Monday, June 26, 2006

China's Political Archaeology Targets Tibet


Call it the politics of the past.

Chinese Communist Party propagandists and hacks apparently think they have discovered a powerful, new weapon in their drive for domestic control, regional domination, and international influence and prestige: archaeology.

As if acting out a premise for an Indiana Jones film, the party is calling on two of the country's most important institutions, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), to mount expeditions designed to unearth evidence in support of contemporary claims and notions of ancient Chinese greatness. Both institutions are controlled by China's chief administrative authority, the State Council, a 50-member body charged with implementing policies and decisions of the ruling Communist Party.

Not too surprisingly, Tibet is an area of special interest. A CAS research team working with the Qinghai Provincial Archaeological Institute recently reported finding stone implements near the "strategic" Qinghai-Tibet Railway that prove that human beings lived there at least 30,000 years ago.

Called the "roof of the world," the 2.5 million-square kilometer Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau covers most of the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province. The world's highest railway runs through the area; and a Chinese archaeologist made a point of alluding to the political significance of the discovery.

According to Chinese state media, he said: "If we can find relics dating back to the same period at the stratum of the region, that will further prove that our ancestors lived on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau 30,000 years ago and that the Kunlun Mountains is one of the cradles of the Chinese civilization."

Beijing is also turning to archaeology in an attempt to achieve an advantage in China's so-called history war with South Korea--a complex dispute over an area that the Koreans call Koguryo and the Chinese refer to as Gaogouli. Both countries claim Koguryo/Gaogouli as exclusively theirs. But the Chinese have a key advantage; two-thirds of the territory is controlled by China. The only point the Chinese and Koreans seem ready to agree on is that the area encompassed a vast kingdom in the period between 37 BC and 668 AD.

Chinese officials representing the five-year "Northeast Project," which CASS launched in 2002 under the Center for the Study of Borderland History and Geography, describe Gaogouli as an ethnic regime in an ancient Chinese province. Korean archaeologists and historians say Koguryo was an ancestral state ruled by 26 wise kings, one of three ancient Korean kingdoms--in fact, the kingdom that gave birth to the modern name Korea--and is therefore a foundation of Korean national unity.

Backed by their respective governments, Chinese and Korean archaeologists are scrambling for ancient relics to support their national claims.

Of course, there is nothing new nor particularly Chinese about politically influenced or motivated archaeology (or history or sociology). In neighboring India, excavations sponsored by Hindu nationalists are being used to try to prove that the Indo-Aryan culture originated there and that the Indus Valley region supported a Vedic Hindu culture.

In the Middle East, many competing claims to territory are based on interpretations of archeological finds. Since Israel became independent in 1948, its archaeologists have used the Bible as a guide to make discoveries supporting the Jewish people's historic and religious claims to Palestine.

In contrast, Islamist regimes have favored destruction over discovery. After the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, some of his more fanatic Shiite Muslim followers came close to destroying the magnificent ancient ruins of Persepolis in an attempt to erase evidence of their country's pre-Islamic, Persian past. Similarly, the Sunni Muslim Taliban blew up of priceless ancient Buddhist statues when they ruled Afghanistan.

Some aspects of Chinese political archaeology border on the totalitarian, recalling efforts by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to use the past as foundations for imperial aspirations. In 1940, after Germany invaded Poland, Nazi archaeologists were assigned to prove that German communities had lived there before the Poles. In Italy, Benito Mussolini mined ancient Roman civilization for propaganda purposes.

The Nazis naturally went to extremes, sponsoring pseudoarchaeological centers and institutes to find evidence of ancient Aryan glory. The Ahnenebe, or Ancestral Heritage Society, for example, was organized by the notorious SS. Inspired by Nazi occult beliefs, the society sent missions to Tibet to research the origins of the swastika, and also, according to some bizarre but credible accounts, to try to make contact with a mythical, subterranean society in the Himalayas, known as Shambhala or Agharta.

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