The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project (夏商周断代工程) was a multi-disciplinary project commissioned by the People’s Republic of China in 1996 to determine with accuracy the location and time frame of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. Tsinghua University professor Li Xueqin was the director, and some 200 experts took part in the project, which correlated radiocarbon dating, archaeological dating methods, historical textual analysis, astronomy, and other methods to achieve greater temporal and geographic accuracy. Preliminary results of the project were released in November 2000. However, several of the project’s methods and conclusions have been disputed by other scholars.

The traditional account of ancient China, represented by the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian in the Han dynasty, begins with the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, leading through a sequence of dynasties, the Xia, Shang and Zhou. Sima Qian felt able to give a year-by-year chronology back to the start of the Gonghe Regency in 841 BC, early in the Zhou dynasty. For the period before that date, his sources (now mostly lost) were unreliable and inconsistent, and he gave only lists of kings and accounts of isolated events. Later scholars were unable to push a precise chronology back past Sima Qian’s date of 841 BC.

Many elements of the traditional account, especially the early parts, were clearly mythical. In the 1920s, Gu Jiegang and other scholars of the Doubting Antiquity School noted that the earliest figures appeared latest in the literature, and suggested that the traditional history had accreted layers of myth. Noting parallels between the accounts of the Xia and Shang, they suggested that the history of the Xia was invented by the Zhou to support their doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, by which they justified their conquest of the Shang. Some even doubted the historicity of the Shang dynasty.

In 1899, the scholar Wang Yirong examined some curious symbols carved on “dragon bones” purchased from a Chinese pharmacist, and identified them as an early form of Chinese writing. The bones were finally traced back in 1928 to a site (now called Yinxu) near Anyang, north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province. The inscriptions on the bones were found to be divination records from the reigns of the last nine Shang kings, from the reign of Wu Ding. Moreover, from the sacrificial schedule recorded on the bones it was possible to reconstruct a sequence of Shang kings that closely matched the list given by Sima Qian.

Archaeologists focussed on the Yellow River valley in Henan as the most likely site of the states described in the traditional histories. After 1950, remnants of an earlier walled city of the Erligang culture were discovered near Zhengzhou, and in 1959 the site of the Erlitou culture was found in Yanshi, south of the Yellow River near Luoyang. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the Erlitou culture flourished c. 2100 BC to 1800 BC. They built large palaces, suggesting the existence of an organized state.More recently the picture has been complicated by the discovery of advanced civilizations in Sichuan and the Yangtze valley, such as Sanxingdui, Panlongcheng and Wucheng, of which the traditional histories make no mention.

Until the mid-20th century, many popular works, both Chinese and Western, used a traditional chronology calculated by Liu Xin early in the first century AD. However, modern scholars studying inscriptions on Shang oracle bones and Zhou bronzes were proposing shorter chronologies, for example typically placing the Zhou conquest of the Shang in the mid-11th century BC instead of the 12th.

In 1994, Song Jian, a state councillor for science, was impressed on a visit to Egypt by chronologies stretching back to the 3rd millennium BC. He proposed a multi-disciplinary project to establish a similar chronology for China. The project was approved as part of the ninth five-year plan (1996–2000).

Coverage of the project in the Western press focussed on alleged conflicts between nationalism and scholarship. However, Yun Kuen Lee observes that not every member of the chronology project agrees on all of the dates. Indeed, the project has been unafraid to contest dates proposed even by the director. Lee points out that this is a strong sign that the dates are being considered on their own merits rather than by deferring to authority, and that politics does not influence the detailed work of the project.

In addition to methodological concerns, scholars have complained that the project is part of a tradition of relegating archaeology to a role of verifying traditional histories. They argue that this forces archeological evidence into a framework of a single sequence of similar dominant states, as depicted in the histories and reflected in the title “Three Dynasties”. However, when evaluated on its own merits, the evidence reveals a much more complex origin of Chinese civilization, with many other advanced states that are not mentioned in the histories.

A preliminary report of the project was issued in 2000. A session of the Annual Conference of the Association for Asian Studies in 2002 was devoted to the report, where its methods were criticised by David Nivison, among others.No further report has been issued. An international conference on chronology arranged for October 2003 was postponed due to the SARS outbreak, but never rescheduled. The Project’s dates have however become the orthodox chronology in Chinese textbooks and reference works.

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