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ODU Art and Archaeology Researcher Featured in Science Magazine Article About Origins of Chinese Civilization

Elizabeth Childs-Johnson

Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, an Old Dominion University researcher who is an expert on ancient Chinese jade objects and early Chinese art and archaeology, is a primary source for the feature article "Beyond the Yellow River: How China Became China" in the Aug. 21 issue of Science magazine.

Childs-Johnson, an archaeologist and art historian, as well as an associate research professor in the ODU art department and an affiliate of the university's Institute of Asian studies, explains in the article the significance of finely carved jade artifacts-some more than 5,000 years old-that have been unearthed in regions of China not traditionally credited with being seats of Chinese civilization.

The article in Science, written by Andrew Lawler, lays out evidence to challenge the longstanding belief of archaeologists and historians that Chinese civilization was born and centered in the northern Yellow River valley more than 5,000 years ago.

In several regions, north and south of the Yellow River plains, archaeologists are turning up ruins and objects that indicate sophisticated cultures were present long before the Xia and Shang dynasties (ca. 2100-1100 B.C.E.). Furthermore, certain materials and symbols that came to be associated with the Shang and traditional Chinese culture, such as images of dragons and feng (phoenixes) in jade, have been found in numerous excavated sites that predate the Xia and Shang.

Jade helps establish the origins of China in several ways, Childs-Johnson is quoted as saying in the article, perhaps the most important being that recent discoveries of jade objects from three major cultures along coastal China make a case for the existence of an elite class among the pre-Shang cultures. This elite class defines what Childs-Johnson calls a Jade Age, which precedes China's Bronze Age, and is singularly Chinese in its relationship with jade.

"Jade is like gold in the West," Childs-Johnson is quoted as saying. "It is a major symbol of power" in China from the Neolithic to the modern era. She points out that the stone is extremely hard to work, requiring labor-intensive abrasion to create finely formed and decorated images. She argues that like precious metals such as gold in the West, the use of jade as a symbol of both political and religious power in China was a major stimulus for the social evolution of China's early ruling elite.

The ODU researcher comments directly on discoveries in burial sites northeast of Beijing of jade objects more than 5,000 years old. One grave contained 20 pieces of carefully carved jade beads, disks, bracelets, hair tubes and a plaque. The discoveries demonstrate a "level of cultural sophistication that is not duplicated elsewhere at this time in early China," Childs-Johnson is quoted as saying.

"This vein of my research is cutting-edge, and I am very pleased with Andrew Lawler's article in Science," Childs-Johnson said in an interview. "This is a very exciting time for archaeology in China. The country has only been open to Sinologists outside China since 1980 and it's been a long, hard road."

She said one of her major goals is to boost the awareness in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States of Chinese and other traditional Eastern art and archaeological discoveries.

Childs-Johnson, who received her Ph.D. from New York University's Institute of Fine Art in 1984 and joined ODU in 2006, has been senior editor since 2003 of Chinese Archaeological Digests published by the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing.

She is a recipient of an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship (2003) and a National Gallery of Art, J. Paul Getty Trust Paired Research Fellowship (2004) which enabled completion of several studies, including "The Jade Age: Early Chinese Jades in American Museums" that will be published in English and Chinese by Science Press this fall.

"The book is a real coup and the timing couldn't be better," given the trends in research as pointed out by the article in Science magazine, she said. "Science Press is a leading art and archaeology publisher in China, and the book is bilingual, in English as well as Chinese." She said she is planning to go to Beijing in September to check proof pages before the book goes to press.

The researcher's expertise crosses four fields, including Jade Age China, Shang religion and art, cultural heritage and law in modern China, and Three Gorges archaeology (Sichuan). She stimulated interest in Three Gorges archaeology and art by producing, with a young filmmaker, a documentary called "Great Wall Across the Yangtze" in 2000 which aired on PBS and won the Berkeley award for best documentary that year.

Childs-Johnson identified her most significant work as the study of early Chinese belief, identifying the function of ritual bronze vessels of the Shang period through an analysis of oracle bone inscriptions, archaeological and art historical data, followed by the identification of the meaning of Shang imagery and belief. Her book published in 2007, "The Meaning of the Graph Yi and its Implications for Shang Belief and Art," has won acclaim among colleagues and China watchers.

She was senior consultant for the U.S. State Department's Center for Cultural Heritage in 2004 when the Chinese government requested help from the United States in protecting that country's cultural heritage.

This article was posted on: August 25, 2009

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