A Letter from Ji'nan
UCLA graduate student Christopher Needs reports on life, study, & research in one of China's "other" cities
Published: Friday, May 21, 2004
Foreigners visiting or living in China tend to be very surprised that I chose Shandong University (Shanda) in Ji'nan to spend ten months studying Chinese and ancient urbanism. Those whom I have met outside of Ji'nan have either never heard of it (for those of you, it is the capital of Shandong Province), or they have and wonder why I wouldn't choose bustling Beijing or swanky Shanghai instead. As to the foreigners I meet in Ji'nan, they are equally surprised when I tell them that this is in fact my fourth extended visit here since 1998, when I first participated in a joint Shandong-Yale University archaeology project at a small town called Liangchengzhen.
It may be true that Ji'nan lacks the glitz and glamour of China's more international cities. It also lacks the wow-factor claimed by Xi'an's archaeology or Guilin's karst geology. But at some point, such attractions tend to matter less, as does reproducing an American lifestyle in China by ordering a burrito or hanging out at Starbucks. Ji'nan offers as valuable a Chinese experience as anywhere else, and although you have to put up with (ahem) plenty of smog, undue finger pointing, and a less developed urban whole, a Ji'nan experience can be rich and rewarding.
The Attractions of Ji'nan
Ji'nan actually has a number of interesting sites. There are the remnants of the fourth-century city and moat, and the monumental hillside Buddhist carvings. There are also the natural springs over which history was made and famous poems were written, and the close proximity to holy Mount Tai, where emperors since the earliest periods in Chinese history built temples and made sacrifices to heaven. What's more, with the absence in Ji'nan of familiar American or other international haunts, more time can be spent really getting to know the back streets and the neighborhoods and the subtleties of everyday Chinese life. (Although I must confess, I could really go for a bagel… or a burrito….)
For me, Ji'nan has a number of additional attractions. As anyone who has worked in China knows, personal relationships and assistance provided by friends or colleagues can be crucial to getting anything done at all. All of my previous archaeological research in China has been in one way or another linked to scholars at Shanda's archaeology department, so what better place to seek key assistance in developing my own dissertation research? Shanda archaeologists are also among the most knowledgeable when it comes to the archaeology in their own backyards, so my study of Shandong Neolithic walled towns from the Longshan period (c. 4600-4000 years ago) is only improved by basing myself here. Also, modern Ji'nan serves as a good urban laboratory for learning more about social and class distinctions, urban identity, residential segregation, and local political economy -- phenomena all relevant to the development, maintenance, and even failure of ancient cities.
International education is booming at Shanda. Normally some 300-400 students inhabit the international student's compound here, but for whatever reason perhaps 100 additional students have been accepted this term and housed in on-campus hotel rooms. Most students come from South Korea and Japan, while the majority of all others come from central and southeast Asian countries on China's borders. Unlike my previous experiences at Beijing and Nanjing Universities, the number of students from Europe and the Americas is small. There are only a couple of students each from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Italy, France, England, Germany, Belgium, and Poland. Also unlike Peking University and Nanjing University, a greater proportion of the student body call an African country home. The result is a much more international feel than my previous experiences. Instead of becoming a part of a naturally forming American clique, I find myself interacting daily with people from all over the world, something very satisfying.
The Caché of Foreignness
Classes are similar to those of most language programs in China: 20-25 hours per week is spent in class, with plenty more spent studying lessons outside of the classroom. Most students spend their free time in (what can be occasionally fierce) badminton or basketball matches, or at a variety of jobs -- commonly tutoring or teaching their native language, but also taking advantage of their high foreign profile by doing such work as getting paid to hang around a sunglasses booth to attract customers. Graduate students generally use their free time to advance their research.
While many Chinese students make it a common practice to hit the stalls and carts of "street food" outside of the university's south gate, the experience for them is precisely that: common. The contingent of foreigners who do this are probably better described as diehard street food enthusiasts. Not only is the food fresh, cheap, and convenient, it also provides a good opportunity to meet people whose path you might not otherwise cross. In fact we have become friends with a number of different hanbao makers, youbing flippers, fruit sellers, and other vendors who pedal their kitchens daily to the south gate (on a kind of adult-sized tricycle, or sanlunche). Some come in every day from outside the city limits over 20 km away just to service the college crowd. Interacting with these folks can be very interesting. Hearing their stories, learning about their lifestyles, and observing the dynamic between them is fascinating (out comes the anthropologist in me).
One vendor in particular became our favorite. He is a precocious 16-year old who, while acting as if he were in his 20s, looks as if he were 13. Whether it was his professional demeanor, the tasty and spicy chicken sandwiches he sold, or our unconscious desire to patronize his business and give him a boost in his young life -- whatever it was -- he became the most popular vendor among the foreign students. A crowd of hungry foreigners would form around him, leaving the neighboring vendors idle and perhaps wondering "How does he do it?" You could sometimes read in their expressions bewilderment, envy, and hope that we might one day crowd around their carts too.
Chinese passersby, attracted by the buzzing group of foreigners, could not help but look into what was so special about this boy's food. They would at first approach as if expecting to see the boy pull a rabbit out of a hat, but upon seeing that all was really quite normal -- just selling some chicken sandwiches -- they would also place an order. This additional Chinese patronage probably went far in boosting both the boy's income and the neighboring vendors' dismay. (Incidentally, the same attractive force is at work when the sunglasses booth hires a foreigner to stand around looking cool in sunglasses, chatting with prospective customers.)
Another recent development in Ji'nan has been the long-awaited grand opening of Carrefour, the French supermarket chain somewhat similar to Wal-Mart. Most of the Westerners I spoke with at Shanda and Ji'nan's other universities were, like me, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get our hands on such delicacies as brie or a decent bottle of cabernet. But it turns out that the rest of Ji'nan was also waiting for Carrefour to open its doors. A month after opening, the traffic on the streets still seems sparse compared to that inside Carrefour itself. My attempts at pushing a shopping cart have all been abandoned in favor of purchasing a basketful of goods and returning for additional smaller sprees.
Chinese Cities: Ancient and Contemporary
Both the boy vendor and Carrefour illustrate some of the characteristics of urban environments that stimulate my own interest in ancient Longshan towns/cities. The boy's case highlights the allure of the city, offering a wealth of opportunities and niches, even for the poor. Cities have a huge market potential, a range of public and welfare services, and a social network exponentially more complex than small villages. Its diversity translates into opportunity. It also highlights that cities are not just bounded entities but are linked to a wider hinterland around them. To mention just a few relevant features: agricultural products move into the city, economic wealth moves into the hinterland, and labor can go either way.
Like the boy vendor, Carrefour is taking advantage of a large urban market, although obviously at a much larger scale. It also serves as a crossroads for people of all ages, occupations, and status groups. In a sense, the diversity of the city plays out in the Carrefour microcosm. It is the hot spot with an international identity, a wider range of products than available elsewhere, and low price tags that appeal to both the poor (such as basic foodstuffs) and the rich (such as foreign products). And it is not just a place to buy stuff. Restaurants and specialty shops have also opened up and a wide range of services is provided. It is a socioeconomic crossroads where men in suits chat seriously, college students hang out showing off their cell phones, beggars beg, and the curious come to experience the scene. In some ways it is like traditional marketplaces described in historical accounts from all over the world.
So why does all of this matter to an archaeologist? Shouldn't I be playing in the dirt somewhere? Well, it turns out that these and other observations can help archaeologists understand the myriad conditions that lead to the patterning of material objects in space. Artifacts are, after all, what the archaeologist has at his or her disposal. So, buildings, roads, cars, tables, and cell phones are all objects that archaeologists of the future could find in Ji'nan. If these future archaeologists understood how culture, behavior, and belief were linked with such objects, they could be better able to understand Chinese society in Ji'nan in the year 2004.
The same goes for modern archaeologists looking back at ancient cities. We have architecture, roads, transportation, furniture, and tools to study and thanks to a number of remarkably similar features of cities in both modern and ancient times, anthropological investigations of modern cities can shed light on ancient ones. Observing the relationship between modern people and how they manage space and material objects can reflect on similar features of ancient urban life.
As a result, I have been trying to learn about the distinguishing features of neighborhoods in Ji'nan and what they would look like to an archaeologist of the future. I can observe or discuss with informants some of the dominant features of a neighborhood -- whether it is rich or poor and how it is characterized by lineage, ethnicity, religion, or occupation. But how do these different factors impact the use of space and the use of objects? For example, how does space and material indicate elite status? Is the kitchen or the sleeping quarters of an ethnic Hui (Moslem) family different than that of an ethnic Han family of a similar economic standing? Detailed studies of such phenomena could offer insights as to how neighborhoods form and indeed, how to distinguish them based on the material objects found within them.
Jiaohe and Longshan
While getting to the bottom of such questions in any archaeological case study is never easy, some are more straightforward than others. Take for example the first to fourteenth century city of Jiaohe in China's remote western province of Xinjiang.
Because of the amazing preservation of the site and its importance as a Han-Tang period garrison town and trading post along the ancient silk routes, it has received a significant amount of attention and is being protected by UNESCO. At Jiaohe, we have a city that can be extensively studied because of the abundance of standing architecture, roads, and Buddhist temples and monuments. Archaeologists have been able to do an amazing job of reconstructing major functional zones of the city as a whole. While this is a respectable accomplishment, how might we further attempt to study the residential segregation, or more simply, the neighborhoods of this city? Significant cultural and religious heterogeneity probably existed at Jiaohe during this period. It was a place of "international" trade located at the far western edge of the Chinese empire. Where did migrant traders stay when visiting this place? Where did permanent inhabitants who belonged to different status or occupational groups live? Did the Buddhists and Zoroastrianists divide and live among themselves or did their residential spaces overlap? At Jiaohe, such questions can be pursued to a finer level of detail because of the richness of the material remains.
The earliest cities/towns from c. 4600 years ago in Shandong Province are more difficult to study. In fact, whether it is even legitimate to call large, walled Longshan sites "cities" remains a matter of debate. When does a city actually deserve this designation? This is a larger matter better left to academics.
What is important is that Longshan sites have features typical of cities. Some are as large as 200-300 hectares in size (1 ha = 100x100m). They contain monumental architecture, surrounding walls, and plenty of evidence for class distinctions -- the rich and poor, the powerful and disenfranchised. They also appear to have been significant places on a regional scale with an important connection to their surrounding hinterland.
However, the archaeological investigation of these Longshan sites faces a number of problems which those at sites like Jiaohe do not have. The first is that there is almost no standing architecture. Remnants of houses, administrative buildings, or walls are all under ground. To extensively study these sites, decades would have to be spent under meticulous excavation. The second problem is that there is no written history dating to the Longshan period. As a result, answering fundamental questions about how cities developed, who lived in them, and under what circumstances the inhabitants lived is difficult (though not impossible) to ascertain. More specific questions are likewise unclear. How did people organize themselves in space? Were there distinct neighborhoods? What about crossroads and public spaces? What influenced the economy of the Longshan city and what were the sources of political power?
These are the kinds of questions I have been considering over the course of the last year. They are not as intractable as they may seem. Archaeologists face these problems all the time because the fact is that most ancient cities are both large in size and tend to be covered with dirt or modern settlement. The key is to put away hopes of doing an extensive study of such cities and focus on intensive methods. Precisely choosing where to dig, what to look for, and what special procedures to carry out in order to answer specific questions can take the place of extensive, all-encompassing methods. A properly designed research strategy can indeed provide the kind of information discussed above.
Perhaps with a little help from French supermarkets, migrant sandwich sellers, and the rest of modern-day Ji'nan we will ultimately be able to learn more about China's early urban roots and better understand the course that urban development in China has taken.
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Christopher Needs is a doctoral student in UCLA's archaeology program. His doctoral research concentrates on the sociocultural, political, and economic aspects of life in walled towns during the Neolithic Longshan era (c. 4600-4000 BP) in Shandong Province. He is spending 2003-04 in Shandong, on a Chinese Cultural Scholarship funded by the government of China. Five of these scholarships (available to both undergraduates and graduates) were offered nationwide in 2003-04. Three of the five were awarded to UCLA graduate students -- an outstanding achievement, it goes without saying. Supplemental funding for Needs' year in China has been provided by the Interdepartmental Program in Archaeology and the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies.
Satellite photo courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC