Biological sex and gender studies in ancient China part 1

May 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Today, the definition of a man and a woman lies chiefly in biological sex. That is to say, reproductive organs form the basis for identifying a person as male or as female. And, in today’s society this difference is fundamental.

Since the 1970’s, some scholars have divided sex and gender into two categories.  Second wave feminists emphasised the distinction between sex and gender. The social sciences have been dominated by this perception, termed social constructionist. In this vein, gender is understood to be learned from behaviour resulting from historically specific processes of socialisation. This position developed from the views of early feminists, such as Simone de Beauviour.  Sex was taken as fundamentally biological, with particular reference to reproductive capacities and external genitalia, while gender was introduced to refer to and emphasize a social or cultural construction.

Howevr,  Foucault (1978), in The History of Sexuality volume I, argued that our understanding of sex is shaped by our discourse on it. Because notions of sex are always situated within a discourse, there can never be a fixed and absolute notion of sex. The focus on defining sex through reproductive capabilities, for instance, is ultimately a modern Western one. Foucault argues that the body of women became sexualized in the nineteenth-century because of its role as a child bearer. Thus, being female was defined through this bodily function. Following on from Foucault, Thomas Laqueur (1990) has tracked perceptions of the body from antiquity to Freud revealing the significance of eighteenth-century thought in shaping modern categories of sex and gender. He argues that sexual difference between men and women was not voiced clearly until the end of the eighteenth century, when such distinctions between critical to feminist and anti-feminist debates over women in education and public life. In the classical and medieval worlds of Europe, for instance, a one-sex model had prevailed, in which men and women were perceived as more or less the same sex (Gilchrist 1999: 55). This view originated from Aristotle (322 BC) and Galen (199 AD). Galen believed that women were cooler than men and therefore a less perfect version. As Lacqueur points out, from Galen to the Enlightenment, it was believed that males and females actually shared the same reproductive organs, with males carrying his outside and female containing hers inside. In order to explain reproduction, Galen suggested that females lacked heat to extrude the organs of reproduction, and, therefore, the situation provided a safe place for gestation. Lacqueur concludes that the classical and medieval metaphysics of hierarchy in the representation of women in relation to men was replaced in the Enlightenment by an understanding based on anatomy. Lacqueur charts an understanding from changeable, more of less perfect bodies, to fixed and different bodies.

So, if this definition is a modern western phenomenon, then it highly unlikely that ancient societies characterised men and women through reproductive organs alone.

Moreover,  the historical evidence suggests that this sex/gender division within the Western social sciences is inapplicable in a Chinese context. According to the pioneering study of gender in ancient China (from 400 BC onwards and based on textual evidence only) undertaken by Rosenlee, the discourse on gender where the category of “woman” is seen as biological and social is a very recent phenomenon in modern China, since in traditional philosophical writings, the discourse concerning women centered on the propriety of social relations embodied in familial roles. Clearly, we need to radically rethink how we might conceptualise gender in ancient China.

So what does all this mean for gender studies within the archaeology of China? Well, many studies of gender within the field take biological sex as the starting point for any analysis. These archaeologists then immediately start discussing male and females as two binary oppositions linked to biological sex (as in today’s society) and only conceive of two genders. So, we see statements such as “men were buried with X and women were buried with Y”. However, very little consideration is given to the idea of how a person might have been gendered (and gendered through material culture) and the idea of multiple gender identities. And, the idea of two genders immediately presupposes gender was defined through biological sex and that grave goods were interred in tombs based on this definition. Thus, the Shang and Zhou (the peoples of the Neolithic) may have buried a male with a selection of gender specific grave goods because they defined and categorised that person through his reproductive capabilities.

In part 2 of this post, I will propose a different way of thinking about gender identities utilising a selection of graves from various Zhou cemeteries.

DNA evidence of ethnic diversity in China

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

The recent findings that some villagers who live in north-western China contain 56% of DNA which is Caucasian in origin, bolsters the idea that ancient China was a mishmash of diverse peoples. This cultural diversity remains today. Simply travelling to Urumqi, for instance, one can observe peoples of very different cultural habits than those in central China. The archaeological evidence for these remote parts of  China is also strikingly different to that of other parts of China. More and more, archaeologists are revealing the extreme diversity of the peoples of ancient China.

However, while ethnic diversity seems important to us today, we need to contemplate the importance of this aspect of social identity for those in the past. Within Shang and Zhou archaeology for instance it is increasingly common to speculate on the ethnic identity of the tomb occupant based on certain types of burials goods. This idea presupposes that ethnic identity needed to be reified materially at burial and that certain objects stood as markers of an ethnic identity. The case of tomb M54 at Anyang (discussed in a previous post) shows the problems with such simplistic archaeological interpretations.

In short, sure we might get excited about this diversity in modern-day China, but we cannot assume that ancient peoples also shared this excitement or even thought about ethnic identity in the same way that we do.


Inscriptions, bronze objects and funerary implications

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Much has been written on the inscriptions commonly found on bronze vessels and other bronze weapons at Anyang. The process of inscribing bronze ritual vessels and bronze weapons with clan insignia or titles (Fu 妇- consort; Ya 亚- a military position) appears to be unique to Anyang. Such inscriptions have not been found on vessels of the Erlitou and Erligang – the pre-Anyang periods of the Bronze Age. Thus, at Anyang, we see a new development with regards to writing and inscribing bronze objects.

Due to the position of the inscription on the bronze vessels, such as under the base or inside the rim, scholars have suggested that they were meant to be read by the ancestors and not necessarily by people who attended a ritual banquet for the ancestors. Jessica Rawson of Oxford University has posited that since the vessels were filled with food and drink, perhaps the ancestors were meant to read the inscriptions as they consumed the contents at a ritual banquet.

Moreover, scholars also surmise that the owner of the ritual vessels inscribed the pieces with his or her name or clan while he or she was alive. At the time of his or her funeral, vessels were then culled selectively from an altar and placed in the owner’s tomb.

However, Robert Bagley has proposed a different scenario, and one which has quite different implications for Shang funerals and the role of bronze ritual vessels and other bronze weapons.

Bagley, in his article on writing at Anyang, argues that there is little evidence to suggest that these vessels were used above ground. Unlike in the proceeding Zhou period where hoards of vessels have been recovered near the palace-temple area of the Zhouyuan, suggesting that such pieces rested on altars in temples, in the Late Shang at Anyang, no such comparable hoards have been unearthed.

Furthermore, if vessels were only used within a funerary setting, and were then buried with an individual, then it would follow that the individual to whom these vessels belonged (I use this term loosely as we should not envisage modern, capitalist notions of ownership in Bronze Age China) most probably did not cast them himself. Instead, we might be looking a scenario whereby a family cast a set of vessels for the deceased, dedicating them to him or her, and then buried them at the funeral.

The other possibility is that individuals cast vessels prior to their death and then perhaps stored them away, but this seems quite unlikely in reality.

The implication that bronze vessels were only used within funerary settings places enormous emphasis on funerals within the Late Shang period. An importance which we might have underestimated. Large amounts of resources and time would have been invested into objects which were then never seen again. The vessels would have had to have been molded, cast and decorated. Moreover, if ritual vessels categorised individuals and expressed identity, then a new identity would have been created at the funeral for the tomb occupant and perhaps for his or her family. These pieces then perhaps helped fix a particular image within the minds of the onlookers, and the funeral would have a pertinent occasion for creating identities.

Within Shang studies, the funeral is often treated as some fossilised indicator of social status and a passive reflection of the personal attributes of the deceased. As Bagley has also pointed out, funerals were prime settings for ancestral worship and veneration. Alongside this ancestral worship, a funeral might also have been about making some last comments on the tomb occupant and his or family. If the Shang believed that the deceased would use these vessels in the afterlife, then presumably the family would send him or her off with a fitting set of bronze vessels. Therefore, funerals may have been active arenas and were possibly competitive displays of power, and theatres for the (re)creation of identities.

Heidegger and Judith Butler: theoretical approaches adopted in my thesis

April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

To interpret the possible mechanism by which identity was (re)produced and (re)experienced within Chinese Bronze Age burials, I have used Judith Butler’s idea of performance and Heidegger’s Being-in-the-World in my thesis.

Below are two diagrams which summarise both of these theoretical positions. These two diagrams appear in my thesis.

The diagrams were very kindly drawn by Johann Loh.

The problem of determining ethnicity part 2: Fu Hao 妇好 and the Jin 晋 consorts at Beizhao

April 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

The case of male tomb M54 is unusual because most tomb occupants who are thought to be of different ethnic origins to the Shang and Zhou are female.  The assumption is that the Shang and Zhou elites married these females to consolidate power or to build ties with neighboring states or groups. As with tomb M54, the theoretical position of scholars who maintain that a female might be foreign rests on the presence of foreign objects inside the grave, and that these objects denoted the tomb occupant’s ethnicity.

In the Late Shang, royal consort Fu Hao (whose tomb was excavated in the late 1970’s) is commonly regarded as an outsider, as the tomb contained a number of foreign objects such as bronze mirrors, knives, bow-shaped objects and horse fittings (two bridles).

In the Zhou, several of the consorts to the Jin state lineage heads are also thought to have been from the Northern Zone. Tomb M113 (at the site of Beizhao) contained two bronze vessels which appear to have been modelled after ceramic pottery types found in the north.

1992_05_19.jpg (540×447)

A few of the Jin consort tombs also contained ornate and very unusual miniature bronze boxes (about 10cm long and 6cm high).

The exact function of these small bronze pieces is unknown (one idea is that they served as jewelery containers – in reality this seem unlikely). The argument runs that these unusual pieces were made for females who originated from outside of the Zhou realm.

However, while no male tomb contained similar bronze boxes, a few graves did yield gold belt fittings which almost certainly were foreign in origin and which a few archaeologists trace back to fashions in the Middle East. Moreover, these tombs also contained vessels in realistic animal form – a style which Rawson (2010) and Jacobsen see as originating in the north.

1992_05_28.jpg (414×560)

Thus, male tombs contained exotica of their own. When such pieces occur in male tombs, they are seen as evidence of the control of exotica to maintain power and status through difference. By contrast, when exotic objects occur in female tombs, they are seen seen as denoting the tomb occupant’s ethnic identity.

Some points on which to reflect:

1. The case of tomb M54 at Anyang shows that the simple correlation between foreign objects and ethnicity in burials is problematic. Can we continue to maintain this theoretical proposition?

2. How many foreign objects make a tomb occupant foreign? Is one object enough?

3. Why would mourners want to deposit objects to denote ethnic identity? Was ethnicity a salient part of one’s identity?

4. Is the different interpretation for the presence of these objects in male and female tombs due to modern preconceived gender bias notions – men were powerful and women were nothing more than objects to be traded and exchanged and lacked any identity of their own?

Gender differences between Europe and China

April 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

The recent (media-sensationalised) story of a male who was buried in a way usually reserved for females got me thinking about some of the stark gender differences between this burial, and by extension those of the Corded Ware culture of Europe, and those of Bronze Age China (the Shang and Zhou – roughly between 1600-500 BC).


According to the Daily Telegraph:

The male body – said to date back to between 2900-2500BC – was discovered buried in a way normally reserved only for women of the Corded Ware culture in the Copper Age.

The skeleton was found in a Prague suburb in the Czech Republiwith its head pointing eastwards and surrounded by domestic jugs, rituals only previously seen in female graves.

“From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral ritesvery seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake,” said lead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova.

“Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual,” she added.

According to Corded Ware culture which began in the late Stone Age and culminated in the Bronze Age, men were traditionally buried lying on their right side with their heads pointing towards the west, and women on their left sides with their heads pointing towards the east. Both sexes would be put into a crouching position.

The men would be buried alongside weapons, hammers and flint knives as well as several portions of food and drink to accompany them to the other side.

Women would be buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, copper earrings, as well as jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.

A post by Rosemary Joyce ( discusses some of the problems with the terminology banded around by the media and the interpretations of the burial as reported in the media.

What is of interest to me is the seemingly strict gender distinctions in Europe at this time relating to the positioning of the body in the tomb and the array of grave goods buried with the deceased. Due to these strict burial traditions and the way in which the distinctions were rigidly upheld, any discrepancy in the  manner of the burial is immediately noticeable, and leads to various interpretations (third-sex, etc). I suppose that one would call these burial traditions highly gendered, with gender acting as a fundamental structuring principle at burial.

By contrast, in Bronze Age Chinese burials – by this I mean those the Shang and Zhou Dynasties of the Central Plains in Henan/Shaanxi – gender seems to have been a much less important structuring principle than in European burials.

Perhaps the biggest gender difference between China and Europe was the position of the body and the left:right dichotomy. Both males and females in the Shang and Zhou periods were interred in a supine position. The bodies might point north or south and the head might face east or west. In short, there are no observable and rigid differences between the positioning of the body in male and in female tombs.

Another big difference between prehistoric Europe and China was the way in which weapons and ornaments were interred in male and female graves. In the Zhou, bronze weapons are only found in male tombs. However, both males and females were interred with a selection of jade, stone and bone ornaments. At the Yu site of Baoji, both men and women were buried with bronze hairpins and combs, and sets of beads that were placed on the body of the deceased. Thus, the same ornament types were placed in both male and female tombs.

Moreover, it appears (correct me if I am wrong) that females in Europe were deposited with a selection of ornaments that relate very specifically to female tombs (earrings, etc). In the Shang and Zhou, there are no discernible object types that relate specifically to female burials. And, objects found in females burials (bronze vessels, chariot fittings) also occur in male burials.

So what gender differences are observable in Shang and Zhou burials? In the Zhou, bronze weapons, bronze tools (chisel, adze, spade) and bronze bells are found only in a few male burials. The objects do not always occur together in a tomb, but when one of more of these object types are found in a Zhou burial, the tomb occupant is always a male (ascertained through skeletal testing).

At the same time, a large proportion of male burials in the Zhou did not contain weapons, tools or bells. Even though most Zhou cemeteries have only been partially excavated, it is clear that aside from the few male burials with bronze weapons, tools and bells, most male and female burials are remarkably similar in structure and layout. These male and female burial yielded primarily a selection of bronze vessels and bronze chariot and horse fittings.

Gender, therefore, seems to have been much less of a structuring principle in Zhou tombs than in Corded Ware culture tombs. Gender differences in the Zhou are observable and indeed pronounced at burial, manifested through three categories of bronze object types. But, these objects are confined to a small group of elite male tombs, and are not always found together within a burial deposit. There does seem to be some relationship between the expression of gender at burial and the social position of the tomb occupant (a member of the elite). In other words, at burial,  gender seems to have been marked out in a few elite burials.

With this data in mind, I keep thinking about the the validity of the application of biological sex (reproductive capabilities) as the starting point for gender analysis in Bronze Age Chinese studies. The result of such a (modern) application is that material culture becomes linked to biological sex – a man is buried with a weapon because he has a penis, which categorised his as a man, and not because the status of warriorhood created the notion of a what is was to be a man.

The problem of determining ethnicity: the case of Shang tomb M54 at Anyang

April 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I came across a very surprising YouTube video which problematises some of the assumptions and theoretical notions floating around in Chinese Bronze Age studies at the moment.

Recently, questions about the extent to which a tomb occupant’s ethnic identity might be ascertained from the archaeological record, or more specifically ascertained from burial goods, have become popular within studies of the Chinese Bronze Age. As more detailed evidence comes to light of possible interactions between the Late Shang Dynasty, who resided at Anyang (Henan Province) from roughly 1250 to 1045 BC, and the nomadic peoples to the north (occupying modern-day areas of Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Liaoning, southern Mongolia) – and the influences of these mobile peoples on the Shang and their material culture – so scholars have begun to speculate about the possible ethnic identity of individuals who were interred with objects seemingly influenced from the northern zone. The theoretical proposition is that foreign objects denoted the ethnicity of the deceased.

The location of the Late Shang site of Anyang, Henan Province

Northern Zone sites

The case of tomb M54 at Anyang provides us with a fascinating example of both the pitfalls and the potential of such studies.

Generally, the chariot, chariot and horse riding paraphernalia, bronze knives with animal-pommels and ring-pommels, socketed weapons (as opposed to hafted weapons), jingles and rattles, bronze mirrors, and realistic animal forms, all of which appear at Anyang, are regarded as northern or foreign objects or motifs, which were appropriated and adopted by the Late Shang elites.

Bronze animal-headed knives from Anyang

Bow-shaped object (possibly a reins holder)

a – Animal-headed knife

b – Bronze mirrors

c – Bow-shaped object

These bronze objects were sometimes deposited in rich tombs which are usually interpreted as housing members of the Shang elite. The assumption that these tomb occupants who were buried with such bronze objects might have been of northern descent is based tenuously on the direct correlation between the ethnicity of the deceased and the objects placed in his or her tomb. In short, a person buried buried with northern objects was a northerner. 

Tomb M54 at Anyang appears to turn these assumptions and theoretical propositions on their heads.

The grave was published in 2001 and is one of the most lavish tombs to be excavated in recent years, stirring much excitement in Chinese archaeological circles.


Below is a selection of the fabulous bronze ritual vessels (used for offering food and drink to the ancestors) and weapons found in tomb M54:


The ritual vessels and some of the weapons were inscribed with the title Ya Chang – possibly the name of the tomb occupant.

Alongside the vast quantities of bronze weaponry and other bronze objects such as bells and tools, the tomb also contained six bow-shaped objects.

One of the bow-shaped objects (pictured above) carried terminals in the form of realistic animal heads and mosaic or inlay decoration on the main body. The tomb also contained animal-headed knives, similar to those pictured above.

Moreover, it is also likely that the coffin was decorated in gold leaf. Gold was a feature of the northern peoples and is rarely found in Bronze Age China. (When gold is found in Shang or Zhou tombs, it is taken as exotica.)

Thus, based on the presence of gold leaf decoration, six bow-shaped objects and various animal-headed knives in tomb M54, and taking the theoretical proposition that individuals buried with foreign or exotic objects might be outsiders in origin, one might reasonably conclude that the tomb occupant of M54 was a northerner.

Now watch the documentary (part 5 of 7) on YouTube (ignore the title “warrior queen” and other dramatizations) which discusses the occupant of tomb M54 and the tests carried out on the skeletal remains from the grave:


The results suggest that the tomb occupant (Ya Chang) did not come from Anyang! However, he did not come from the north either. In fact, Ya Chang appears to have been a southerner – possibly from the Xinyang region – 400km south of Anyang.

Therefore, while Ya Chang was an outsider, he did not originate from where the exotica might lead us to believe. In short, the tomb occupant was a southerner interred with a few northern objects. The assumed one-to-one correlation between foreign objects in a tomb and the ethnic origins of the tomb occupant is, in this case, not accurate. And, I believe that this rupture now means that we are on very shaky ground in following such a line of reasoning.

At the same time, tomb 54, the presence of Northern Zone objects at Anyang and the fact that chariots and horses would have initially required trained people such as ostlers and chariot repairmen – all of whom were possibly northerners who resided at Anyang – suggests that the Shang site was composed of peoples from across present-day China. Indeed, one would not expect Anyang to have been homogeneous in its population.

However, using burial goods to determine the origins of tomb occupants is problematic as tomb M54 shows.

The wider implication of this study is other graves where the tomb occupants have been interpreted as foreigners through this type of reasoning need careful reconsideration. I will discuss some of these tombs in later posts.

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