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Monday, August 29, 2011

Reflections on a Visit to China II: The Hegemony of Archaeology

I’m old enough to remember when the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) used to fulminate about “hegemonism.” It was a kind of post-colonial version of rants on colonialism, and referred to how, in the PRC’s view, the U.S., sometimes the Soviet Union, and various European powers tried to push their values and points of view on the rest of the world – to exercise hegemony over everyone else.

The term kept running through my mind in Beijing while listening to papers at the World Archaeological Congress’s Intercongress on Cultural Heritage Management in East and Southeast Asia. It did so because the hegemony exercised by archaeology seemed so manifest in – it seemed – everyone’s understanding of cultural heritage management. There seemed to be a widespread shared assumption that “archaeology” and “cultural heritage” were essentially synonymous. Or rather, that there was academic research archaeology, and then there was cultural heritage, which was essentially applied archaeology and the care and interpretation of archaeological sites and historic architecture (itself not much represented in the WAC’s gathering of archaeologists, co-sponsored by the Institute of Archaeology in the Chinese Academy of Social Science).

I know, I know, this is my usual complaint, expressed in the U.S. context as “cultural resource management isn’t just archaeology and old buildings, dammit!” But it was kind of discouraging to find myself lodging the same mental criticism against what my Asian and European colleagues were doing, and how they were thinking.

It seems so painfully obvious: “cultural heritage” means the heritage of a community, group, tribe, nation, or planet that is cultural in character, and that heritage includes customary ways of doing things, systems of belief, values, practices of all kinds – as well as, rather incidentally, the sites, buildings, building complexes, landscapes, and artifacts with which all those things are associated. When we implicitly, virtually without thinking about it, redefine the term to mean only the sites, buildings, artifacts and other physical leavings of culture, we’re ignoring most of our – everyone’s – heritage. And since most people aren’t interested only in culture’s physical leavings, since most people value their cultures as whole things that include but aren’t limited to stuff on and in the ground, we risk losing, or never gaining, the support of most of the population. Both things strike me as sad, and unwise.

Before someone protests – yes, UNESCO has fairly recently begun promoting the care and feeding of “intangible” cultural heritage, but it’s done so by putting together a convention that reflects the intellectual traditions of site/structure/artifact management. Signatory nations are to put together lists of nifty intangible stuff (Manchurian throat singing is a hot issue in China), and then – uh – do something about it. Exactly what they’re to do besides listing stuff isn’t clear, and of course there are already the inevitable arguments about what ought to be listed, by whom, and how it ought to be described. None of this strikes me as a very useful exercise in cultural heritage management. It does, though, illustrate the hegemony of archaeology (and architectural history) over the cultural heritage game. If something like throat singing is going to be recognized as cultural heritage, it seems, it’s got to be officially vetted, given a professional, official, governmental stamp of approval, and put on an official list. That’s the way we’ve always done it with archaeological sites and old buildings, so that’s obviously what we’d better do with anything else we’re going to call cultural heritage.

Of course, my own paper was about doing it another way – eschewing official lists and professional vettery and simply respecting what people and communities view as their cultural heritage. Leaving them alone to practice it except when some sort of conflict arises, and then consulting respectfully about how to deal with it. I beat the drum as usual for my favorite (sort of official) guidelines on the subject, the Akwe:kon guidelines of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The paper went over like the proverbial pregnant pole-vaulter; people clapped politely and that was that.

Still, though, there were quite a few discussions at the Intercongress about how to engage communities in “cultural heritage” work, and about the effects of things like World Heritage Listing on living communities. It’s not that academic and governmental cultural heritage managers don’t realize that cultural heritage exists in people’s minds and influences people’s behavior, and that it extends beyond the boundaries of sites and the walls of buildings, or that we don’t care about it; it’s that we don’t have a model for dealing with it.

We cultural resource management (CRM) types in the United States sometimes talk like we do have a model, because we, after all, are anthropologists first, archaeologists only second. Unlike those benighted Brits and other old-worlders who define archaeology as a discipline in its own right. But in fact it’s rare that we do much with our anthropology, and particularly rare that we pay much attention to the fundamental anthropological ethic of trying, first of all, to understand, respect, and help the people we “study” in maintaining their own lives, lifeways, and traditions. It’s much easier to focus on the buildings and sites in their own right, for their own sake.

Back in the days when the PRC was beating the drum about hegemonism, we hegemonists pretty much ignored them. Not (I think) that people like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz didn’t see some merit in what they said, but that no one could figure out anything to do about it that didn’t compromise our essential national interests. Similarly in archaeology/CRM/cultural heritage, some of us can recognize that our centralized, bureaucratized, place and thing-dominated models are faulty, but we don’t know what to do about it.

But times change, and things happen, whether we’re ready for them or not. And those once hegemonized can become hegemonists themselves. There’s something to be said for the idea that this is what’s happening today with the PRC vis-à-vis the rest of the world. I wonder what would happen if the people whose sites and buildings we seek to “preserve” in accordance with our own notions of propriety and professionalism ever found a way to exercise real hegemony over us. I wonder how this could happen, and what its outcomes might be.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Reflections on a Visit to China, Part 1: Generalities

With my wife, Pat Parker, I recently enjoyed a little under three weeks in the People’s Republic of China. At the invitation of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Institute of Archaeology, I gave a paper in Beijing at the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) “Intercongress” on cultural heritage management in eastern and southeastern Asia, and we visited sites around Beijing, Xi’an and the mausoleum of emperor Qin shi Huangdi, often with the kind and knowledgeable assistance of Institute archaeologist Mr. Wang Renyu. On our own (with guides) we visited Hangzhou, Suzhou, Honcun, Xidi, Tongli, the Yellow Mountain Huangshan, and (briefly) Shanghai. I’m very grateful to Mr. Wang, CASS researcher Li Chunlin, Institute Deputy Director Prof. Chen Xingcan, and all their colleagues, as well as our China Odyssey guides, for making our visit a pleasurable and very educational one.

Three weeks in a country confers no expertise in its character, history, archaeology or culture, but there may be something to be said for first impressions, so I’m going to take this opportunity to offer a few reflections on our visit, for whatever they may be worth.

Environmental Matters

What they say about the air in Beijing is true. Within three days, the Navajo silver bracelet that Pat routinely wears had turned black (it cleaned up, though). Luckily (or maybe due to cloud seeding) there was then a thunderstorm and the sky turned clear and blue. But yes, pollution is a serious issue. However, there is apparently a serious effort underway to reduce emissions. For example, almost every rooftop seemed to sport a solar water heater. I saw few or no photovoltaic arrays, but lots of solar heating was going on. And while there are certainly too many gasoline and diesel vehicles on the (extensive and seemingly well-maintained) expressways, we also saw a vast number of bicycles, scooters, motorcycles and other vehicles driven by electricity, heavy use of public transport, and a lot of cars running on compressed natural gas.

As an inveterate recycler, I was charmed to see recycling bins almost everywhere, side-by-side with containers for non-recyclable trash, clearly labeled but often disguised as architectural forms compatible with historic structures, as rocks, as ancient urns, and in other clever ways. And lots and lots of people collecting discarded trash, moving huge piles of flattened cardboard boxes to collection points, and so on. The big cities we visited (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai) were remarkably clean, as big cities go.

I came away with no clear idea of how environmental impact assessment (EIA) is done. That it is done, somehow or other, was clear from, for example, an interesting paper at the Intercongress on archaeological survey and data recovery along a stretch of the humongous South-to-North Water Transfer Project (where, as here, “avoidance” of archaeological sites is apparently given precedence over excavation/destruction). Clearly studies are done and efforts are made to minimize and otherwise mitigate impacts, but it’s not clear to me how it happens, or what range of environmental variables are addressed. I’d like to know more.

Oh yes – and we rode the bullet train from Hangzhou to Shanghai the day after two similar trains collided not far away in Wenzhou City, and for what it’s worth, it was clean, pleasant, quiet, fully loaded with passengers, and really fast. And on time. I can’t testify to its safety, except to say that we survived, and enjoyed the ride.

Social-Cultural-Political Matters

We saw no particular evidence of oppression or repression (though there was no getting on Facebook, and one of the sites on which I routinely “click-to-donate” was blocked – doubtless because the donations go to Amnesty International). On the contrary, we were impressed at how many people we saw simply enjoying themselves – dancing, singing, and playing traditional instruments in the parks, in one case an apparently impromptu brass band of retirees playing patriotic music while people around them sang with seemingly unrestrained enthusiasm. We found people to be unfailingly gracious, friendly, and seemingly positive in their outlooks. And we were impressed at the volume of internal tourism we saw: thousands upon thousands of Chinese tourists crowding every historic or scenic site we visited, apparently having a good time and appreciating their country’s heritage. And having the disposable income to do so.

But in talking with some ordinary citizens, where language barriers permitted (neither Pat nor I, alas, speak Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect, and Rosetta Stone, while helpful, wasn’t enough), I was interested to encounter a lot of pretty frank expressions of unhappiness with corruption at high levels of government, inefficiencies, restraints on freedom of speech (especially as regards the Internet), and the growing gap between rich and poor. “Communism is dead,” one person volunteered; “all we have left is the Party.” And we crossed paths with one group of high Party officials getting the royal treatment at a couple of hotels where we stayed, to the disgruntlement of some around us. Of course, one could hear similar things expressed, and see similar kowtows to authority, in the U.S.

I couldn’t resist the impression, though – in the context of observing the incredible amounts of money being lavished on historic site development and internal tourism – that the government is pursuing a sort of bread and circuses policy: giving the people enough goodies to keep them off the streets, except when engaged in seemingly innocuous pursuits like tourism.

Cultural Heritage Management

Speaking of which: we were literally agog at the financial resources the PRC and its provincial governments are committing to aspects of cultural heritage/cultural resource management. At Xi’an, for example, the site of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) Daming Palace – leveled hundreds of years ago and built over – has been cleared (relocating 100,000 or so people in the process) and developed as an archaeological park complete with a reconstructed monumental gatehouse, a scale model of the whole palace complex, an interactive archaeological museum (that even tries to explain field methodology!), and an Imax movie house showing relevant 3-D movies.

That’s before you leave town to go visit the first emperor, Qin shi Huangdi (aka Qin shi Huang, Qin Shihuangdi; 259-210 BCE) in his mausoleum, guarded by his terra cotta soldiers and horses. The terra cotta army as excavated so far is actually about a quarter mile from the mausoleum, in a very handsome park/museum complex incorporating the ongoing excavations. There are lots of soldiers, horses, and chariots, apparently, still to be uncovered, and who knows what else?

A quarter-mile away, the protected, still unexcavated mausoleum itself (bigger than the Great Pyramid of Khufu) and its extensive grounds have also become a park, with two museums under construction on the sites of major discoveries of burials, bronze chariots, armor, and other remarkable stuff. There are moves afoot to clear away nearby residential and industrial developments and expand the controlled area. All these developments are relatively recent; Mr. Wang showed me images from the early 20th century showing the whole area under agricultural use.

Xi’an is not unique in its attention to and investment in cultural and natural heritage sites. We saw similar investments being made in the interpretation and development of segments of the Great Wall, the Zhokoudian H. erectus site, river towns on the lower Yangtze, the Bund in Shanghai, and the Yellow Mountain Huangshan. All these places – most of them inscribed in the World Heritage List (and proudly advertised as such) were drawing vast, vast numbers of tourists, all paying fees for the privilege of visiting.

I was very impressed – mostly favorably – by all this investment, and all this interest. But the impression of bread and circuses continued to rattle around in my mind, and it generated another (though related) niggling worry as well. The history of China is characterized by a series of fairly autocratic imperial dynasties punctuated by peasant revolts. The uprising of 1989 that we associate with Tiananmen Square (where now a huge TV screen straddles the space, complicating assembly while inspiring with scenic and patriotic views but, I’m told, playing hell with the place’s feng shui) can be viewed as a recent unsuccessful example of the latter; the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 was, in a twisted way, another such revolt. I had to wonder – viewing the magnificent cultural site developments, many of them seeming to glorify the imperial past (There’s a huge statue of Qin shi Huangdi – by all accounts not a very nice fellow – that greets visitors to the terra cotta army), and hearing people grumble about the rich/poor divide and the power of the Party – is the PRC government setting itself up for another revolt, and is “cultural heritage,” in the form of all these magnificent archaeological parks and similar developments, likely to become a target of revolutionary ire?

As it did, in many ways, during the Cultural Revolution. Countless times we were told: “There used to be a Buddhist shrine here, but during the Cultural Revolution….,” or “There was a handsome tablet here memorializing the ancestors, but during the Cultural Revolution….” I sat one day in the garden of a 19th century Qing Dynasty official, handsomely restored by his son in the early 20th century before he, the son (also a distinguished government official) was denounced and had to flee the country during the Cultural Revolution. The garden was classic – a complex of plantings, elaborate pavings, sculptures and stone constructions providing delightful vistas and enclaves. Many of the trees were marked with old marble slabs on which genus and species were inscribed in Chinese and Latin. I thought, “How beautiful, and erudite, and precious (in both senses of the word),” and – rather to my surprise – found myself kind of sympathizing with the Cultural Revolutionaries. I imagined them wondering, with sneering ire, where this aristocrat got off sitting around contemplating his beautiful garden and pondering the splendors of speciation when The People were suffering? It was an easy jump to imagining contemporary or near-future revolutionaries asking similar questions about massive investments in exhibiting the relics of past emperors.

Only after I’d left China did it occur to me to wonder whether anybody is pursuing the archaeology of the 700,000 workers said to have been involved in building Qin shi Huangdi’s mausoleum – along the lines of the recent exploration of the workers’ town associated with the Giza pyramids. It seems like some serious attention would be in order to the archaeology of the common people on whose labors the emperor (and every emperor) depended – both because it would be fascinating research and because it would convey a more populist, if not precisely communist, message to the visiting public about the glories of China’s past.

-- To be continued --