Buddhist Monuments

WILLIAM WATSON, assistant keeper in the department of oriental antiquities in the British Museum, is a specialist in Chinese archaeology. The photographs accompanying his article were supplied to him from China for use in an exhibition.


THE advance of archaeological study is one of the most remarkable cultural achievements of the Chinese since the advent of the Communist regime in 1949. It has not been merely a matter of impressive finds made in excavations or the discovery and rehabilitation of cave temples long abandoned and forgotten. The history of archaeological research in China from the beginning of the present century is marked by events of equal importance. To observers in the West, the revelation of the material culture of Chinese Bronze Age civilization and of the artistic achievements of the early centers of Chinese Buddhism was as dramatic a chapter in the world-wide annals of archaeology as the discoveries made in the Mediterranean countries and in the Near East during the previous century.

The rich collections preserved in Europe and America testify to the interest which Chinese antiquity held for the West and to an intense appreciation of the aesthetic quality of ancient Chinese art. But the acquisitiveness of collectors was too often satisfied at the expense of the historian: clandestine excavation, from which no records of locality, association of objects, or other particulars survived, often destroyed the basis of historical reconstruction. The value of recent work lies as much in its scientific method as in the bulk and intrinsic interest of its discoveries. Since 1950, the object of the Chinese Ministry of Culture and of the Archaeological Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has been to ensure that all the information of place and circumstance which is required in explaining historical developments is preserved and recorded systematically. Thanks to the new organization and to the leadership of such field archaeologists as Mr. Hsia Nai of the Archaeological Institute and Madame Tsêng Chao-Yüeh of the Nanking Museum, the study of archaeology in China has entered a phase comparable in scope and scientific method to the kind of research which Europe has known for the last forty or fifty years. In the space at our disposal here, we can pick out only a few of the most notable examples.

The Institute of Archaeology has continued work at Anyang, the site of the Shang dynasty capital (about the fifteenth to the eleventh century B.C.), which was the scene of excavations by Academia Sinica before the war, and at Kuan Ts’un, a few miles to the north, it has made a more thorough investigation of a tomb of royal dimensions than had ever been possible before. The burial chamber—the central square pit, with its small recess at the bottom for the customary sacrifice of a dog — was found to have been robbed in ancient times, but the remains of victims slaughtered at the funeral were intact. To north and south, long ramps give access to the surface; in the northern ramp are pits with the skeletons of slaughtered horses. Such was the holocaust which accompanied the burial of a Shang King, and its character recalls the grim pomp of Bronze Age Kings further west — the graves at Ur spring to mind.

No doubt a chariot was buried in the Wu Kuan Ts’un tomb also, though it could not be found. Nearby, however, at Ta Ssu K’ung Ts’un, such a chariot burial was recovered in its entirety. The wooden parts had perished, but their shape was preserved in the earth. The charioteer lay face down behind the driver’s box. The dimensions of the vehicle and the general lines of the harness could be deduced with fair accuracy. The result is of great importance for the history of the chariot — the heavy arm par excellence of Bronze Age warfare — in Asia as a whole. Basic features distinguish the Shang chariot from the contemporary chariots of the Near East: a light, eighteen-spoke wheel, the position of the axle at the middle of the box instead of the back edge, and the extraordinarily wide wheel base. The only essential bronze parts are the axle caps.

These features of Shang civilization belong to the latest part of the reign of the dynasty, the twelfth to eleventh century B.C. Although the most recent excavations illustrate them more fully, their existence was known from earlier work. But at Cheng-Chou, farther south in Honan province, there has been revealed an early phase of Shang civilization, lacking the advanced bronze technique seen at Anyang. Moreover, careful excavation established a chronological sequence of pottery vessel types, leading up to those characteristic of Anyang, which will be of the greatest value in dating the spread of Shang civilization.

Recent research has tended to confirm the close association of Shang Bronze Age civilization with the preceding Neolithic tradition of Northeast China; and, gradually, archaeological evidence accumulates to confirm the historical tradition of the origin of the Shang’s conquerors, the Chou dynasts, in the western, horse-raising uplands of Shansi and Shensi. In recent years, some important finds have a bearing on the rise of local artistic traditions in the various feudal states in the later centuries of the Chou period.

Such a find is that made at Chia Ko Chuang in Hopei province. This lies in the territory of the state of Yen, which from the eight century B.C. until 232 B.C. embraced the northeastern region of China as far as the top of the Korean peninsula. The group of bronze vessels from Chia Ko Chuang represent a hitherto unknown local variation of the bronze art of about 500 B.C. Some of its features are reminiscent of the animal art of the Asiatic steppes, as it is known some centuries later. The Yen style is further evidence of the close connection of Bronze Age China with the outer regions to north and west and strengthens the argument that Chinese influence lies at the root of the artistic traditions of the steppe nomads.

Another local tradition abundantly illustrated from recent excavations is that of the Huai River valley, lying to the southeast of the central plain. Bronzes of the type discovered here, although known, had never been recovered in systematic excavations. The find of four hundred and eightysix bronzes at Shou-Hsien in the tomb of a marquis of Ts’ai, dated on historical arguments to the early fifth century B.C., places our knowledge of this provincial culture on a firmer footing.

The most informative excavations of late Chou tombs have been those at Hui Hsien in northern Honan, and the most unexpected feature of them, a pit in which nineteen chariots had been buried in a double row. In almost every case, the shapes of the timbers of shafts, wheels, and driver’s boxes were recoverable, almost complete, from traces of the finer, more compacted soil which had formed in the place of the perished wood. The preservation of such ghosts of objects long vanished is a technique developed only recently by archaeologists. It was first demonstrated on a large scale at the ship burial at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia, England, in 1939. At Hui Hsien, it was practiced for the first time in Asian soil, and with brilliant success. The bronze parts had mostly been removed before the burial, but enough remained for completing the reconstruction of the chariots in considerable detail.

Vaster in bulk than all the material of earlier date are the finds made in tombs of the Han era (218 B.C. to 206 A.D.), hundreds of which are located near towns enduring to the present day and are perforce destroyed in civic works. Some of the largest of such tombs are preserved as monuments. Among them, the tomb at Pei Chai Ts’un in Honan is the most interesting. Its architecture copies in stone some features of the wooden buildings of the time, and its walls are decorated with scenes of feasting and figures of mythological personages. As a storehouse of Han figural art, this tomb comes second only to the famous Wu Liang Ssu in the same province. From the Han tombs and others of later date down to the T’ang dynasty (618 to 906 A.D.) come large numbers of the clay figurines which are already well known to and coveted by the Western world.