On a cool Sunday evening in March, a geochemist named Sun Weidong gave a public lecture to an audience of laymen, students, and professors at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, the capital city of the landlocked province of Anhui in eastern China. But the professor didn’t just talk about geochemistry. He also cited several ancient Chinese classics, at one point quoting historian Sima Qian’s description of the topography of the Xia empire — traditionally regarded as China’s founding dynasty, dating from 2070 to 1600 B.C. “Northwards the stream is divided and becomes the nine rivers,” wrote Sima Qian in his first century historiography, the Records of the Grand Historian. “Reunited, it forms the opposing river and flows into the sea.”
In other words, “the stream” in question wasn’t China’s famed Yellow River, which flows from west to east. “There is only one major river in the world which flows northwards. Which one is it?” the professor asked. “The Nile,” someone replied. Sun then showed a map of the famed Egyptian river and its delta — with nine of its distributaries flowing into the Mediterranean. This author, a researcher at the same institute, watched as audience members broke into smiles and murmurs, intrigued that these ancient Chinese texts seemed to better agree with the geography of Egypt than that of China.
In the past year, Sun, a highly decorated scientist, has ignited a passionate online debate with claims that the founders of Chinese civilization were not in any sense Chinese but actually migrants from Egypt. He conceived of this connection in the 1990s while performing radiometric dating of ancient Chinese bronzes; to his surprise, their chemical composition more closely resembled those of ancient Egyptian bronzes than native Chinese ores. Both Sun’s ideas and the controversy surrounding them flow out of a much older tradition of nationalist archaeology in China, which for more than a century has sought to answer a basic scientific question that has always been heavily politicized: Where do the Chinese people come from?
Sun argues that China’s Bronze Age technology, widely thought by scholars to have first entered the northwest of the country through the prehistoric Silk Road, actually came by sea. According to him, its bearers were the Hyksos, the Western Asian people who ruled parts of northern Egypt as foreigners between the 17th and 16th centuries B.C., until their eventual expulsion. He notes that the Hyksos possessed at an earlier date almost all the same remarkable technology — bronze metallurgy, chariots, literacy, domesticated plants and animals — that archaeologists discovered at the ancient city of Yin, the capital of China’s second dynasty, the Shang, between 1300 and 1046 B.C. Since the Hyksos are known to have developed ships for war and trade that enabled them to sail the Red and Mediterranean seas, Sun speculates that a small population escaped their collapsing dynasty using seafaring technology that eventually brought them and their Bronze Age culture to the coast of China.
Sun’s thesis proved controversial when the Chinese travel site Kooniao first posted it online in the form of a 93,000-character essay in September 2015. As the liberal magazine Caixin commented, “His courageous title and plain language attracted the interest of more than a few readers.” That title was Explosive Archaeological Discovery: The Ancestors of the Chinese People Came from Egypt, and the essay was reproduced and discussed online, on internet portals such as Sohu and popular message boards such as Zhihu and Tiexue. Kooniao also set up a widely read page dedicated to the subject on the microblogging platform Weibo — hashtagged “Chinese People Come From Egypt” — which contains a useful sample of responses from the public. Some of these simply express outrage, often to the point of incoherence: “That expert’s absurd theory randomly accepts anyone as his forebears,” fumed one. “This is people’s deep inferiority complex at work!” Another asked, “How can the children of the Yellow Emperor have run over to Egypt? This topic is really too pathetic. The important thing is to live in the moment!”
Other commentators have been more thoughtful. If they are not fully convinced, they are at least willing to entertain Sun’s ideas. In fact, a rough count of comments from the intellectually curious outnumbers those of the purely reactionary by about 3-to-2. As one user wrote, “I approve. One has to look intelligently at this theory. Whether it turns to be true or false, it is worth investigating.” Another wrote, “The world is such a big place that one finds many strange things in it. One can’t say it is impossible.” One more wrote, “One can’t just sweepingly dismiss it as wrong or curse out the evidence as false. Exchanges between cultures can be very deep and distant.”
Anticipating his critics, Sun wrote online that to examine anew the origins of Chinese civilization “may appear ridiculous in the eyes of some, because historians long ago stated clearly: We are the children of the Yan and Yellow Emperor.” Historian Sima Qian took these legendary figures as the progenitor of the Han Chinese; and the Yellow Emperor’s great-grandson, Yu the Great, as the founder of the semimythical Xia dynasty. These served as the origin stories for imperial China and continued to be credited for decades after the Republic replaced it in 1912, so that even the nation’s most iconoclastic and rebellious sons — Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek, and People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong among them — have at some time or other felt the need to pay their respects at the Yellow Emperor’s tomb. Even now, the oft-repeated claim that Chinese civilization is approximately 5,000 years old takes as its starting point the supposed reign of this legendary emperor.
Unbeknownst to many, an anti-Qing Dynasty agitator was the first to publish (under a pseudonym) this claim for the nation’s antiquity in 1903. As his nationalist ideology had it, “If we desire to preserve the survival of the Han Nation, then it is imperative that we venerate the Yellow Emperor.” At that time, the Qing dynasty was in serious decline, its obvious backwardness compared with Western powers the cause of much soul-searching. Anti-Qing intellectuals began to examine critically the roots of Chinese civilization and, for the first time, seized on the idea that they lay in the West. The work that most captured their imagination was that of the French philologist, Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, who in 1892 published the Western Origin of the Early Chinese Civilization from 2300 B.C. to 200 A.D. Translated into Chinese in 1903, it compared the hexagrams of the Book of Changes with the cuneiform of Mesopotamia and proposed that Chinese civilization originated in Babylon. The Yellow Emperor was identified with a King Nakhunte, who supposedly led his people out of the Middle East and into the Central Plain of the Yellow River Valley around 2300 B.C.
Liu Shipei, the Peking University history professor and true author behind the pseudonymous chronology of the Yellow Emperor, was among the first to promote Sino-Babylonianism in books such as his 1903 History of the Chinese Nation. By 1915, the theory was widespread enough that the national anthem of the republic, commissioned by President Yuan Shikai referred to it obliquely, calling China “the famous descendant from Kunlun Peak,” which Chinese mythology locates in the far, far West. Another endorsement came from Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China, who stated in his 1924 Three Principles of the People lectures that the “growth of Chinese civilization may … be explained by the fact that the settlers who migrated from another place to this valley already possessed a very high civilization.”
To these and other revolutionaries, Sino-babylonianism was not only the latest European scientific opinion. It was the hope that since China shared the same ancestry as other great civilizations, there was no ultimate reason why it should not catch up with more advanced nations in Europe and America.
Sino-Babylonianism fell out of favor in China during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Japanese aggression escalated and a different nationalist politics took hold. Chinese historians, seeking to distance China from imperialist powers, cast a critical eye on Western origin theories and their earlier supporters. At around the same time, modern scientific archaeology was debuting in China. The discovery of Neolithic pottery in Longshan, Shandong, in 1928 showed that eastern China had been inhabited by indigenous groups before the Bronze Age migration Lacouperie had posited. In the same year, excavation of the city of Yin began. On account of the excellence of the Yin-Shang’s material culture — its famous oracle bones, for example, whose writing is the ancestor of the modern Chinese script used today — that polity is often considered the “root of Chinese civilization,” situated well within China’s borders, in present-day Anyang, Henan.
In the end, Western origin theories were replaced by what sounds like a compromise: a dual-origin theory of Chinese civilization. The view proposed that Eastern Neolithic culture moving West encountered Western Neolithic culture moving East, fusing to form the progenitors of the Shang. It held steady until the 1950s.
But Chinese archeology took a radical swing toward more extreme nationalism after the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China, when, in the words of the historian James Leibold, “China’s scientific community closed inward on itself.” Nationalism and authoritarianism required the interpretation of archaeological evidence as proof that Chinese civilization had arisen natively, without outside influences. As the Sichuan University archaeologist — and eventual dissident — Tong Enzheng wrote in his fascinating account of the politicization of scholarship between 1949 and 1979: “Mao Zedong implemented a comprehensive anti-Western policy after 1949,” which expanded “already extant anti-imperialism … ultimately becoming total anti-foreignism. Unavoidably, Chinese archaeology was affected.”
Maoism also required a belief that Chinese civilization had developed in accordance with “objective” Marxist historical laws, from a primitive band to a socialist society. Mao-era archaeologists thus strove to use their findings to prove these laws, legitimizing the status quo. As Xia Nai, the director of the Institute of Archaeology himself, wrote in a 1972 paper, “We archaeologists must follow the guide of Marxism, Leninism, and the thought of Mao Zedong, conscientiously fulfilling the great guiding principle of Chairman Mao, to ‘make the past serve the present.’” It’s no surprise then that during the Cultural Revolution meetings were convened under such absurd headings as “Using the Antiquities Stored in the Temple of Confucius in Qufu County to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius.” Meanwhile, revolutionary sloganeering found its way into scientific publications alongside the data.
Blatant ideological bias faded from scientific endeavors in the post-1978 reform era, but the ultimate goal of Chinese archaeology — to piece out the nation’s history — remained. The best-known example from that era is the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project, directly inspired by the achievements of Egyptian archaeology. State Councilor Song Jian toured Egypt in 1995 and was particularly impressed by a genealogy of the pharaohs that went back to the third millennium B.C. This prompted him to campaign for a project — included in the government’s ninth five-year plan — that would give Chinese dynasties a comparable record. Mobilizing over 200 experts on a budget of around $1.5 million over five years, the Chronology Project has been considered the largest state-sponsored project in the humanities since 1773, when the Qianlong emperor commissioned the Siku quanshu, an encyclopedia roughly 20 times the length of the Britannica.
Some questioned the Chronology Project’s motives. One of the most prominent detractors was University of Chicago historian Edward L. Shaughnessy, who complained, “There’s a chauvinistic desire to push the historical record back into the third millennium B.C., putting China on a par with Egypt. It’s much more a political and a nationalistic urge than a scholarly one.” Others criticized the project’s methods and results. The Stanford archaeologist Li Liu, for instance, took issue with the fact that it regarded the Xia as historical and fixed dates for it, when there is still no conclusive archaeological evidence for its existence.
But the project also had defenders, including Harvard anthropologist Yun Kuen Lee, who pointed out that “the intrinsic relationship between the study of the past and nationalism does not necessarily imply that the study of the past is inherently corrupted.” The usefulness of archaeology in bolstering a nation’s pride and legitimacy — explaining and, to some extent, justifying its language, culture, and territorial claims — means that most archaeological traditions have a nationalistic impulse behind them. Thus, in Israel, archaeology focuses on the period of the Old Testament; in the Scandinavian countries, it focuses on that of the Vikings. “The important question that we should ask,” Yun went on to say, “is if the scientists of the project were able to maintain scientific rigor.”
In some ways, Sun’s current theory is an unintended result of the Chronology Project’s scientific rigor. At the project’s launch in 1996, he was a Ph.D. student in the radiation laboratory of the University of Science and Technology. Of the 200 or so items of bronze ware he was responsible for analyzing, some came from the city of Yin. He found that the radioactivity of these Yin-Shang bronzes had almost exactly the same characteristics as that of ancient Egyptian bronzes, suggesting that their ores all came from the same source: African mines.
Perhaps anticipating serious controversy, Sun’s doctoral supervisor did not allow Sun to report his findings at the time. Sun was asked to hand over his data and switched to another project. Twenty years after the start of his research and now a professor in his own right, Sun is finally ready to say all he knows about the Yin-Shang and China’s Bronze Age culture.
Although the public has mostly received Sun’s theory with an open mind, it still lies outside the academic mainstream. Since the 1990s, most Chinese archaeologists have accepted that much of the nation’s Bronze Age technology came from regions outside of China. But it is not thought to have arrived directly from the Middle East in the course of an epic migration. The more prosaic consensus is that it was transmitted into China from Central Asia by a slow process of cultural exchange (trade, tribute, dowry) across the northern frontier, mediated by Eurasian steppe pastoralists who had contacts with indigenous groups in both regions.
Despite this, the fascination with ancient Egypt appears unlikely to go away soon. As the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology project demonstrated, the sentiment has deep, politically tinged roots. These were on display again during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Egypt in January to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations. On arrival, Xi greeted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with an Egyptian proverb: “Once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return.” They celebrated the antiquity of their two civilizations with a joint visit to the Luxor temple.
It remains to be seen whether Sun’s evidence will be incorporated into mainstream politics to prove a long-standing Sino-Egyptian cultural relationship. But if it is, the proverb Xi uttered after he set foot in Egypt will have been strangely prophetic.
Top image: Xuan Yuan Inquires of the Dao, scroll, color on silk. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum in Taibei/Wikimedia Commons.