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China's civilisation is now older–by 1,200 years

The Straits Times, 11 November 2000

But doubts persist over the credibility of the government-backed project, which proclaims the emergence of Chinese kingdoms 4,000 years ago

BEIJING -- China's ancient civilisation has just got a little older -- officially at least.

A government-funded study has pushed back the dates of China's earliest dynasties, shedding light on the origins of Chinese civilisation and adding fuel to a controversy over the influence of politics on scholarship.

The fruit of the biggest research project that China has conducted into its early civilisation, the findings could be significant -- if they are accepted.

They document the emergence of early Chinese kingdoms from the prehistoric New Stone Age and edge China's verifiable history to more than 4,000 years ago -- a 1,200-year jump.

It is well known that Chinese civilisation has 5,000 years of uninterrupted history, a truism proudly repeated by schoolchildren and President Jiang Zemin alike.

But as most serious scholars have long conceded, hard proof of the first 2,000 years is missing.

The results solve a batch of knotty questions long left uncertain in our country's historical chronology and fill in the blank spaces in our country's ancient annals, project director Li Xueqin said.

But the project's origins immediately raised questions about its likely findings among scholars in China and abroad -- even before the research began.

Dubbed the history project, the study was commissioned in 1995 by Cabinet member Song Jian, a physicist by training.

The government made it a priority in its five-year plan that ends this year.

The project's stated mission was to fix dates for three dynasties: the half-documented Zhou, the shadowy Shang and the myth-shrouded Xia.

But critics said Mr Song pressured the researchers to prove that China has a 5,000-year history to equal claims made by other ancient civilisations.

There are factors of national prestige involved, said Mr David Nivison, a retired Stanford University scholar who has made dating China's early dynasties a 30-year preoccupation.

Establishing the Xia as history, not legend, gives China a validated, authenticated history that rivals Babylonia or Egypt, he said.

Still, I think they're all wrong. --AP