CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 23, September 2010


The Reappearance of Yangshao? | China Heritage Quarterly

The Reappearance of Yangshao?
Reflections on unmourned artifacts

Magnus Fiskesjö
Cornell University

The first excavations of Yangshao cultural remains in the 1920s inaugurated the modern discipline of archaeology in China. The recent documentary film Cutting Through the Fog of History: The Re-appearance of the Yangshao Cultural Relics[1] is one of the first Chinese attempts in many years to address the mysterious disappearance, possibly during World War II, of many of the artifacts uncovered in the course of these excavations.

In comparison with the seemingly never-ending flood of both science and fiction writings on the lost Peking Man remains, which also vanished during China's war with Japan,[2] it is curious that comparatively little attention has been given either inside or outside China to these formidable lost cultural treasures from the Neolithic era. The story of their disappearance is no less dramatic, and the lost pieces include unique cultural artifacts like the painted ceramic lid in the shape of a shaman's head, which is among the earliest human figures in East Asian art (Fig. 1, from Fiskesjö and Chen 2004,[3] pp. 148-49, and Fig. 2, from Palmgren 1934,[4] Plate XIX, cf. items 7, 8, and 9).

Fig.1 A painted ceramic lid in the shape of a shaman's head, one of the missing Yangshao artfacts. From Magnus Fiskesjö and Chen, Xingcan. China Before China: Johan Gunnar Andersson, Ding Wenjiang, and the Discovery of China's Prehistory (Bilingual, English and Chinese), Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 2004.

It is of course true that Chinese prehistoric archaeology, just like paleoanthropology and geology, has advanced considerably since the first discoveries were made, and not a few Neolithic anthropomorphic figures have emerged. But so far as I know, there are none in this intriguing style of ceramic vessel-lid shaped heads. They may be renderings of shamans, complete with tattoos, snake-hair curls, and holes to insert feathers or plumes. One possibility is that they may have served as lids for special vessels that held the shaman's utensils.

Importantly, these stunning items belong with the first group of Neolithic archaeological artifacts discovered in China, and might be expected to count as national treasures of sorts. They were obtained by the Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson in the course of the first modern archaeological excavations in China, in Gansu and Henan in 1921-24. These excavations were undertaken in his capacity as advisor to China's new National Geological Survey (NGS), which, together with its founders, the geology pioneers Ding Wenjiang (V.K. Ting) and Weng Wenhao (W.H. Wong), he had helped develop from the time of his arrival in China in 1914. At the time, specialized archaeological institutions did not yet exist in China, and the new scientific archaeological practice, like elsewhere, was founded on geological stratigraphy, and emerged in close institutional association with geology.

Large parts of these collections were shipped to Sweden by permission of the Chinese government. Half of these formed the basis of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (MFEA) in Stockholm, which opened in 1929. The rest were returned by Andersson to Ding and Weng in seven shipments made between 1927 and 1936. These shipments included large numbers of the now-famous painted Yangshao ceramic urns, either restored or in fragmented state, and many other objects. All three shaman-heads appear to have been bought, and not excavated, two in Gansu and one in Paris from the Chinese antiquities dealer C.T. Loo.[5]

Andersson's first six shipments were made to the NGS in Beiping (now Beijing), but because the NGS was later moved to Nanjing, the last one was sent there. On his last Asian trip, in 1937-38 just before his retirement, Andersson confirmed that the shipments had arrived. A selection had been arranged as part of the permanent exhibit in the new NGS building in Nanjing, proudly shown to him by his former colleagues and students. Andersson offers a vivid description of this 1937 scene in his popular book China Fights for the World.[6] This was one of the last confirmed sightings of the objects.

After I became director of the MFEA in 2000, I learned about the history of Andersson's work, and realised that it had been forgotten. There seemed to be scant mention of his endeavours either in the Chinese or the current international archaeological or historical literature. No doubt, the reasons for this included not only the restrictions placed on Andersson's archaeological research by the World War II and the closure of China to foreign archaeologists after 1949, but also the ideological shift in the MFEA, which soon became more like other Western Asian art museums, emphasizing connoisseurship and auction-house purchases, instead of the scientific-archaeological research laboratory style that Andersson originally envisioned. Andersson himself was also by and large forgotten, even among Swedish archaeologists.[7]

When mobilizing the old collections in new MFEA exhibits, designed to highlight the peoples living in what is now China but several millennia before the idea of China itself had developed (in a 'China before China'!), I also made copies of Andersson's detailed return shipment records from 1927-36 and gave them to several Chinese authorities with a request for their help in tracing these lost treasures. The recipients included the main custodian of China's national cultural heritage, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in Beijing (SACH, that is, the Wenwuju 文物局, a name formerly translated as the Bureau of Cultural Relics);[8] the Shanghai Museum; the Nanjing Museum; and some others. However, no-one was able to find any further clues to the whereabouts of the missing objects. The Nanjing Museum at first responded that it held a small amount of stone tools that appeared to have been discovered by Andersson, but it failed to respond to further inquiries regarding the shaman head, the hundreds of painted Yangshao urns and other outstanding artifacts returned to China by Andersson. According to rumour, this museum has a large storage closed to outsiders — either due to the traditions of secrecy and lack of public accountability that prevail in many Chinese archives, etc., or because it has not been properly organized, so that objects can only be traced with the greatest of difficulty. Having experienced the shock of discovering the awful disarray behind the scenes and the pressing need for modern collections management methods at the MFEA in Stockholm in 2000, I am very much open to the latter interpretation.

In the summer of 2005, just after my departure from Sweden, staff members at the Geological Museum of China in Beijing discovered four wooden crates at their museum which had not been opened for a very long time. They turned out to contain partially fragmented Yangshao-style Neolithic ceramics — a total of twenty-nine items, including about four whole vessels and ceramic shards, some of which had been rejoined.

As the museum's surprised geologists discovered, after some puzzlement and further inquiries, the ink annotations seen on the vessels and shards indicated that they belong with the series of objects that Johan Gunnar Andersson discovered in 1920-24. These geologists also seem to have forgotten Andersson and his close collaboration with the Chinese geologists who had launched their discipline and invited Andersson to join them. Thus the recent Chinese documentary film is in a sense also a record of the Chinese geologists' journey of self-discovery, much as we had experienced in Sweden.

While still in China, Andersson originally inscribed artifacts with the initials of the sites, such as 'Y.S.' for the Yangshao site in Henan, followed by a Roman numeral series ('VII', etc.) which referred to subdivisions of the sites. Later, he included all the artifacts in a master series created for the MFEA, which in each case starts with 'K' and is followed by an Arabic number. The lost ceramic shaman head (Fig.1) thus has the unique ID number K5473, and the shaman heads kept in Stockholm are K5472, and K11038:5 (which are items 7 and 9 in Fig.2, respectively). It remains unclear what 'K' meant, but it may stand for culture, kultur in Swedish, as opposed to the 'M' apparently often used for geological minerals and other materials. It does not, as the film suggests, stand for the Swedish term for China, 'Kina', since many other Asian materials are also listed as 'K'.

Fig.2 Some of the most famous of Andersson's artefacts, as catalogued by Nils Palmgren in 1934. See note [4].

In addition, the objects assigned for a return to Beiping were also marked 'P', and those to remain in Stockholm as 'S', both enclosed in a square, all of which was also in black ink. The 2007 film shows in close-ups how the ceramic fragments encountered in Beijing's Geological Museum of China were annotated both 'Y.S.' and 'C.C.P.' (Ch'i Chia P'ing, or Qijiaping, in Gansu, another of the many sites Andersson discovered), etc. — but also belonged to the 'K' series (K11242:63; K11032:7, etc.). Out of the twenty-nine items, nine were marked 'P', one worn painted-ceramic shard marked K11038:7 was also marked 'S', and four nearly complete vessels lacked either 'P' or 'S'. These materials surely belong with those discovered in 1920-24 and taken to Beijing by Andersson and his Chinese colleagues, but it remains unclear whether they have all been to Sweden and back, or not. The film cites just one item from the boxes discovered in 2005, namely K6371, as listed by Andersson in his return lists (for the shipment leaving for 'Peip'ing' [Beiping/Beijing] on July 4, 1932). Apparently the museum has not checked all the numbers against the complete lists, but only against the published sample page in our book, mentioned above [Fig.2]. Perhaps the twenty-nine items were indeed returned from Sweden, but accidentally excluded from those taken to Nanjing with the many hundreds of other items appropriated by the NGS. One wonders if more such items may be found in Beijing.

The film includes dramatic re-enactments of the discovery of the wooden crates at the Geological Museum of China. It skillfully weaves these tantalizing events into a narrative that retells select moments in the fascinating story of the beginnings of modern geology and archaeology in China, as well as Andersson's and Ding Wenjiang's engagement with field paleontology and how it helped create the circumstances for the 1920-21 archaeological breakthrough at Yangshao.

For this purpose, it makes good use of some of the museum's own archival materials and photos, as well as of historical film and some rather imaginative on-site reenactments, interwoven with interviews conducted with knowledgeable scholars, such as the geology historians Zhang Erjiu and Zhang Jiuchen.[9] It also includes lengthy reflections on the history of the geology museum itself, both before and, especially, after 1949, with a special emphasis on the heroic contributions by geologists to the establishment of China's mining industry. (However, the film then veers dramatically away from the original topic, and in the last part offers what is essentially a promotion of the museum's new commercial ventures with precious stones in the Yangrou Hutong street outside its Beijing location, as well as its newfound connections with private fossil collectors!).

The documentary, which is 'All Rights Reserved', also quotes extensively throughout from the bilingual English and Chinese book co-authored by Fiskesjö and Chen (China Before China, 2004), sometimes almost verbatim, and on numerous occasions includes extended shots using archival materials and photos included by us in the book. These include previously unpublished archival photos of missionaries, mines, etc. in China taken by Andersson, as well as photos of Ding Wenjiang and Weng Wenhao from Andersson's own books (but obscuring Ding's personal dedication, even though the film elsewhere does mention the two men's close friendship). At several points, it includes photos taken by this reviewer himself, in the MFEA storage, and even shows another museum publication, misidentified when held up for the camera. The film never acknowledges either the title, or the authors of the 2004 book. The filmmaking geologists probably acquired a copy in 2006 when they visited the museum in Stockholm and were given a tour of the storage, as well as of the new exhibits using Yangshao materials. Curiously, in what may be an exhibit of disciplinary provincialism which could undo some of the fruits of the self-discovery that the film entails for geologists, the filmmakers also for the most part steer clear of Chinese paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, and others, except to invite one archaeologist to underline the geological origins of Chinese archaeology, and offer some additional commentary.

In the film, the museum's director Cheng Liwei repeats the usual teleological mytho-narrative in which Yangshao represents not just one Neolithic East Asian, and thus pre-Chinese, community among many, but the beginnings of Chinese culture (Zhonghua wenhua de kaiduan 中華文化的開端); and claims that the discovery of Yangshao amounted to a refutation of a supposed Western consensus that Chinese culture was derived, and not autochtonous. Of course, the contrived nature of this orthodoxy is underscored by the striking similarities of the Yangshao ceramic traditions to Central and West Asian Neolithic ceramics. It was these similarities that originally inspired Andersson to take his research farther out West in China, beyond the original discovery in Henan, and not back into the historical Chinese heartland, which is where it was later redirected in nationalist government archaeology.[10]

This similarity has provoked a debate that has continued since the 1920s and remains unresolved.[11] It concerns the relation of the makers of the Yangshao pots to other Eurasian prehistoric pre-state communities farther West — a question separate from the issue of their undeniable, if complex, relation to the later formation of Chinese civilization, or even to its autochthony. Rather than the former question, which also preoccupied Andersson and other scholars, it is the latter question of modern-national origins that provokes more anxiety in present-day China, and it is this anxiety that is soothed by the teleological designation of Yangshao as a mythic ancestor.

But if this is so, then why the lack of official mourning over the lost Yangshao treasures? Even the documentary makers ultimately seem content to laud the 2005 recovery of just a few items, and call it quits. As one theory of where the collections might have gone, it insinuates that Swedish officials like myself might be lying about the collections, that Andersson perhaps did not send everything he should have, and that Sweden is hiding some of the 'P' items. This is to misunderstand the conditions in Sweden, where very few people take any interest in these issues. There are indeed at least six objects and surely more fragments which are marked 'P' in Stockholm — items that I made a point of insisting that we use for a special display as part of the new permanent exhibit, so as to tell the story of the original partage, and point out that these pieces may be further evidence of accidental mix-ups. It is certainly possible to dismantle this display and return these items to China, as has been formally requested of the Swedish government by a group of Chinese repatriation activists for whom I pointed out these artifacts in 2004, and explained their significance.[12]

In any case, we should realize that the fleeting insinuations made in the film are not necessarily intentionally malign, but should probably instead be taken as reflective of the power of the national 'victim narrative' that permeates official Chinese historiography.

It is not completely clear whether or how the repatriated original collections were affected by the Japanese invasion of Nanjing, which was occupied in December 1937. Intriguingly, the film under review here says that 202 boxes of holdings from the new NGS building were packed in November 1937 and shipped westward to Chongqing, away from the impending Japanese invasion. It also cites a reminiscence of one museum worker, Liu Dongsheng, of a 1946 sighting of at least some remaining Yangshao ceramics in Nanjing, and also a NGS museum guidebook from 1948, which indicates that the collections probably did survive the Japanese war (though this may be simply a reprint of earlier editions). However, according to the film, no-one at the successor institutions in Nanjing has any further record of the collections. Another rather more ominous piece of information in the film is that one entire ship with museum items sank in the Yangtze River in 1946 on its way back to Nanjing, but no records of its cargo have so far become available.

Thus, the bulk of the returned materials is still missing. As for other 'usual suspects', the Academia Sinica or the Palace Museum on Taiwan do not seem to have any Neolithic objects derived from Andersson's excavations. The Tokyo National Museum responded to my inquiries by informing me that they do have items cataloged by Andersson, but these seem likely to have been obtained as exchange items, perhaps offered through the archaeologist Hamada Kosaku who visited Andersson in Stockholm and witnessed the preparations for the 1929 opening. Several other museums received such gifts in exchange for other materials, as was once customary.

The hundreds of painted urns and the shaman head K5473 are perhaps still in Nanjing after all (if they aren't on the bottom of the Yangtze River). It would make sense that they were returned to Nanjing after the war, but then shifted within the city to the new Nanjing Museum. This became the main venue for archaeological exhibits after the downsizing of the pre-war plans for a new Central Museum (國立中央博物館) in the then capital city of Nanjing (on which construction had just started in 1936, when the war started: see the 'Museum Introduction' on the museum's home page).

If indeed the artifacts were returned to Nanjing, the collections now perhaps lie dormant in some underground storage maze, and the fact that the Yangshao original collections vanished on the watch of sovereign Chinese governments and public museums may be the underlying reason for why this matter is not more discussed in China, nor officially mourned. I would like to argue, as I have for Sweden, that public museums do not deserve their name unless they account publicly for their entire collections and make them available, at least digitally, to the global community. Private museums should do the same. And all this surely applies to the Yangshao materials which are the remnants of a pre-national history, and in a sense belong to the world.

The author was the director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, from 2000 to 2005.


[1] Geological Museum of China, with China Central Television (CCTV). Chuanyue lishi de miwu: Yangshao wenwu xianshen ji [Cutting through the fog of history: The reappearance of the Yangshao cultural relics]. Documentary video on two DVDs. Beijing: Distributed by the China International TV Corp. (, n.d. [2007]. (Note that the first part of the title, 'Cutting through the fog of history', does not occur on the DVD cover, only in the film itself). The website of the Geological Museum of China is:

[2] Jake Hooker, 'The Search for Peking Man,' Archaeology 59.2 (2006), 59-66; Jia Lanpo and Huang Weiwen, The Story of Peking Man: From Archaeology to Mystery, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, and Oxford University Press, New York, 1990; Penny Van Oosterzee, Dragon Bones: The Story of Peking Man, Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 2000; Li Mingsheng, Quanqiu xunzhao 'Beijing ren' [Global search for Peking man], Beijing: Beijing chubanshe, 2006; Li Jiaye, Beijing ren tougaigu zhi mi [The mystery of Peking man skull], Beijing: Xinxing chubanshe, 2008; etc. See also:

[3] Magnus Fiskesjö and Chen, Xingcan. China Before China: Johan Gunnar Andersson, Ding Wenjiang, and the Discovery of China's Prehistory (Bilingual, English and Chinese), Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 2004.

[4] Nils Palmgren, 'Kansu mortuary urns of the Pan Shan and Ma Chang groups', Palaeontologia Sinica Ser. D., Vol. III, Facs. 1. Stockholm: Hasse W. Tullberg, 1934.

[5] On the history and social-political context of the discoveries, see Fiskesjö and Chen, op. cit., with a sample return shipment list on p. 101. Also see M. Fiskesjö, 'Science across borders: Johan Gunnar Andersson and Ding Wenjiang,' forthcoming in Explorers and Scientists in China's Borderlands, 1880-1950, edited by Stevan Harrell, Charles McKhann, Margaret Swain and Denise M. Glover (Seattle: University of Washington Press); and Chen Xingcan, Ershi shiji Zhongguo kaoguxue shi yanjiu luncong [Collected essays on the history of twentieth-century Chinese archaeology], Beijing: Wenwu, 2009. Chen Xingcan is a prominent Chinese archaeologist with expertise in Neolithic archaeology who also has published extensively on the modern history of Chinese archaeology, and who advised the MFEA on the curating of the Stockholm materials.

[6] Johan Gunnar Andersson, Under brinnande krig [In the midst of war], Stockholm: Saxon & Lindström, 1938. (Translated as China Fights for the World, London: Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1939).

[7] On these developments, see M. Fiskesjö, 'Art and Science as competing values in the formation of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities,' Forthcoming in Collectors, Collections, and Collecting the Arts of China: Histories and Challenges, edited by Guolong Lai and Jason Steuber (Gainesville: University of Florida Press).

[8] For a discussion of the conceptual shift and linguistic split that is involved in this renaming, see M. Fiskesjö, 'The politics of cultural heritage,' in Lee Ching Kwan and Hsing You-tien, eds., Reclaiming Chinese Society: The New Social Activism, London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 225-45.

[9] See, for example, Zhang Jiuchen, Dizhixue yu Minguo shehui: 1916-1950 [Geology and Society: A Study in Chinese National Geological Survey], Jinan: Shandong jiaoyu chubanshe, 2005.

[10] Li Chi [Li Ji], Anyang, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977.

[11] M. Fiskesjö, ed., Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, vol.75 (2003), 'Special Issue: New Perspectives in Eurasian Archaeology'.

[12] M. Fiskesjö, 'The politics of cultural heritage,' p.236.