One of the most exciting approaches in the contemporary study of China is emerging from work that brings together archaeological and historical modes of reading texts and material objects to tell a story about the past. In Ancient Central China: Centers and Peripheries Along the Yangzi River (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Rowan K. Flad and Pochan Chen draw from extensive archaeological fieldwork, supplemented by careful analysis of textual accounts of early China and a thoughtful rendering of the historiography of Chinese archaeology, to trace some major transformations in Central China from the late third millennium BC through the late first millennium BC. By reading the remains of walls, oracle bones, tiger teeth, burial chambers, sacrificial pits, ceramics, saline traces, weapons, figurines, and other objects, Flad and Chen reframe how we think about the spaces of history.
In the late prehistorical and early historical period, two political cores developed in Central China: the Sichuan Basin and the Middle Yangzi. At the same time peripheral regions between and around them were both developing their own trajectories and were becoming central in their own right, with the Three Gorges region as a paramount example. Arguing that a focus on "political centers" and "archaeological cultures" has dominated the way we think about the history and prehistory of China, Ancient Central China offers a different way to map Chinese history by reading environmental, historiographical, economic, ritual, and material landscapes of these three regions as part of a coherent story. The analysis potentially has wide-ranging implications for how we understand other regions and eras of East Asian history, and how we conceptualize and study the topographies of the past. Flad was kind enough to talk with me about the book, and I hope you enjoy!