Archaeology of the Confucian Landscape


Archaeology of the Confucian Landscape: A Multidisciplinary Research Project at Qufu

The multidisciplinary research project, “Archaeology of the Confucian Landscape,” investigates reconfigurations of the landscape around the city of Qufu, during a period of significant social change in the early first millennium BC. This project focuses on the archaeological evidence for the configuration of ancient field-system, social life, and cultural interactions in the context of a major episode of urban development and land reform in early China.

The Zhou conquest of the Shang in the last decades of the second millennium BC did not merely mark a dynastic transition. Rather, the change gave rise to a new set of political and ritual institutions that provided the conceptual framework for the emergent Chinese civilization. The texts from this period, both transmitted and newly excavated, provide some of the first coherent articulations of political philosophy in early China, which introduced a social structure centered on rank and kinship. Zhou elite lineages were bestowed with people and land on which they established walled centers as their seats of political authority across the Zhou realm.

The Zhou rulers also implemented a new field system, through which the state and private lands were closely interwoven in the form of evenly divided square lots. It is not clear to what extent the new field systems were implemented across the Zhou territory; however, it is reasonable to assume that the implementation was more thorough around the major Zhou centers than in remote frontier regions. Therefore, the political transition from Shang to Zhou resulted in major landscape transformations in core regions of Zhou political power, but less so at the fringes.

The Lu city at Qufu in the Wensi River Valley was the capital of the state of Lu, established at the turn of the first millennium BC by the lineage of the Duke of Zhou, the dynastic founder and architect of the Zhou political system. The place remained a major center of the Zhou realm and the later Han Empire. Confucius (ca 551-479 BC), a renowned resident of the Lu city, promoted the Duke of Zhou’s political ideals as an educator, statesman, and philosopher, which left a profound influence on the local society for the centuries to come. Many aspects of this cultural landscape were known to Confucius, as seen in the frequent references to the landmarks and monuments around the Lu city in the Analects, which formed the backdrop for his activities as a local politician and philosopher. The deeply layered cultural history of this place makes Qufu an ideal choice for our project on landscape archaeology.

Archaeologically, the Lu city at Qufu remains one of the best-preserved Bronze Age city sites in China. Its rammed-earth wall and city moat enclosed an area of approximately 10 km2; many sections survived to the present day. It is also one of the most thoroughly studied cities of early China. After some preliminary research in the early 20th century, in 1977-1978 archaeologists from Shandong led by director Zhang Xuehai systematically probed the area within the city wall, revealing extensive remains of palatial structures, administrative remains, craft production areas, and urban residences. Excavations of Bronze Age cemeteries within the city further provide evidence for two distinctive assemblages of material culture, revealing a colonial dynamics between the incoming Zhou lineages and the local population conquered by the Zhou. The marked differentiation in wealth and status within both groups and their co-existence within the city indicate complex cultural dynamics, and social distinctions were not necessarily delineated along cultural or ethnic boundaries.

Our research builds on this pioneering work and develops it in several directions. First, our survey and geomorphological research expand beyond the walled urban areas to investigate the changes in site distribution and patterns of field system in the landscape surrounding the city. Second, we approach the archaeological landscape as a palimpsest, continuously transformed over the historical period. The scope of the research, therefore, is not confined to the Zhou and early imperial period, when the city was built and flourishing. Instead, the prehistory of the city, the aftermath of its decline, and the emergence of the place as a ritual center are integral parts of our landscape research.

The study is guided by the following questions: What are the characteristics of the local society before the Zhou conquest and the founding of the Lu city? If there was a major Shang political center before the Zhou conquest, as indicated in texts from the Bronze Age, where are its archaeological remains? If the city was established anew after the Zhou conquest, as the current archaeological evidence suggests, how did the new city and the new field system of the Zhou state transform the rural landscape? What is the distribution pattern of archaeological sites around the city? After the decline of the city, how were the ruins transformed into part of the landscape of remembrance in imperial China?

We explore these questions by combining spatial analysis of remote sensing data and field survey of archaeological remains. We analyze satellite images of the region to identify visual signatures and spatial patterns based on observations from known archaeological features in the city. We then use these visual signatures to identify landscape features and potential settlement sites outside of the city as potential locations for exploratory survey and probing. We also make field observation within the walled city, where previous research was conducted, to assess the correlation between surface scatters of archeological remains and subsurface deposits, as well as evaluate the rate of site lose over the last three decades.

For the last three seasons, our research efforts have focused on three areas, the southern suburb of the Bronze Age city, where the ancient farmlands were located between the city and the Yi River, the Song city in the east suburb, where the city was located from the 11th to the 15th century, and the southern hills, where the early imperial necropolis was located. The fieldwork was conducted with archaeologists from the Shandong University and the Shandong Provincial Institute of Archaeology, with participation from archaeologists from UCLA, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Arkansas, as well as students from many domestic and international universities. The research effort is a race against time and destruction. While the area within the Bronze Age city walls is under national level protection, recent satellite images reveal that urban expansion has consumed half of the protected area, which doubled in three decades. The rural landscape surrounding the Bronze Age city is not protected by any heritage laws and is targeted for major urban expansion from the modern Qufu city.

Multiple seasons of fieldwork have provided promising results. The geomorphological research of the ancient field system revealed the nature and extent of landscape transformation in the first millennium BC, where the buried irrigation canals and field features along the Yi River were investigated and dated. The intensive survey of the Song Xianyuan city provided a high-resolution density distribution of ceramics and architectural features associated with the Song city and Song royal ancestral temple. The Jiulongshan reconnaissance mapped extensive distribution of landscape features and stone quarries spanning from the 4th millennium BC to the early imperial period. Together, the investigation of these selected target areas shows the dynamic changes of the historical landscape around the famed city.

The proposed research is an important step towards a long-term project of historical anthropology incorporating archaeology and cultural history to study the local worlds at Qufu. The archaeological investigation will reveal the impact of a major episode of social change and urban formation on the Chinese political landscape during the first millennium BC. Our research will make a significant contribution to the archaeological research on ancient urban development, as well as preserving a permanent record of a vanishing historical landscape critical to the world heritage.

Min Li
Assistant Professor
Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and
Department of Anthropology
University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)

Image: Corona satellite image of the Bronze Age city site of Lu in 1976. The irregularly shaped city wall and moat enclosed two-thirds of the image. The densely populated quarter at the lower left is enclosed by the sixteenth-century city wall and the black rectangular feature within it is the Confucian temple complex (Image Source: USGS).


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