Editing history with a heavy hand

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Editing history with a heavy hand

Park Jung-ho
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Last November, “100 Years of Archeological Research in China (1921-2021): A Space-Based Perspective” was published. As the title suggests, the book deals with major achievements of Chinese archeology over the past century and future prospects. Published in four books and 12 volumes, it shows the results of research by 276 Chinese archeologists into their history. Editors of the book praised their own work as the “first academic writing based on materialistic view of history and for its contribution to establishing China’s independent archeology.”
What attracts our attention is the book’s placement of the history of the northeast region of China — the birthplace of Korea’s ancient civilization — in the first chapter of the first book. In a sharp departure from convention, the Yellow River basin — once considered the cradle of Chinese civilization — was pushed back. In the past, Chinese archeologists described China’s history starting with the Yellow River basin and moving on to the Yangtze River basin, southern region and northern region. The dramatic shift represents China’s new focus on the northeast region.
In the second book, Chinese archeologists describe the history of the northeast by dividing it into the Bronze Age and the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771 BC to 256 BC), accentuating China’s influence in the region from the Bronze Age. After reviewing the book, the Northeast Asian History Foundation in Seoul linked the shift to China’s intention to scale down the region’s own history given the book’s failure to mention Gojoseon (2333 BC to 108 BC), Korea’s first kingdom, and Buyeo, an ancient kingdom centered in northern Manchuria 
Another noticeable point is the book’s proposition of the starting year of China’s modern archeology as 1921 — the year of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) — hinting at political pressure from Beijing. In the past, Chinese archeologists claimed that China’s modern archeology began in 1928, the year they excavated the remains of Yinxu, the capital of the Shang Dynasty (circa 1500 BC to 1050 BC). The book also adopts political standards to divide the periods of the development of China’s modern archeology, as seen in the Initiating Period (1921-48), Early Development Period (1949-78) and Rapid Development Period (1979-2000). 1949 was the year the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded and 1978 was the year when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared the opening and reform of China. All the developments suggest a highly-calculated equation of archeology, governance and propaganda.  
In a series of articles about a “war on cultural assets” in the JoongAng Ilbo, Prof. Kang In-wook, who teaches at Kyung Hee University, took note of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s message in May to “let the world know China’s archeology” through Chinese history and cultural assets to pave the way for global hegemony in the 21st century. The professor said archeology plays a leading role in realizing what Xi called the “Chinese Dream.”
The National Museum of China (NMC) has provoked controversy after removing Goguryeo (37 BC to 668 AD) and Balhae (698 to 926) from the annals of the two kingdoms the National Museum of Korea provided for the NMC’s exhibition titled “Auspicious Metals from the Orient: Ancient Bronzes of China, Korea and Japan.” After Korea threatened to withdraw its bronze artifacts from the exhibition unless China fixed the chronology table, the NMC opted to remove the controversial chronology table of ancient Korean history itself from the exhibit instead of apologizing for the mistake. But such makeshift measures can trigger another dispute at any time.
The episode is an extension of China’s Northeast Project that defined Goguryeo and Balhae as local governments of China’s ancient kingdoms. The five-year project ended in 2007, but its repercussions continue, as seen in Devil’s Editing for Chinese exhibitions and publications. Annals of China are being handled by Beijing and the CPC. As it turned out, chronological tables of Goguryeo and Balhae disappeared in regional museums already. The manipulation of the chronology by the largest national museum in China is shocking. China’s crusade to erase Goguryeo from history has only intensified.
In a letter for the 110th anniversary of the NMC last July, Xi urged Chinese archeologists to take a “correct political direction.” He also mentioned the “need for civilizational exchanges and mutual learning.” What is meant by such rhetoric? Professor Kang expressed concerns about a stop in academic exchanges in the future. “We may not be able to take a field trip to the northeast region in the future,“ he said. Korea must prevent his worries from materializing.
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