Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 13, 2000
Xiaoneng Yang The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People’s Republic of China Yale University Press, 1999. 584 pp.; 372 color ills.; 48 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300081324)
National Gallery of Art, September 19, 1999-January 2, 2000; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, February 13-May 7, 2000; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, June 17-September 11, 2000.

This book is the catalogue accompanying an exhibition that opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and then traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. It documents 175 objects drawn from a variety of media. The catalogue is meant to be of interest to the general public who viewed the exhibition, as well as a useful reference for students of Chinese art history, complete with Chinese character lists and an extensive bibliography. The general editor of the book, Yang Xiaoneng, also is the curator of the exhibition. Yang’s focus for the exhibition is stated in the subtitle: the most important discoveries made during the period described as the golden age of archaeology in China, that is 1977 to the present. These finds include masterpieces that demonstrate the high level of artistic production in places known as centers/capitals, but also in coexisting locations outside of that sphere, thus expanding our understanding of the range of artistic possibilities during a given period of time. In most cases, Yang selected a group of works found at a particular site or related sites where the excavations were carefully conducted to recover as much information as possible. The works are mainly from the tomb context, but also from hoards and, to a much lesser extent, habitation sites. The roster of sites included is not surprising, and many of the objects have been seen in other exhibitions of Chinese art in the West. Yang gives greatest attention to the Neolithic and Bronze Age materials through the Han dynasty, but he has extended his coverage to include Buddhist art from several important hoards/deposits (6th—9th c.), Tang tomb figurines, as well as painted stone reliefs from the interior of a tomb dated to the tenth century. Several of these pieces, including a Buddhist triad from Qingzhou and stone reliefs depicting court attendants and musicians from Hebei, were excavated in the mid-1990s and have not been part of other exhibitions that toured the United States in recent years.

Twenty-four scholars who are experts in their fields wrote sections of the catalogue. The catalogue begins with an essay by Yang about the history of archaeology in China from the 1890s to the present. Because of the high level of detail and the abundance of sites considered, this essay most likely would prove frustrating for someone outside of the field. Yang briefly mentions problems concerning the looting of tombs, but perhaps more attention to this topic and to the ongoing reports concerning the destruction of archaeological sites that is inevitable because the dam on the Yangzi River would have engaged the general reader to a greater extent. In the body of the catalogue, Yang considers the artworks chronologically, dividing the material into four time periods: 1. Late Prehistoric, ca. 5000-2000 BCE; 2. Bronze Age China, ca. 2000-771 BCE; 3. Chu and other cultures, ca. 770-221 BCE; and 4. Early Imperial China, 221 BCE-924 CE. Each section is preceded by a general overview written by Yang. Within the four divisions, the material is considered according to culture or site. Introductions to the specific cultures or sites where the objects were unearthed are followed by individual entries for the objects. Although the contributors to the catalogue are listed on page 22, and their initials appear at the end of each introduction or entry, it is very difficult to locate the work of a particular writer except by paging through the text.

The object entries are followed by four essays written by leading scholars from the People’s Republic of China. The topics correspond to the basic divisions of the catalogue, but these essays seem out of place. Had they been located at the head of each section, they would have provided the reader with the current Chinese point of view. The essay about the Bronze Age by Zou Heng is a case where the Chinese opinion is particularly important. Considering the historicity of the Xia dynasty, Zou states that the Erlitou culture and the Xia culture are interchangeable (529). Similarly, Yang writes in the introduction to the Bronze Age section of catalogue: “The prevalent view identifies the Erlitou relics with the Xia culture . . . but no writings have been discovered that definitively confirm this hypothesis” (139). However several pages later in Robert Thorpe’s introduction to the Erlitou Culture at Yanshi, Henan province, a different viewpoint is presented. Thorpe states: “The lack of a worldwide consensus on the identity of the Erlitou type site illustrates some of the competing assumptions and agendas of archaeologists and historians, both inside and outside of China today” (142). Thorpe then briefly outlines some of the reasons why some scholars do not believe the Erlitou culture and Xia dynasty should be equated, and why the Xia still remain mythic. The issue is thorny, especially since it has been elevated to a political level in China, but it would be much less confusing to the general reader if the varying opinions were outlined in a straightforward manner at the start. The schizophrenic approach to this issue also is seen in the timeline (20-21) where only the Shang and Zhou dynasties appear, versus the chronology (22-23) where the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties are listed.

An equally significant variance in point of view between Thorpe and Zou is found in their conclusions about the spectacular bronze vessels from Xin’gan. Zou writes: “In the past, it was believed that the cultures to the south were a backwater, but the objects from the Great Tomb at Xin’gan clearly militate against this view and offer proof that as early as the Shang period the cultures of the south had a material culture as advanced as those of the Great Plain” (534). In contrast, Thorpe holds fast to the traditional view and suggests that one of the most finely crafted vessels features “innovation and designs . . . more likely to have emanated from the Shang foundries at Anyang than from the culture of the Gan River tomb” (cat. 62, 201).

In general, Yang has chosen spectacular objects, and most of the photographs are superb with the exception of those of the bronzes of Fu Hao and Zenghou Yi. A highlight is the number and quality of details or secondary views of the works. Yang requested the Chinese photographers to shoot details of the works of art included in the exhibition, and these additional photographs make a significant contribution to the viewer’s ability to understand comments made in the entries. One drawback of the book, however, is the lack of maps, line drawings of tomb structures, and photographs of comparative works of art mentioned in the texts of the entries. Yang does include a single map (18-19) with the archaeological sites indicated, but it is devoid of modern reference points. Many of the essays outline some of the links between cultures. For instance, the types of wares produced in the Xiajiadian culture of Inner Mongolia are compared to those from Erlitou in Henan province. Most readers would benefit from the inclusion of a map at the beginning of the section. Since the catalogue focuses on specific sites, the writers of the essays/entries seem to have been given instructions to describe the condition and layout of the tomb. However, the inclusion of line drawings of the tomb structure would have helped the reader, especially the nonspecialist, to visualize the whole structure. More photographs of parallel examples referred to in the entry texts also would have strengthened the catalogue. The authors of the entries consistently cite sources where analogous examples can be found, but the range of Chinese sources utilized would prove impossible for the ordinary reader, even the reader in the field of Chinese art not specifically researching these periods. Another aid to the nonspecialist studying the catalogue would have been consistent references to Western language sources to which the reader could turn for further information. In general, however, the writers have done a fine job of conveying the significance of the site and the objects, and also have indicated some of the unresolved questions.

The book would have benefited from a final round of proofreading before publication. It is marred by errors of several kinds in the text and bibliography: misspelled place and proper names, missing titles of articles, erratic capitalization, and improper hyphenation of romanized Chinese. In a few cases, the bibliography does not correspond to the notes. Such inconsistencies include Richard Barnhart’s note 5 on page 513 citing “Shaanxi 1996”, which is not listed; as well as Roderick Whitfield’s citation of “Kröger, 1998” in note 5 on page 168, which is also missing. Despite these problems, the book is recommended for all undergraduate and graduate libraries, as well as public libraries. The high-quality photographs and extensive entries for each object are particularly noteworthy. For scholars and collectors, it is a valuable documentation of some of the most significant works of art that have been excavated in recent years.

Susan Erickson
Professor, Department of Literature, Philosophy, and the Arts, University of Michigan-Dearborn