Xia Nai (or Hsia Nai; Chinese: 夏鼐; pinyin: Xià Nǎi; Wade-Giles: Hsia Nai) (1910 – 1985) was the foremost Chinese archaeologist from 1949-1979, serving as director of China’s Institute of Archaeology. After earning a doctorate in Egyptology at University College London, he returned to China and joined the staff of the Central Museum. In 1945, he was able to establish that Yangshao culture was older than Qijia culture in northwestern China, reversing the system that had been established by Swedish scientist John Gunnar Anderson for dating Gansu’s Neolithic culture, and ending the dominance of foreign scholars in Chinese archaeology. Xia joined the Chinese Academy of Sciences (1950-1982), eventually becoming director of its Institute of Archaeology. Xia conducted numerous archaeological surveys and excavations, lectured on archaeology at Luoyang and Zhengzhou, and trained hundreds of students who went on to become China’s leading archaeologists. He used evidence from discoveries of ancient silk textiles and foreign coins to develop theories about trade between China and regions of Central and Western Asia, and eastern regions of the Roman Empire, along the route known as the Silk Road. He also studied artifacts and developed theories explaining ancient Chinese developments in mathematics, astrology, chemistry, metallurgy, and textile production.
Xia Nai has come under criticism for his complicity with the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and academics were humiliated and imprisoned, and for publicly advocating the subversion of science to support political goals.
Xia Nai was born in 1910 in Wenzhou, southern Zhejiang, China). He majored in economic history at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing (BA, 1934), winning a scholarship to study abroad. He went to University College London where he studied Egyptology, earning a doctorate that was finally awarded to him in 1946.
In the meantime, he had returned to China and joined the staff of the Central Museum. During China’s War of Resistance (1937-1945) against Japan, Xia conducted excavations in northwestern China. In 1945, he discovered painted pottery shards of the Yangshao Neolithic Culture (c. 5,000 to c. 3,000 B.C.E.) at Qijia culture tombs in Yangwawan and Ningding, Gansu Province. He was able to establish that Yangshao culture was older than Qijia, reversing the system that had been established by Swedish scientist John Gunnar Anderson for dating Gansu’s Neolithic culture, and ending the dominance of foreign scholars in Chinese archaeology.
In 1944, Xia joined the Department of Archaeology of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica (1943-1949), becoming acting director in 1948. When the Institute moved to Taiwan in 1949, Xia stayed behind in China, teaching at Zhejiang University for a year before joining the Chinese Academy of Sciences (1950-1982), eventually becoming director of its Institute of Archaeology.
In 1950, the year the Chinese Institute of Archaeology was founded, Xia Nai was in charge of the team that led its first excavations in Huixian County, Henan Province. The team discovered the remains of nineteen wooden chariots from the Warring States Period (403- 221 B.C.E.). Xia Nai later took the team to conduct surveys in and excavation sin Zhengzhou, Changgao and Mianchi, in Henan, and in Changsha in Hunan Province. From 1952 to 1955, he organized and conducted four archaeological seminars in Beijing, and lectured on archaeology at Luoyang and Zhengzhou, and trained hundreds of students who went on to become China’s leading archaeologists.
From 1956 to 1958, he participated in the excavation of the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, the mausoleum of thirteen of the sixteen emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which later became one of China’s most popular tourist attractions. He wrote a number of scholarly papers and conducted research projects on the history of Chinese science and technology, and the history of China’s interaction with other countries. He used evidence from discoveries of ancient silk textiles and foreign coins to develop theories about trade between China and regions of Central and Western Asia, and eastern regions of the Roman Empire, along the route known as the Silk Road. He also studied artifacts and developed theories explaining ancient Chinese developments in mathematics, astrology, chemistry, metallurgy, and textile production.
Under Xia Nai’s leadership, Chinese archaeologists began conducting surveys and excavations all over China. Xia was awarded more honorary titles from foreign academic institutions than any other Chinese scholar, and received a number of foreign awards for his work. He was elected to the English Academy of Archaeology; the German Institute of Archaeology; and the Swedish Royal Academy of Literature, History and Archaeology; the American Academy of Sciences; the Third World Academy of Sciences; and the Italian Near and Far East Institute. He stated that he accepted all of these honors on behalf of all Chinese archaeologists. Xia Nai died in 1985.
Xia Nai has come under criticism for his complicity with the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. Among other things, he joined the Anti-Right Campaign in 1957 which persecuted and imprisoned many scholars and intellectuals. In despair, some archaeologists, such as Chen Mengjia and Zeng Zhaoyu, committed suicide. Xia Nai later claimed that 1949-1979 represented the "Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology." He proclaimed in numerous speeches and articles that the purpose of archaeology was to "serve the politics of the proletariat." In 1979, in the xenophobic spirit of the era, he also threatened L.S. Vasil'ev, who proposed that the Chinese zodiac was borrowed from the West.
In his article, “Thirty Years of Chinese Archaeology (1949 – 1979)” Enzhen Tong suggests that the Xia Nai allowed the practice of archaeology to become tainted by political objectives, and that he did not try to defend his colleagues or improve the oppressive conditions under which they worked:
“Had the Communist Party valued and protected archaeologists during the past years—even if not providing them with better working conditions, at least subjecting them to fewer political campaigns and allowing them more time for productive work, then their achievements would have far surpassed their current level. In the process of summarizing the history of Chinese archaeology of this period, Xia Nai did not demand any changes in policy by the ruling party toward his science. He did not ask that existing conditions be improved, the archaeologists be better rewarded, that a more tolerant academic atmosphere be created, but rather required that Chinese archaeologists must have “the spirit of devotion.” (1985: 481-4) This biased exhortation is both unfair and unjustified.”
“…during the time period under discussion, he was the highest administrator of Chinese archeology. The influence of his words and actions was profound and pervasive on Chinese archaeologists. As the most famous archaeologist in China, his achievements are known by everyone. But no man in this world is perfect. As a Chinese intellectual who held such a high post in a political sphere that sought to control absolutely the thoughts not only of the common people but also of the government officials themselves, he had to adapt himself to the specific political climate, perhaps, at some times, even going so far as to cater expediently to the circumstances. While Xia Nai was an outstanding scholar, he was at the same time an activist in the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957 and “joined the Communist Party at the battlefront” in 1959 at “the high tide of class struggle.” His authority derived mainly from the authority of the Party; his leadership in archaeology was the concretized leadership of the Party. As such, it is inconceivable that he was never affected by “leftist” trends, never enacted “leftist” policies, never catered to “leftist” intentions. It should be recognized that his actions were not always correct and free from political intent. In recording history, we must attempt to be objective. It is not necessary to conceal the truth in order to save the dignity of respected elders."
“…Even during the Cultural Revolution, Xia Nai himself was not much affected by this evil storm. Beginning with 1970, when universities and academic institutions were still closed, and the majority of intellectuals were still imprisoned in “cowsheds” or sent to the countryside for “re-education,” he was personally appointed by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to receive foreign guests and to visit Albania, Mexico and Peru, carrying out “Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line in foreign affairs.” Consequently, Xia Nai did not endure the suffering of so many intellectuals of the period, nor did he share their hatred and resentment of the Leftist regime that persecuted them.”
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