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罗泰:《俞伟超》(Lothar von Falkenhausen: Yu Weichao)


Yu Weichao (1933-2003)

I first met Professor Yu Weichao 俞偉超 when I was a student at Peking University in 1979-1981. In his lectures on Warring States to Han period archaeology, he had the ability, more commonly seen with politicians and stage personalities, to make every member of his audience feel as though he or she as an individual were his sole partner in an informal conversation. Speaking at an animated pace, with an elegant southern inflection, sometimes a little wistful in tone, he would underline his rhetorical climaxes by contorting his wrinkled face and by gesticulating dramatically with his hands. Both hands lacked their index fingers: an unsettling reminder of terrible events that had happened not so very long before. But now Yu radiated warmth and excitement. He lived and breathed archaeology. Whenever he could not finish a topic in the allotted time, he would schedule extra sessions on Saturday afternoons. Occasionally he would take us on an excursion, e.g. to the Museum of Chinese History, of which later he was to become the director. He regularly visited us in our dormitory rooms to make sure that we were following the class. Sometimes he would stay and converse for hours. A man of tremendous learning, he was interested in everything, and he uncannily linked everything back to archaeology. Because he was himself so completely absorbed in his subject, and yet so broad in his intellectual reach, he infected everyone with his enthusiasm--even those hard-boiled fellow students who had seen more than their share of the darker sides of life during the Cultural Revolution, and for whom archaeology was by no means the subject of choice. That so many of us remained in the archaeological profession after graduating was due in no small measure to his charisma.

Yu’s influence, help, and encouragement continued after we graduated. Many of us stayed in regular touch with him, becoming part of his far-flung network of loyal friends in China and all over the world. Now that he has passed away, it is time to give a short summary of his life.

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Yu Weichao was born in Shanghai on January 4, 1933. His family, like many of Shanghai’s better-situated families, originated in the Jiangnan area (Jiangyin city, Jiangsu province 江蘇 江陰). His father was a physician practicing traditional Chinese medicine; his mother directed a primary school. In spite of the wars that ravaged China throughout his youth--the Sino-Japanese war began in 1937; Japan occupied all of Shanghai in 1941; and four more years of civil war followed the 1945 Allied victory--Yu was able to complete his secondary schooling in Shanghai under more or less normal circumstances. In the semi-Westernized atmosphere of the great metropolis, Yu developed a fondness for European literature, fine arts, and particularly classical music and opera. Engrained in his personality, his sophisticated tastes and cultural cosmopolitanism were to make him unique among Chinese archaeologists in his generation.

In September 1950, Yu, then aged seventeen, entered Peking University (Beida) as a history major. The People’s Republic of China had been established less than a year before. In the heady enthusiasm of the time, Yu and his peers were proud to be the first generation of university students to be trained under the new socialist order. They saw themselves as pioneers of a new humanity who would build a new society. Yu was by all accounts a model student and activist; by way of recognition, he was inducted into the Chinese Communist Party.

Yu studied with some of China’s famous historians, such as Deng Guangming 鄧廣銘 (1907-1998) (history of the Song dynasty), the Qi Sihe 齊思和 (1907-1980) (ancient Chinese history and epigraphy), Xiang Da 向達 (1900-1966) (Silk Road studies), Yang Renbian 楊人【木+便】 (1903-1973) (modern European history), and Zhou Yiliang 周一良 (1913-2002) (Medieval Chinese and Japanese history). An actual Archaeology Program did not yet exist when Yu entered Beida, but the History Department established one in 1952. The Department’s own archaeologists at the time, Yan Wenru 閻文儒 (1912-1994) and Su Bai 宿白 (b. 1922), both specialized in relatively late (post-AD 220) periods. Most instruction in archaeology was imparted by adjunct faculty on loan from various institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). These included the great French-trained Paleolithicist Pei Wenzhong 裴文中 (1904-1982), founder of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP); the British-trained archaeologist and Egyptologist Xia Nai 夏鼐 (1910-1985), the all-powerful Deputy Director (after 1962, Director) of the Institute of Archaeology; and two other members of that Institute: archaeological theoretician Su Bingqi 蘇秉琦 (1909-1997), and prehistorian An Zhimin 安志敏 (b. 1924). On the Warring States and Han periods, which were to become Yu Weichao’s major periods of research, his principal teacher was the eminent historian and paleographer Zhang Zhenglang 張政烺 (b. 1912) from the CAS’s Institute of History.

In the spring of his senior year, Yu joined in survey and trial excavation around Baoji and Xi’an (Shaanxi) conducted by scholars from the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences under Shi Xingbang 石興邦 (b. 1923). Afterwards, he obtained his first hands-on exposure to Han period artifacts: together with three of his fellow students--Huang Zhanyue 黃展岳 (b. 1926), Liu Guanmin 劉觀民 (1931-2000) (both later of the Institute of Archaeology, CAS) and Wu Rongzeng 吳榮曾 (now professor of history at Beida), he participated in the classification and seriation of the contents of the Han tombs at Shaogou, Luoyang (Henan), excavated by the Institute of Archaeology in 1953.

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Yu Weichao graduated from Beida in July, 1954. At that time, university graduates could not freely apply for employment but were assigned work by the state authorities. They were, however, allowed to express their preferences. Yu wished to go to the Central Academy of Fine Arts to pursue graduate work in Art History. But Xia Nai, an inveterate talent spotter, had recognized Yu’s superior potential and saw to it that he was assigned to the Institute of Archaeology, CAS. He began his three-year stint as Trainee (shixiyuan 實習員) there by participating in the third of four of one-year high-powered training courses that the Institute conducted during the early 1950s with the aim of quickly creating a cadre of archaeological professionals for the whole country. In the autumn of 1954, 111 course participants with 22 supervisors excavated 24 Han through Tang tombs at Bailuyuan 白鹿原 in the eastern suburbs of Xi’an. Xia Nai entrusted the 21-year-old Yu to write up the report on that excavation, which became his first publication.

His position in the Institute of Archaeology provided Yu with the opportunity of participating in many important excavations in the heartland of Chinese civilization. While in Xi’an in 1954-55, Yu participated briefly in the excavations at the neolithic village site of Banpo 半坡, in the environs of the Han capital of Chang’an 長安, and in the successful search for the remains of the Qin dynasty Epanggong 阿房宮 Palace. In the fall of 1955, the Institute sent him to further hone his field technique at its excavation site of Keshengzhuang 客省莊 on the western outskirts of Xi’an; here he excvated remains dating from Neolithic through Eastern Zhou times. There followed, in 1956-57, a very fruitful stint with the Institute’s archaeological salvage campaign in the Sanmen Gorge 三門峽 of the Yellow River, where a huge dam was then being built with Soviet assistance (the design of the dam later turned out to be faulty, and the reservoir was never filled). At first, during the fall season of 1956, Yu participated in the excavation of Han to Song period tombs at Liujiaqu, Shaan Xian 陜縣 劉家渠 (Henan). During the following winter, he embarked on a survey of the remains of cantilevered pathways that had anciently facilitated the tugging of boats up the gorge.

Braving extremely cold weather, he discovered numerous historically important rock inscriptions from Han through Tang times. He excitedly reported the discovery to Xia Nai in a legendary 18-page letter, and Xia provided him with the means to carry out his survey at the appropriate scale. Yu wrote almost the entirety of the archaeological report on these discoveries, which was published in book form in 1959. In 1957, still in the Sanmen Gorge area, he was involved in discovery of the important 8th-7th century BC cemetery of the Guo 虢 lineage at Shangcunling, Shaan Xian 陜縣上村嶺. Another site he worked at during his time at the Institute of Archaeology was Bocheng, Linrou (Hebei) 臨柔舶城.

* * *

In 1957, much to the vociferously expressed displeasure of his boss Xia Nai, Yu Weichao returned to Beida to pursue graduate work under the advisorship of Xia’s rival Su Bingqi. Su, by then settled into his long term as chair of Beida’s Archaeology Program (1952-1983), had two other advisees: Yang Jianfang 楊建芳 (Yeung Kin-fong, b. 1928*), who later became professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Zhang Zhongpei 張忠培 (b. 1934), founder of the Department of Archaeology at Jilin University and until 1989 director of the National Palace Museum, Beijing. At the time, it was expected that they would be sent to the Soviet Union for further study, but this plan was thwarted by breakdown of the Sino-Soviet alliance in 1960. Instead, in 1961, the three were awarded the degree of Doctoral Candidate (fuboshi 副博士), the equivalent in the Soviet system of an American PhD. Since academic degrees were abolished in China during the Cultural Revolution, and an American-style system has been instituted since, they were to remain the only archaeologists ever to have earned this degree at a Chinese university. It was during this period that Yu started to teach and to organize fieldwork projects for students. In the winter of 1957-58, for instance, he led a survey of the Northern Dynasties capital of Ye 鄴 in Linzhang 臨漳 (Hebei).

In mid-1958, under the spell of ongoing ideological campaigns, archaeology students at Beida launched the “People vs. Things” debate, in which they severely criticized Su Bingqi for his allegedly bourgeois preoccupation with the formal classification of objects rather than with the hard-working people who had created them. Su bowed to the students’ demands and henceforth devoted his energies to establishing a new archaeology more attuned to Marxist ideas of social evolution. Yu Weichao as well was deeply affected by this debate and sought for constructive ways by which archaeology could address larger issues through excavated finds. According to his student Xin Lixiang 信立祥, it was at this point that Yu’s scholarship took a decisive historical turn, connecting the study of material culture with that of textual sources in order to elucidate the history of early institutions. This new concern manifested itself in a series of important articles. The first, published in 1963, was on ceramic inscriptions relating to urban administration in the Han period; the most important, co-authored with his Beida colleague Gao Ming 高明 (b. 1925), concerns the sumptuary rules during the Zhou dynasty. These articles and others were later assembled into an influential book, published in 1985, the year Yu left Beida; its dedication to “My alma mater, Peking University” acknowledges the intellectual challenges encountered there with a mixture of gratitude and defiance. Zhang Zhongpei relates, moreover, that it was around the time of the 1958 debate that Yu shared with him his first drafts of his book on non-élite forms of social organization in Warring States and Early Imperial China, which was eventually published in 1988.

After his graduation, Yu was invited to join the Beida faculty. He taught in the Archaeology Wing of the History Department as a lecturer from 1961 to 1979 (the long timespan due to the abolition of the academic hierarchy during the Cultural Revolution, and the slowness with which it was reinstituted after 1977), and as an Associate Professor and Deputy Chair from 1979 to 1983. His promotion to Full Professor coincided with the founding of an independent Department of Archaeology, a development for which Yu was mainly responsible. Every year, he taught the basic course on Qin and Han archaeology (which I took in the spring semester of 1980); he also occasionally offered courses in archaeological method and theory, and on Sinological bibliography for archaeologists. As part of his work for the Department, he wrote the Qin-Han portion of a Chinese archaeology textbook that was distributed to Beida students but never formally published.

Training excavations for third- and fourth-year undergraduates remained another important part of Yu’s responsibilities. Increasingly, these projects provided opportunities to pursue research issues of interest to himself. In 1961, under extremely harsh conditions due to prolonged famine, he directed excavations at Xueshan, Changping 昌平雪山 , in the suburbs of Beijing, yielding finds dating from Neolithic through Liao times. In 1962, he took students to Hubei for the first time, excavating Chu 楚 tombs at at Taihuiguan, Jiangling 湖北江陵太暉觀; and during 1963-1966, he and his students participated in a multi-institution effort of archaeological survey at the Eastern Zhou capital of Qi 齊 at Linzi (Shandong) 山東臨淄. Thereafter, the Cultural Revolution ended archaeological activity for six years.

* * *

Yu Weichao endured horrific abuse during the Cultural Revolution. One day in 1966, he was subjected to severe political criticism by colleagues and students. The details about this remain in the dark. All that is divulged in a 1987 interview of Yu by his former student, the ex-archaeologist, famous writer, and Islamic community leader Zhang Chengzhi 張承志, was that his whole character had been besmirched. Despondent, he tried to end his life. But three suicide attempts--apparently within the space of a single day--all failed: he lay down on the railroad tracks near Qinghuayuan 清華園, but the oncoming train shoved him aside; he tried to hang himself from the balcony of his dormitory, but the rope broke; finally, he tried to electrocute himself by tying his fingers to live electrical wires. This is how he lost his two index fingers.

Yu told Zhang Chengzhi:

After that time in 1966, I changed considerably. [...] It was just at the midpoint of my life--I was 33 years old that year. To summarize, my view of human life, my view of myself, my view of others, my understanding of the attitude of other people [all changed]. I came to feel deeply that, following the change in my position in society and changes in other conditions, I had taken something onto myself. In a flash of sudden enlightenment, I realized a fundamental truth: the amount of pressure taken on by each individual is different. Some people cannot take on a very great amount of pressure. [...] Another truth I suddenly realized is: Some people are doomed to have bad luck, because they want to speak out, because they pursue a goal.

These vague and halting recollections can be interpreted in various ways, but the main thrust seems to be that Yu became aware at last of how the harsh political campaigns had caused people he had respected to abandon all human decency. This realization lessened his political enthusiasm considerably. After this turning point, Yu--unlike many others--found sufficient strength within himself to become an autonomous moral agent, who would no longer compromise his aspirations and values in response to external demands. Previously, he had not been above touting the party line even when this entailed victimizing innocent people--or acquiescing in others doing so--but henceforth he would no longer countenance this. He remained true to this resolve to his dying day.

Life during the succeeding years continued to be miserable. Students recall that in 1972, Yu was still being subjected to criticism for the “bourgeois individualism” manifested in his attempting suicide; his party membership had been suspended for this reason. Other political criticisms also continued; as late as 1973, he was singled out as a target in the Gang of Four’s campaign against “Rightist leanings” among intellectuals. In the anti-intellectual and chauvinistic political atmosphere of the time, students denounced him for encouraging them to become experts in their discipline and to study foreign languages. That several of Yu’s siblings had emigrated to the West before the Communist revolution was another black mark.

Professionally, however, things were gradually returning to normal. Even though regular university examinations were not reinstituted until 1977, instruction in archaeology resumed in 1972, when the first of four cohorts of Worker-Peasant-Soldier students entered Beida. This entailed a need for renewed fieldwork. In 1973, Yu organized a field trip to Shijiazhuang 石家莊 (Hebei), Anyang 安陽, Zhengzhou 鄭州, and Luoyang (Henan). The following year, he went back to Hubei to direct training excavations at the important Shang period urban site of Panlongcheng, Huangpi 黃陂盤龍城, initiating a string of successful collaborations in that province. He conducted fieldwork at the Eastern Zhou period Chu capital of Jinancheng, Jiangling 江陵紀南城in 1975; led a one-month fieldtrip to Chu archaeological sites in 1979, during which he devised guidelines for the classification the ample finds from Eastern Zhou Chu tombs excavated between 1973 and 1978 at the Zhaojiahu cemeteries in Dangyang 當陽趙家湖; excavated Neolithic through Eastern Zhou remains at Jijiahu, Dangyang 當陽季家湖 in 1980; and led excavations at the Shang period site of Zhouliang Yuqiao in Shashi city 沙市周梁玉橋 in 1982. Yu’s unifying objective in all these projects was to identify the local antecedents of the Chu culture that had flourished in central Hubei around the middle of the first millennium BC. He published many articles on this subject.

Yu’s field projects in Hubei were carried out in close cooperation with local institutions, including the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Hubei Province 湖北省文物考古研究所, the Jingzhou Museum 荊周博物館, and the Yichang Museum 宜昌博物館; they were greatly beneficial to raising the level of archaeological practice in this part of China. In 1981, Yu helped found the Society for the Study of Chu Culture--an academic organization bringing together scholars from the four provinces where Chu remains exist: Hubei, Hunan, Henan, and Anhui. He also made a name for himself as a discoverer of talent, e.g. when he brought Li Jiahao 李家浩, a self-taught paleographer he had encountered while digging at Jijiahu, to Beida for graduate study; Li has since become a distinguished Beida professor.

Alternating with his work in the south, Yu during the 1970s and 1980s also conducted excavations in the northwestern regions of the Chinese culture sphere. In 1976, he represented Beida in a multi-institution project of archaeological survey and excavation of Western Zhou sites in the Plain of Zhou 周原 in Fufeng and Qishan counties (Shaanxi) 陜西扶風、岐山. In 1979, he led four graduating students from Beida’s entering class of 1976 in excavations of Qin and Han tombs at Shangsunjiazhai, Datong (Qinghai) 青海大通上孫家寨. Two years later, some of my fellow students from the classes of 1977 and 1978 joined him in excavations at a Bronze Age cemetery of the Kayue culture at Suzhi, Xunhua 循化蘇志 (Qinghai); and in 1982, he supervised Beida’s excavations under his student Zhao Huacheng 趙化城 at Maojiaping, Gangu (Gansu) 甘肅甘谷毛家坪 in 1982. The projects in Qinghai and Gansu were designed to trace the forerunners of Qin before that state established itself, in the mid-eighth century, as a powerful kingdom that eventually unified China in 221 BC.

The opening of China after 1978 brought initial opportunities for visits abroad. In 1983-1984, Yu spent half a year at Harvard University at the invitation of K. C. Chang (1931-2001). Here he immersed himself in the study of American archaeological method and theory.

* * *

Due to intractable departmental politics, Yu Weichao left Beida in May 1985 to join the staff of the Museum of Chinese History 中國歷史博物館 (now the National Museum of China 中國國家博物館). During his first year there, he undertook archaeological survey work in the Three Gorges of the Yangzi River under the auspices of the Museum’s Archaeological Department. He was appointed Deputy Director of the Museum in 1986 and served as its Director from 1987 until his retirement in 1998. His high-profile position brought with it ample opportunities to travel all over the world. Yu’s case should give pause to anyone tempted to look askance at Chinese dignitaries’ informational trips abroad as mere perks: for aside from enabling him to see first-hand many famous monuments and museums that he previously knew only from books (not surprisingly, his fondest memories were of his visit to Italy), his journeys gave Yu crucial ideas as to how to improve things at home. One must admire how, in spite of his rather limited knowledge of foreign languages, he would always unerringly focus on the essential points of information; and even more how he was able adapt that information to Chinese conditions in such a way as to bring about real and lasting changes for the better.

Yu’s tenure as director of the Museum of Chinese History inaugurated a new era of openness, not only at his own institution, but in the Chinese archaeological community in general. Building on the network of acquaintances acquired during his travels, he fostered extensive cooperation and exchanges with museums abroad, greatly benefiting the modernization of the Museum’s exhibition and conservation efforts. But the principal item on his agenda was to develop the Museum’s Archaeological Department into a first-rate research institution that could serve as a locomotive for the wholesale modernization of Chinese archaeology. Here, too, he brought in foreign expertise and welcomed collaboration. This was all the more welcome and necessary because the Institute of Archaeology (since 1977 part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences [CASS]), which should have taken the leadership in such an endeavor, remained, under its longterm director Xia Nai, a dark island of unmitigated Stalinism. Although the political conditions had long ceased to be xenophobic, and even as sister institutes in the CASS were enthusiastically engaging in international collaboration at many levels, Xia refused all suggestions to do the same, and Xia’s influence at the higher echelons of China’s antiquities administration had a paralyzing trickle-down effect throughout the system.

Little changed even after Xia’s retirement in 1982 and death in 1985. In this situation, the alternative modus operandi pioneered by Yu Weichao at the Museum of Chinese History generated a great deal of hope and energy, and Yu was able to recruit several promising young researchers from the Institute of Archaeology to his Museum. It was in no small measure thanks to the precedent set by Yu at the Museum that the Institute of Archaeology, under Xu Pingfang 徐蘋芳 (b. 1930), likewise reversed its exclusionary stance in the late 1980s and, after 1992, actually came to take a pioneering role in international collaboration projects.

Yu’s most visible achievement at the Museum of Chinese History was the rearrangement of the displays, which had remained unchanged since the first opening of the museum in 1959. This effort started in 1988. Rejecting the idea, proposed by some at the time, of exhibiting replicas of important objects held in provincial and local museums, Yu traveled all over China to acquire striking and high-quality originals that would exemplify the highest cultural achievements of every period and region. Although this effort was sanctioned by a special edict from the State Council, there was little funding, and persuading regional institutions to place their treasures on permanent loan at the Museum of Chinese History took enormous persistence in a political climate that was strengthening the position of the provinces vis-à-vis the central government. No one but Yu Weichao with his unequalled network of connections could have accomplished this. The Museum’s new Paleolithic through Han galleries were opened to great acclaim in 1990, those on the Six Dynasties through Qing period in 1997. The improvement over the old exhibits was immeasurable. Although still arranged according the standard Marxist scheme of social evolution, the presentation was on a high scholarly level and conveyed factual historical information rather than political ideology. It also attempted to a much greater extent than before to do justice to the esthetic qualities of the pieces on exhibit.

In order to bring Chinese archaeology up to international standards, Yu launched three major initiatives. First of all, he founded a digital laboratory at the Museum, with the German-trained Huang Qixu 黃其煦 as its first director. Unfortunately, Huang and several successors all left China after relatively short stints in the job, and Yu’s ambitious plans for a comprehensive archaeological bibliography, standardized software programs for processing excavation finds in the field, a countrywide register of monuments, archaeological sites, and excavated objects, and a digitized catalogue of his museum’s collections, ultimately came to nothing. I understand that the lab, with its equipment now out of date, has been mothballed. Nevertheless, Yu’s efforts exposed many young researchers to the potential of the new technologies, removing a great deal of threshold anxiety; it is in no small measure due to his impetus that the use of computers has since become routine among Chinese archaeologists and museum professionals.

A second, more successful initiative was the Museum of Chinese History’s Research Office for Underwater Archaeology, founded in 1987--the first and so far only such agency in China. Its staff members were first sent for training to Japan, the US, and the Netherlands. In 1989, Japanese funding was used to excavate a sunken ship, which the archaeologists named Nanhai No. 1 南海一號, off the coast near Taishan, Guangdong 廣東台山. Tanabe Sh?z? 田邊昭三 of K?be Yamanote University 神戶山手大學 was Yu’s principal counterpart in this project, and Research Office director Yang Lin 楊林 was in charge of field operations. That such a collaboration could be launched at all was a remarkable feat considering that Chinese law at the time still categorically prohibited foreign involvement in archaeological work in China. Yu justified his initiative with the argument that China simply did not have the know-how to undertake such research on its own; and that something had to be done urgently because foreign adventurers had started to loot offshore wrecks in the South China Sea. A crucial precedent having been set, a Sino-Australian team conducted underwater surveys and excavations in 1990 and 1995 off the coast of Lianjiang (Fujian) 福建連江. On its own, the Research Office for Underwater Archaeology subsequently excavated a Yuan dynasty sunken ship near Sandaogang, Suizhong (Liaoning) 遼寧綏中三道崗 from 1991 to 1997.

Yu’s third and most ambitious project was to introduce the use of aerial photography as a method of archaeological survey in China. Unbenownst to Yu, in the mid-1980s, the Chinese government had actually sent Song Baoquan 宋寶泉, a graduate of Nankai University 南開大學 in Tianjin 天津, to Germany to study aerial archaeology at Bochum University. In 1987, Yu met Song by chance at the 11th Congress of the Union Internationale des Sciences Préhistoriques et Protohistoriques in Mainz. He assiduously cultivated this acquaintance in the hope of eventually bringing Song to the Museum of Chinese History and to establish a base for his work there. In 1995, Song and his mentor, Volker Pingel, obtained funding from the Volkswagen Foundation for a large-scale project of aerial archaeological prospection in China, with the Museum of Chinese History as the main Chinese counterpart. This collaboration provided the occasion for the founding, in early 1996, of the Museum’s Center for Remote Sensing and Aerial Photography in Archaeology; Yang Lin once again served as the head. That spring, an aerial survey of ancient city sites was launched at Yanshi 郾師 near Luoyang, covering the Early Bronze Age site of Erlitou, the Shang city at Shixianggou ㄕ鄉溝, the Luoyang capital of the Han and Wei periods, and the cemeteries on the Mangshan 芒山 plateau. Unfortunately, the local military authorities regarded the undertaking with great suspicion and, in a breach of prior agreements, Pingel was prevented from boarding the survey airplane. The survey results were never published, and Song, severely discouraged about the prospects of applying his skills in China, opted to remain in Germany. But part of the Volkswagen grant money was used to produce an excellent textbook on remote sensing in archaeology, and the Center for Remote Sensing and Aerial Photography in Archaeology continued its work on its own. In 1997-1998, it undertook a survey of medieval sites in Inner Mongolia, which was published in exemplary form. Thanks in no small measure to Yu’s initiative, the future of aerial archaeology in Chinese archaeology looks quite promising.

In addition to these three longterm projects, Yu organized the excavation projects of the Museum’s archaeological department in such a way as to enable at least some international collaboration, testing the limits of the restrictive policies then in place. The Museum had been put in charge of archaeological salvage operations in the area to be flooded under the Xiaoliangdi 小浪底 Reservoir, constructed in the Yellow River valley some distance downstream of the Sanmen Gorge, where Yu had worked in the 1950s. Yu took particular interest in the neolithic village site of Bancun, Mianchi 澠池班村 (Henan), which was excavated from 1992 to 1999 with Xin Lixiang as field director. Inspired by what he had learned at Harvard and in innumerable conversations with colleagues, Yu devised the Bancun excavations as a self-consciously interdisciplinary project, geared to reconstruct the social life of the community who had inhabited the site, their technologies, and the ecological conditions under which they had gained their livelihood. In a collaboration with the Institute of Genetics, CAS, DNA technology was applied in the study of materials from Bancun for the first time in the history of Chinese archaeology. Experts in many other disciplines--geology, geography, soil science, botany, zoology, physical anthropology, physics, and chemistry--were called in as well, and a large number of institutions were represented (among others, the Nanjing Museum, the Institute of Archaeology of the CASS, the IVPP, Xibei Universty, and Beijing Normal University). Foreign participants included M?gi Masahiro 茂木雅博 from Ibaraki University, and Patty Jo Watson and Robert L. Thorp from Washington University, St. Louis, with their students.

Another large-scale excavation project was undertaken by the Archaeological Department of the Museum of Chinese History under Yu’s supervision at the Shang period urban site of Yuanqu (Shanxi) 山西垣曲, on the north bank of the Yellow River. For the first time in China, this project has been attempting to uncover, bit by bit, the entire infrastructure of an early Bronze Age city. Here, too, foreign participants were welcomed to conduct their research under the auspices of a Chinese-run project.

At a time when information about archaeological work in other countries was very difficult to come by in China, Yu used his influence to facilitate the diffusion of such knowledge. As a first step, in 1985-86, he organized a team of young scholars to produce a Chinese translation of Glyn Daniel’s 1981 Short History of Archaeology. Subsequently, he initiated the translation of a selection of influential articles on archaeological method and theory, which was published in 1991.

Located in Tian’anmen Square, the Museum of Chinese History was in the spotlight of world attention during the student demonstrations of 1989. Yu made the facilities of the museum available to the demonstrators, as well as offering other logistical support. After the June 4 massacre, People’s Liberation Army troops occupied the museum, causing considerable disruption. Yu was not in Beijing at the time of the massacre: he was attending a meeting of the Chinese Archaeological Society in Changsha, where he, together with most of the other attendees, signed a petition on behalf of the students. During the subsequent crackdown, it looked for a while as if he would be removed from his job. But due to a combination of good luck and protection by friends in high places, he was able to remain.

* * *

In 1993, work began on a gigantic new dam in the Three Gorges of the Yangzi River, as a result of which a 600-km stretch of the Yangzi valley would be submerged. Having previously conducted field surveys in the area, Yu Weichao was familiar with its archaeological importance. The Archaeological Department of the Museum of Chinese History was, at least initially, put in charge of coordinating archaeological salvage work there, and in 1994, Yu was formally appointed chairman of the Planning Group for the Preservation of Cultural Relics in the Three Gorges Reservoir Area. As such, he was responsible for identifying not only archaeological sites for excavation, but also standing architectural monuments sufficiently important to warrant removal and preservation. For three years, the area slated for flooding was surveyed, with Yu participating in person over considerable stretches of time. A master plan was subsequently drawn up. When the funds allocated to archaeological rescue work proved to be laughably insufficient, Yu courageously talked about the issue to the international press, causing a minor scandal. Eventually, state funding for the archaeological rescue work was increased, albeit not to the levels ideally desirable. After his retirement from the Museum of Chinese History in 1998, Yu remained in charge of salvage work in the Three Gorges, and he maintained his close involvement even after ill health had make it impossible for him to travel there.

The fifteen-year salvage campaign in the Three Gorges area, which started in 1994 and is still ongoing, is one of the largest such projects ever conducted in the history of archaeology. It eventually came to involve institutions from all over China, and it has contributed immensely to the understanding of what had previously been a little-studied area on the margins of the Chinese culture sphere. Yu hosted an exhibition of artifacts from the area at the Museum of Chinese History, and some of his last publications were articles offering a preliminary synthesis of its archaeological sequences.

A lifelong smoker, Yu Weichao was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001. Friends arranged for him to receive treatment at the Xiaotangshan 小湯山 sanatorium outside Beijing, but during the SARS crisis in 2003, Xiaotangshan was converted into a SARS hospital and Yu had to leave. He was finally moved to another sanatorium near Guangzhou, where he died on December 5, 2003. At the time, the Chinese Archaeological Society was meeting in Guangzhou, and a makeshift memorial session was held. An official memorial ceremony, attended by the highest functionaries in China’s Cultural-Relics administration and by a very large number of people was held in Beijing on what would have been his 71st birthday on January 4, 2004.

With his wholehearted devotion to his work, his passionate artistic temper, and his unconventional romantic yearnings, Yu Weichao was probably not cut out for ordinary family life. Bowing to social expectations, he married Fan Shuhua 范淑華, a secondary-school teacher. They had a daughter, Yu Minglu 俞鳴鹿, and a son, Yu Tan 俞坦. Their given names allude to Yu’s scholarly preoccupations--Minglu (“Crying Deer”) to his first excavation experience at Bailuyuan (“White Deer Plain”), and Tan (“Candid”), by way of an etymological pun, to his interest in altar platforms (tan 壇) as nodes in ancient Chinese social organization. Both children chose to pursue their adult lives abroad. For a time, Yu and his wife were raising their Canadian-born grandson.

At the time of this death, Yu was Director Emeritus of the National Museum of China and Chairman of its Academic Commission; Member of the Archaeology Experts Panel of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics; Member of the Panel of Experts for the “Xia Shang Zhou Chronology Undertaking;” Chairman of Chongqing Municipality’s Board of Advisors for the Preservation of Antiquities in the Three Gorges; Vice Chairman of the Board of the Chinese Archaeological Society; President of the Board of the Society for the Study of Chu Culture; Vice President of the Chinese Society for the Study of Cultural Relics; Member of the Board of the Society for Research on the Great Wall of China; Academic Advisor to the Center for the Study of Ancient Civilizations at Peking University; Academic Commissioner of the Center for the Study of Chinese Archaeology at Peking University; Adjunct Professor of the Chinese University of Science and Technology, Xibei University, and Jilin University, Guest Professor at Shanghai University, and Honorary Professor of Anhui University; Honorary Director of the Institute for Cultural Relics and Archaeology at the Central University of Nationalities; Advisor to the Sichuan University Museum; and Honorary Director of the Poly Art Museum. An attempt, in 1996, to nominate him for an honorary doctorate of the University of Chicago in recognition of his efforts in the Three Gorges area, fell afoul of academic politics.

* * *

Aside from his promising early contributions to nuts-and-bolts field archaeology in the mid-1950s, Yu’s intellectual preoccupations revolved around three main themes: social and institutional history as revealed in archaeological and epigraphic materials, the regional cultural traditions ancestral to Early Imperial Chinese civilization, and archaeological method and theory. Most of his mature work was collected in two volumes published in 1985 and 2002. In addition, Yu published two other books: his 1988 monograph on non-élite social organization in Warring States and Early Imperial China, and a collection of shorter pieces and interviews in which he reflected on the state of Chinese archaeology and its priorities for the future, published in 1996; he edited a distinguished collection of essays by his major students; and he contributed scores of prefaces to books published by his museum and by colleagues.

In his scholarship, Yu combines the discipline of a scientist with a poet’s vision and a musician’s sensititivity. He possessed an unusually wholistic view of archaeology, one that approximated the perspective of anthropological archaeology in the West in emphasizing the nexus of social and environmental factors. Even though his main period of research was the period between 500 BC and AD 300, his grasp of Chinese archaeology was truly encompassing, ranging from human evolution and palaeoanthropology through late Medieval times. He retained, moreover, a coherent view of the subject: while passionate about detail, he was ultimately interested in the big picture. Regrettably, he never attempted to write a full-length synthesis of Chinese archaeology, though some of his articles trace cultural continuities through millennia. All his more detailed studies should be understood as exemplifications; like stones in a mosaic never completed, they are self-consciously positioned within a grand structure that was never made fully explicit.

In his work on the earliest periods of human history, long mulled over but published only toward the end of his career, Yu revised the tool-centered approach of classical Marxist dogma, proposing instead that social organization was a prime mover in human evolution. He assigned a prime role of the principle of exogamy and the need it imposed for inter-group alliances. From this he segued to the regional subdivision of China during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, preceding the Qin unification. Adopting Su Bingqi’s theory of co-evolving regional cultural traditions (quxi leixing shuo 區係類型說), he designed his fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s to pursue, through data from Neolithic through Late Bronze Age times, the multiethnic origins of Chinese civilization and to show how they gradually merged into a unified whole. He was particularly impressed with the contributions of Qin and Chu to Han material civilization. To trace every individual material feature at a site to its geographical and temporal origins, he developed a method of “cultural-element analysis.” (While this method is by no means a foolproof indicator of ethnicity, it did add an important dimension to established typological practices in Chinese archaeology.)

Yu’s work on the history of Chinese institutions complements this strain of thought by revealing the mechanisms--sumptuary rules, as well as bureaucratic modes of control--by which cultural unification was facilitated and/or enforced. He pursued the archaeological manifestations of social organization both at the urban and village levels, putting many a new twist on earlier Marxist understandings; and he was one of the first in Mainland China who dared explore the religious underpinnings of social organization. His articles on the earliest manifestations of Buddhist iconography in China is particularly important in this regard. He did not pursue such themes far beyond the borders of China, but he did point out the importance of Ye capital of the Wei and Northern Dynasties to the capital-city planning in other Northeast Asian countries during early medieval times, and he wrote two articles on Japanese kofun tombs, tracing them back to the funerary institutions of Qin and disproving the earlier theory that they reflected the influence of Wei-Jin period funerary customs.

Yu’s interest in archaeological theory stemmed from two distinct sources. One was his attempt, together with Zhang Zhongpei, to define a “Chinese School of Archaeology” with Su Bingqi as its founding figure. As formulated in their influential “Postscript” to a 1984 volume of Su’s collected writings, its main characteristics were said to include the use of the stratigraphic method and of Montelian typology as refined by Su, as well as a loosely Marxist framework of analysis. Yu’s archaeological work stands squarely within this intellectual tradition. The other source was his encounter, at Harvard in 1983-84, with an anthropological approach to archaeology as exemplified in the work of K. C. Chang. Xin Lixiang recalls that, when Yu tried to introduce some of these ideas to China after his return, he encountered great opposition and was derided as the “Chief China Representative of the New Archaeology.” But to an outside observer, Yu’s several articles expressing his understanding of new archaeological thinking hardly seem radical. All he did was to remind his colleagues that an archaeological culture is merely a partial manifestation of what he called a “great culture,” and to insist that archaeological investigation do not stop with the analysis of material features, but extend to the intellectual and even psychological realms. Yu, in other words, was encouraging archaeologists to exert their imagination in analyzing their data. To achieve this, he strongly urged interdisciplinary collaboration. He also stressed that archaeology cannot only serve its own immanent aims, but has a social responsibility in the contemporary world. Such ideas proved deeply threatening to some of the more conservative minds in the field.

The debate on the “New Archaeology” came to a climax in 1994 in a series of written exchanges between Yu and his then temporarily estranged friend Zhang Zhongpei, published in Zhongguo wenwubao 中國文物報, a twice-weekly broadsheet for Cultural Relics professionals. Countering Yu, Zhang expounded the orthodox point of view of the Su Bingqi school--namely, that archaeological analysis, even when addressing historical issues such as ethnic identity, must necessarily be based in the intrinsically archaeological methods of stratigraphy and typology; he also held that interdisciplinary work is desirable only when an issue cannot be satisfactorily addressed by these purely archaeological methods. Yu and Zhang also disagreed about the definition of archaeological cultures. K. C. Chang, who had his own column in Zhongguo wenwubao at the time, tried to mediate, supporting Zhang Zhongpei’s view of what the basic responsibilities of an archaeologist are and pointing out some misconceptions on Yu’s part, while yet endorsing Yu’s view of the culture concept and affirming the importance of Yu’s suggestions as to archaeology’s wider role. Each side later published its own point of view separately; the debate was tabled but has not been resolved.

After Yu’s death, some obituarists emphasized his role as an innovator, whilst others--chiefly Zhang Zhongpei, with whom he had reconciled shortly before his death--claimed him as a loyal member of Su Bingqi’s school. Okamura Hidenori 岡村秀典 commented on the apparent contradiction between Yu’s outspoken advocacy of an anthropological approach to archaeology and the fact that to the end, his own research remained wedded to the old cultural-history centered tradition of Chinese archaeology. Yu himself might have viewed these as complementary, rather than contradictory, sides of his intellectual personality. He saw himself more as an opener of new avenues for younger scholars than as a traveller on these avenues. Not only would it have been difficult for him to abandon his engrained habits of conducting research, but with his limited knowledge of foreign languages, he would also soon have run into difficulties had he seriously tried to deepen his understanding of Western approaches in archaeology. I believe that he was confident that the modernized archaeological practices he was recommending to his colleagues would ultimately affirm and lend further support to, rather than dismantle, the ideas of Su Bingqi and his school. On the other hand, he also realized--and was by no means uncomfortable with the idea--that the innovations he was advocating would permanently change Chinese archaeology.

Among Chinese archaeologists in his generation, Yu was without question the most forward-thinking and open-minded. He was never satisfied with established points of view, completely free of prejudice, always willing to question himself, unendingly curious, and ever eager to absorb new knowledge. Above all, he wanted to know what young people just starting out in the field were excited about; and he sought to understand and share their excitement. His life’s main achievement consists in having channeled this excitement into constructive endeavors that have contributed decisively to bringing Chinese archaeology out of its long isolation and have significantly improved its position in the international arena.

While a number of Yu’s works have been translated into Japanese (including a full translation of his 1988 book on rural-collective organization), very few of his writings have been published in Western languages. He has, however, influenced a number of Westerners who studied with him in the early 1980s. I am proud to count myself among these. My forthcoming book, Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius, takes up on Yu’s ideas in many places. When I last met him, at Xiaotangshan in December 2002, I had just finished the draft. Sensing that he might not live to see it published, I had brought along the manuscript to show to him. When he read the dedication: "To Professor Yu Weichao, with profound respect and admiration,” he asked, greatly surprised: “Why?”

Here is why.

Lothar von Falkenhausen



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