) propose a basic framework for Xia Dynasty.
XSZCP depended on two approaches to achieve the objectives: one is the ancient literature and inscriptions on the oracle shells and bones and bronze instruments, and interpret its astronomical and calendar records using modern methods; the other was the carbon dating of the relevant archeological sites including the burials.
After four years of efforts, XSZCP published the chronology which set the beginning of Xia Dynasty at 2070 BC, the beginning of Shang Dynasty at 1600 BC, and extended the exact chronology from 841 BC to 1250 BC (the Year One of King Wuding of Shang). All the kings of Western Zhou were given exact dates, which was mainly based on the Year King Wu Conquered Shang and Year One of King Yi. The rest of the chronology was arranged and adjusted accordingly.
Questioning the Results
Since the publication of the report, the scholars from China and overseas engaged in three major debates, and the critics of the results seem to outnumber the supporters.
The First Debate on Internet
Starting from November 200, the debate was conducted on internet regarding the political issues and the academic issues. XSZCP not only affirmed the existence of Xia Dynasty (it has never been archaeologically proved – the translator), but also gave the lineage of the supposed Xia kings. Many Western scholars are skeptical about this. They regard Xia Dynasty in the Chinese text books as legendary while Shang was credited as the first dynasty of China, which had been proved by the oracle shells and bones. Many of them criticized the conclusion labeling the Erlitou site as the capital of Xia without sufficient evidences. The supporters laid their claims mainly on four evidences: (1) the western Henan Province and the southern Shanxi Province were historically considered the areas of the Xia people, in which the Erlitou site was located; (2) a foundation of a “palace” was discovered in the site; (3) Erlitou was C-dated to a date earlier than Shang Dynasty; (4) As the Shang Dynasty mentioned by Sima Qian was proved, Xia Dynasty mentioned also by Sima Qian must be true. Some western scholars think that the historical records on the ancient book of Zhou Dynasty probably were created by the Zhou rulers for political purposes and could not be trusted as genuine history. On the other hand, the Erlitou site does not display a sophisticated culture to qualify as a civilization (typically including writing, cities, government, and a class society). Unless we discover writing, bronze instrument and other signs of civilization, the boundary of the prehistory and the history will remains at (the beginning of) Shang Dynasty. Regarding the credibility of Sima Qian’s writings, they argued that the first king of Shang was said to be conceived by stepping on the footprints of a big bird; due to this and many other supernatural phenomena related to the early kings, all his writings are not to be treated as genuine history.
The Second Debate – Face-to-Face
On April 4-7, the annual meeting of the Asian Society of USA convened in Washington, DC. The meeting organizer has invited the XSZCP scholars (it was said that the invitation was given only after request by the XSZCP group – the translator). The participants from the XSZCP group included the director Li Xueqin, and members Zhang Changshou (张长寿), Qiu Shihua, Zhang Peiyu (张培瑜). Many overseas scholars questioned the XSZCP project orally or by writing. First of all, the so-called fen-ye (zodiac) theory formed in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, not the Western Zhou Dynasty, which undermines the supposed “ancient astronomical records” of “Chunhuo” (鹑火) used to date the Founding Year of Western Zhou – translator). Secondly, the word “sui” (岁) on Li Gui (利簋) (a bronze instrument – the translator) could mean year instead of Jupiter as the project interpreted it. Thirdly, XSZCP favored the year of 1046 BC over 1044 BC based on interpretations of the lunar terminologies in a way inconsistent with the “four-period theory” of Wang Guowei, which is considered reliable. Fourthly, XSZCP ignored the records on the “current version” of Bamboo Annual by considering it “falsified”, which is still in debate. Fifthly, the computer program used to calculate the 14-C dating only produced one SD (68.3%) of probability. Finally, XSZCP gave inconsistent data on the Marquess Jin’s tomb when different papers are compared.
Some overseas scholars questioned the ethical standard of the XSZCP group. Professor Edward Shaughnessy of Chicago University said that the result of the solar eclipse in 899 BC coinciding with the Year One of King Yi, critical to the project and widely reported on the Chinese newspapers and TV programs, was first obtained by a scholar from another country. The report failed to mention this, which is unethical by academic standard. In addition, the result of 1046 BC was first proposed by an American scholar David Pankenier in 1980’s; it was never mentioned, either. The criticism is reasonable. … … The Korean scholar Fang Shanzhu published the solar eclipse dating on 899 BC in 1975.
… … Li Xueqin tried to explain the omission of references as due on the limit of the size of the report. Zhang Peiyu admitted that the omission is inappropriate. … …
The Third Debate in Chicago
The debate on April 22 was fierce and more dramatic than the previous one. It is worthy mentioning the researcher Jud Jiang from Stanford. … … His article mainly questioned the year of King Wu conquering Shang. He brought attention to the OxCal program, which he borrowed from Oxford to check the calculation of the adjusted data published by the XSZCP project on the spot, and found the range of spread is wider than what was quoted in the report by a large margin. A narrower spread could be obtained only at a probability of 68.3%, which is widely criticized by experts in 14-C dating. XSZCP used such a low probability for the founding year of Western Zhou is unscientific.
Why would XSZCP not use 95.4% or 99.7% as usual? Because, he said, the range would have become larger by one or two centuries instead of plus or minus 20 years requested by the project leaders. This was necessary to eliminate most of the 44 other alternative results and narrow the range down to a few decades. In other words, XSZCP sacrificed the reliability of the result to eliminate other possibilities.
Jiang’s article also pointed out that the OxCal does not use the international standard in the tree rings calibration. Experts showed that the calculation incorporated arbitrary elements, which means a need to provide a series of archaeological samples with definite upper and lower boundaries, which is difficult to achieve. … … the article emphasizes that the method was unrealistic because the ceramics, cereals and lumber samples could not be exclusively placed in the period of one king or another. Also, a sample taken from certain stratum does not necessarily belong to it. For example, the wood from a coffin may have been cut and stored well before the death of the owner. Thus its carbon date does not belong to that stratum.
The article concluded that the so-called “multidisciplinary creation” mainly used non-literature sources to solve the chronological problem. The strata, the ceramics and the 14-C dating with an error of centuries are useful only for prehistorical studies but not suitable for the chronological aspects and the project. Academically speaking, the criticism on XSZCP is reasonable and highly objective. The errors committed by XSZCP are not on specific results but on the general methodology and thus fatal.
In the meeting which Li Xueqin failed to attend as he made an early return to China, Jud Jiang orally presented his main points and used his computer and the OxCal program to recheck the data and proved that the results are not consistent with what had been published by XSZCP reports. Qiu Shihua admitted that he also had some doubts on the 14-C data. Zhang Changshou explicitly agreed with Jud Jiang’s conclusion. At the moment, Prof. Shaughnessy pounded the table and asked how could the Western Zhou’s chronology of the XSZCP project, which was based on the 14-C data of the Fengxi site, be accepted? Zhang Lidong, a PhD student in Chicago, a former secretary of the XSZCP project, reported the debate in the China Wenwu Daily on May 24, 2002. This report caused a shock wave in China. Two months later, another article titled “The Tour of the USA – about the XSZCP Project” by Su Hui was also published on the same newspaper, and claimed Zhang’s report as inconsistent with the facts and misleading in details. Qiu Shihua recalled the meeting in the article that the Jud Jiang found only one year of difference using my data, and he laughed and said that another check might produce a difference of two years, and all the fuss amounted to nothing. To clarify the issue, this author called other participants of the meeting in China and overseas. They all said that Qiu agreed with Jiang’s conclusions in the meeting, and were surprised by Qiu’s irresponsible attitude.
Interestingly, Xu Lianggao (徐良高), the author of the report on the excavation in Fengxi of 1997, acted in a similar manner. In his article on China Weneu Daily, he argued that he used the terminology of “approximately equivalent to” certain king’s period while this was deleted by Jiang in his article (he effectively accused Jud Jiang for falsification – the translator). This author checked the original excavation report, which said “Period One: we determined its age to be from King Wen moving to Feng until King Wu conquering Shang; Period Two: we interpret its age as the Year One of King Wu until the early period of King Cheng.” Therefore, Jiang’s quotation had been faithful to the original. While Qiu Shihua denied his recent speech, Xu Lianggao denied his recent writing on paper. We have to call into doubt about the scholarship and attitude of certain members of the XSZCP group. Hence, some comments on newspapers questioned how such people could be trusted to work out the ancient date if they cannot get the recent event straight?
… … Dr. Nivison’s opinion (on the project) is not an isolated case. A Japanese scholar 成家彻郎 also mentioned that the project ignore his doubt, and ignore the contradictory literature evidence as well as changing inscription on the bronze instruments (meaning the Ganzhi dating records – the translator). Both Dr. Nivision and成家彻郎 are measuring the results of the projects by scientific standards. Although their criticism caused “troubles” to the project, their works are meaningful as academic studies should never be mixed with false results.
Although the full version of the report has not been passed, the chronology of the XSZCP project has been incorporated into the text books for the elementary schools, high schools, and even the universities as well as dictionaries. Even the university entrance examination also treated the XSZCP chronology as the exclusively correct result. If the full report is passed without appropriate modifications, its errors will be forced down the throat of everyone in the society and will mislead the students. … … (The translator’s note: the full report was never passed, but the results are still treated as “official” by the XSZCP group as well as all the official media and the education sector in China. Some people related to the XSZCP project also made their effort to contain different interpretations of the chronology on internet forums using various means including smear campaigns.)
Translated by E. Lin
Edited by neil, 19 July 2009 - 04:45 AM.