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New Answers to Big Questions in Chinese HistoryLothar von Falkenhausen recording traditional salt production techniques at Chongtancun, Sichuan (March, 1999).

New Answers to Big Questions in Chinese History

For 30 years Lothar von Falkenhausen has observed changes in China over two very different time scales, one of them measured in millennia.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

UCLA Today

Professor of art history and archaeology at UCLA and acting director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, Lothar von Falkenhausen made his first trip to China in 1979 on a scholarship from his native West Germany and received his introduction to archaeology from Peking University experts. 

At the time, he recalled, China didn't allow in field researchers from abroad, its citizens were afraid even to speak with outsiders, and Western universities lacked prominent East Asian archaeologists.

"I didn't at all think when I entered this field in 1979 that I would actually be able to do this professionally," Falkenhausen said. "I still sometimes can't believe it."

As an authority on Bronze Age China, Falkenhausen now travels regularly to that country to participate in collaborative, international projects in a quest to understand social transformations that took place over hundreds and thousands of years. Surprises are not uncommon. In one long-term excavation, for example, Falkenhausen and Peking University colleagues found that a salt factory in Chongqing Municipality — “traditionally regarded as a backwater,” he said — was operated on a “quasi-industrial scale” from the second millennium B.C. What the researchers had expected to uncover as a source for local salt production turned out to be an ancient export economy.

With the dramatic growth of Asian studies in Western universities, Falkenhausen's work is recognized well beyond his subfield. This year, he won the Society for American Archaeology Book Award for “Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000-250 BC): The Archaeological Evidence” (Cotsen Institute Press, 2006).

In his book, Falkenhausen reviewed evidence from tombs preserved underground — the Bronze period’s biggest source of data — to trace a shift in how the dead were equipped by their descendants for the afterlife. Early in the first millennium B.C., people were buried with the items that they needed to continue performing rituals in veneration of ancestors.

"They were expected to come back," Falkenhausen said. "During specific sacrificial situations (it was believed), they would actually join the descendants and partake of the offerings, and so there was some kind of sense of community between the living and the dead."

This changed later in the period, when survivors fashioned and furnished tombs like houses to lure the deceased and hold them within. The dead were still buried with their religious implements but were no longer received in polite company. Falkenhausen observed that, although China remained a lineage-based society in which aristocrats and commoners were bound together, people over the centuries grew to depend less upon their ancestors for advantages. He is also researching the possibility that Chinese burial practices came under the influence of Mediterranean ones by way of Central Asia.

Speculation like this is exciting for Falkenhausen. There is a real likelihood of finding answers to big questions in East Asian history based on fresh evidence, which has been turning up rapidly in China in recent decades. Trained in classical Chinese, Falkenhausen enjoys working on a period chronicled in writing, but he also insists on allowing artifacts, such as those found in tombs, to tell their own stories.

"The texts tell us mostly about people of relatively high status and also people who did exceptional things in their lives,” he said, “whereas the tombs can tell us very much more about the ordinary people.”

Under government rules in effect since the 1990s, international archaeologists must work with a Chinese team and publish their findings simultaneously in Chinese journals. Although this requires him to spend a great deal of time on editing and translation, this simultaneous publication suits Falkenhausen, because holds his Chinese colleagues in high regard and is committed to seeing Chinese archaeology develop internationally as a single field.

"I think we are moving towards a period when Chinese archaeology will be increasingly trend-setting, will actually generate paradigms to be tested in other areas of the world," he said.

This change is already unfolding, even though Chinese archaeology was isolated from the world less than 20 years ago.

"We have seen history happen,” Falkenhausen said. “China — no matter where you are in China — is completely different now from what it was like in 1979. You don't even have to be an archaeologist to realize that."

Asia Institute