Sunday, February 7, 2010

Political Bias and Naïveté in Chinese Archaeology

I just read a paper about possible political and cultural biases in scholars’ interpretations of early China. It presents a shockingly naïve interpretation of the evidence.

Li Liu (2009) Academic Freedom, Political Correctness, and Early Civilization in Chinese Archaeology: The Debate on Xia-Erlitou Relations. Antiquity 83:831-843.

The issue at hand is the perhaps legendary earliest dynasty, the Xia. Did it exist, and can it be associated with the Erlitou archaeological culture? Early written accounts that mention Xia as a pre-Shang polity have been questioned by many historians as biased and inaccurate. Nevertheless, a good number of scholars and others—mostly in China—argue that the Xia did indeed exist, and that Erlitou is its archaeological manifestation. Many western scholars evidently believe that this viewpoint derives more from political ideology or patriotism by Chinese archaeologists than from the evidence.

The article by Li Liu describes a survey of two groups of archaeologists: a “China group” consisting of archaeologist living and working in China, and an “Outside China group” of foreigners. Participants were asked questions about whether they thought that Xia was “historically factual,” and whether it was associated with Erlitou. They were also asked how they reached their opinion. Was it based on the evidence, or was it motivated by political bias (e.g., patriotism, or worry about being accused of pro-western tendencies).

More members of the China group accept the Xia-Erlitou association, but these respondents report that their views are NOT based on political considerations. This is hardly surprising. But what I find astonishing is that Li Liu takes these responses at face value and concludes that political factors do not account for the differences between the China group and the Outside China group. The differences, we are told, cannot be explained by political ideology, political correctness, or patriotism. Rather, it is due to “different approaches and methods” between the two groups.

This conclusion is not warranted. No scholar is going to admit that their views are determined more by politics than by evidence. Even the most absurdly politically biased interpretations are not seen as such by their holders. Scholars will almost always insist that their opinions are empirically based. Issues of bias cannot be investigated by asking people whether they are biased. No one will admit to this; the very idea is absurd. This survey and its results are interesting, but it strains credulity to assert that bias does not play a role in thee views reported.


Anonymous said...

Li Liu is actually not a he but a she. She is a professor at La Trobe and has done very interesting work on the Chinese Neolithic and early state. She has herself co-authored an article with Hong Xu in which she argued that the literary and archaeological need to be dealt with in their own terms first before being compared in any way. This article was in Antiquity as well in 2007 (pp. 886-901).

Doesn't strike me as a very naive person, though I would want to read the article you mentioned first.

Michael E. Smith said...

Yes, the 2007 paper is very good. I have worked on similar issues in Mesoamerica, and I like her perspective on history vs. archaeology. The conclusion about treating them separately is a methodological point I have made in several papers.

ArchAsa said...

I can't read it either, until I manage to visit the library and pick up a copy of Antiquity, since they protect their precious on-line articles with huge fees. While the question posed seems interesting, and a valuable one as well, it's sad to hear that not more of an effort was made to act critically when interviewing the subjects (west and east). It seems surprising that such a naïve method should be employed by an experienced researcher and even more surprising that the All Mighty Antiquity would allow it to be published. One wonders what political bias underlays that decision...?