The idea that at the origin of Chinese civilization there was an egalitarian society dominated by women has been debunked by mainline scholars.
by Massimo Introvigne
Domestic and international observers have been repeatedly surprised by Xi Jinping’s use of important meetings to discuss archeology. This may correspond to Xi’s personal interests, but there is more to it. Chairman Mao also promoted archeology, and told archeologists to “use the past in service of the present” (古为今用), insisting that the difference between Marxist and bourgeois archeology is that the first should present evidence that historical materialism is true.
On October 17, Xi Jinping reiterated his ideas on archeology in a letter commemorating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Yangshao Culture. Xi called for a sinicization of archeology and “an archeology with Chinese characteristics.” As readers of Bitter Winter know, sinicization does not mean that a field should be led by Chinese rather than foreigners or reject foreign models (in this sense archeology, as pretty much everything else, has been “sinicized” for at least seventy years), but that it should be controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and serve its interests.
The Yangshao Culture is a case in point, and an important one. Although doubts have emerged, traditionally it has been considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was a Neolithic culture dating back to 5000 BCE, and which lasted for some two millennia in Henan, Shaanxi, and Shanxi. It was discovered in 1921 by a Swedish archeologist, Johan Gunnar Andersson, during his work in Yangshao town, Mianchi county, Henan province. However, it was Chairman Mao that promoted further archeological research on the Yangshao Culture, and in the 1950s the large site of Banpo village in Shaanxi was excavated.
For Mao, Yangshao Culture was extremely important. He and his ideologists interpreted it through the Marxist paradigm presented in Friedrich Engels’ 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels believed that in the most ancient human societies private property, inequalities, and the oppression of women did not exist. With the development of agriculture, both private property and patriarchy emerged. Mao believed that Yangshao Culture proved that Engels’ primordial equalitarian non-patriarchal society had existed at the beginning of Chinese history. Archeology had now proved it—and the truth of historical materialism.
The story still told in the Chinese museums is that, while during its two millennia of existence the Yangshao Culture had developed a primitive form of agriculture, women had remained at the top of it and, at least in its earlier stage, were also in charge of making the beautiful Yangshao pottery. The Banpo site, early Chinese archeologists said, proved that Yangshao villages were organized as a sort of communes, with no separation of property.
As the strongest evidence of the dominance of women, burial findings were quoted, which should have proved the preferential treatment accorded to women in Yangshao funerary practices.
This reconstruction, however, although still taught in China, was debunked as false when, in the Deng Xiaoping years, Chinese and some foreign archeologists were allowed to work at Banpo and to publish findings independent from Marxist ideology. Gao Kiang (who was himself affiliated with the Banpo Museum) and Lee Yun Kuen published in 1993 in the Journal of Anthropological Archeology the results of an osteological analysis that reversed the Mao era theory, concluding that in fact burials suggested a bias against females and even a possible practice of female infanticide.
They concluded that, “The underrepresentation of female specimens and the change of sex ratio with age indicate that there was either selective infanticide or differential mortuary treatment against the females. The propositions of matrilocality and the dominant female status are thus rejected.” Further studies confirmed these findings.
The idea that at the origins of China there was an Engelsian matriarchal and matrilocal society and a proto-Communist paradise of equality governed by women with no private property was exposed as just an ideological myth. However, it was too good for the Marxist interpretation of history to be easily renounced, and remains popular in schoolbooks and museum captions. Now, Xi Jinping’s “archeology with Chinese characteristics” may try to revive it.