Theses Doctoral

Culture Change and Imperial Incorporation in Early China: An Archaeological Study of the Middle Han River Valley (ca. 8th century BCE - 1st century CE)

Chao, Glenda E.

This dissertation analyzes historical and archaeological evidence of culture change and the effects of state and imperial expansion on local communities to show that early Chinese cultural history is enriched when commoners are taken into account. I do this by focusing on heretofore unexamined evidence in the middle Han river valley of north-central Hubei province in early China during the 8th century BCE to the 1strd century CE. I argue that this was a particularly important region because it was an important crossroads where multiple polities interacted in the period between the fall of the Western Zhou state and the rise of China’s first empires, the Qin and the Han.
Traditional historiography attributes culture change during this period and in this region to the imposition of a holistic set of customs by elites representing state or imperial power on newly conquered lands. The sources used and analyses employed are disproportionately derived from elite contexts. As a result, current historical narratives privilege elite views of culture and society. By contrast, my dissertation employs a methodology that utilizes newly excavated archaeological data to enrich extant narratives of the early cultural history of this region. I do this in two ways. First, I interweave archaeological evidence of ordinary peoples’ cultural practices into the dominant political and social histories of the era. Second, I focus on the middle Han river area as a geographical crossroads that was as culturally complex as frontier regions, a perspective rarely taken in traditional studies of early China.
Chapter 1 lays out the three-tiered theoretical and methodological framework of the dissertation. I first outline theories of culture change in ancient colonial encounters, derived from anthropological discourse, and that can be utilized to understand my novel data. I then describe how archaeologists utilize material evidence of past funerary rituals, which form the bulk of my data, to study culture change. Finally, I talk about the quantitative methods through which I render the archaeological data intelligible to interpretation. In Chapter 2, I engage with the third and narrowest tier of my methodology by using assemblage theory as the basis for archaeological periodization of funerary ceramics at Bianying cemetery. This method takes as its premise the idea that the appearance of new ceramic types and the disappearance of others, signify moments of change due either to incoming practices or internal development, when the social and cultural affiliations of the community of mourners came under question, thus, allowing for the assertion and negotiation of emergent cultural identities.
In Chapter 3, I use exploratory data analyses to identify meaningful patterns in the seven chronological periods identified in Chapter 2. In interpreting these patterns, I explain how, within the realm of funerary ritual, the introduction of new cultural practices into Xiangyang engendered the formation of hybrid culture at Bianying, and how the active agency of the local population was expressed through this process. In Chapter 4, I employ these previous analyses in returning to the level of culture change in order to build a more robust model of cultural hybridity in early imperial China. To do this, I analyze the more rural and idiosyncratic cemetery of Wangpo, located four kilometers north of Bianying. I use the evidence of hybridized burial practices at Wangpo to show how my model destabilizes accepted analytical categories and, thereby, allows new narratives of early imperial history in China to emerge, narratives that bring the discipline into dialogue with the study of other regions of the ancient world.
In Chapter 5, I construct a new history of cultural formation in Xiangyang. I do this by interweaving the archaeological narrative outlined in chapters 2 through 4 with textual evidence drawn from bronze inscriptions, excavated texts, and transmitted historical records. I reconcile contradictions between the archaeological and textual records by tacking back and forth between these two categories of source materials, treating both as different facets of the same story. In doing so, I present a holistic narrative of elite political designs on Xiangyang and its effects on locals, arguing that both groups mutually constructed one another in forming what we now know to be early imperial China. This work has important implications for further research by demonstrating the value of making more nuanced use of newly excavated material to reinvigorate the genre of regional history in China.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Li, Feng
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 24, 2017