Chinese Archaeology Goes Abroad


From the mountains of Central Asia to the jungles of Mesoamerica, Chinese archaeologists are now conducting fieldwork around the world. China’s increasing involvement in world archaeology is a positive development for both heritage management and archaeological research. However, this new trend of joint Sino-foreign archaeological fieldwork is also situated within a larger political context. In this article, we examine how Chinese archaeological missions abroad help China achieve its geostrategic objectives. We present two case studies, one along the Swahili Coast in Kenya and another along the ancient Silk Road in Uzbekistan, to support our argument that Chinese involvement in archaeological projects in foreign countries often neatly dovetails with China’s foreign policy initiatives, which aim to build stronger economic and cultural ties with countries that host expanding Chinese markets. In sum, Chinese archaeology’s rapid internationalization is oriented towards growing China’s soft power and will likely play an even larger role in shaping global archaeological practice in the future.


Des montagnes de l’Asie centrale aux jungles de la Méso-Amérique, les archéologues chinois conduisent actuellement des travaux de terrain à travers le monde. L’implication croissante de la Chine dans l’archéologie mondiale est un développement positif tant pour la gestion du patrimoine que pour la recherche archéologique. Cependant, cette tendance nouvelle des travaux archéologiques sino-étrangers de terrain s’inscrit également dans un contexte politique plus vaste. Nous examinons dans cet article comment les missions archéologiques chinoises à l’étranger ont permis à la Chine d’atteindre ses objectifs géostratégiques. Nous présentons deux études de cas, l’un le long de la Côte Swahili au Kenya et l’autre le long de l’ancienne Route de la Soie en Ouzbékistan, à l’appui de notre argument que la participation chinoise à des projets archéologiques dans des pays étrangers s’aligne bien souvent parfaitement sur les initiatives de la Chine en matière de politique étrangère, visant à tisser des liens économiques et culturels plus étroits avec les pays accueillant les marchés chinois en pleine expansion. En bref, l’internationalisation rapide de l’archéologie chinoise est axée sur la croissance du soft power de la Chine et devrait probablement jouer un rôle encore accru pour façonner la pratique mondiale de l’archéologie à l’avenir.


Desde las montañas de Asia Central hasta las selvas de Mesoamérica, los arqueólogos chinos ahora realizan trabajos de campo en todo el mundo. La creciente participación de China en la arqueología mundial es un desarrollo positivo tanto para la gestión del patrimonio como para la investigación arqueológica. Sin embargo, esta nueva tendencia de trabajo de campo arqueológico conjunto sino-extranjero también se sitúa dentro de un contexto político más amplio. En este artículo, examinamos cómo las misiones arqueológicas chinas en el extranjero ayudan a China a alcanzar sus objetivos geoestratégicos. Presentamos dos estudios de caso, uno a lo largo de la costa Swahili en Kenia y otro a lo largo de la antigua Ruta de la Seda en Uzbekistán, para respaldar nuestro argumento de que la participación china en proyectos arqueológicos en los países extranjeros a menudo encaja perfectamente con las iniciativas de política exterior de China, cuyo objetivo es construir más fuertes lazos económicos y culturales con países que albergan mercados chinos en expansión. En resumen, la rápida internacionalización de la arqueología china está orientada al crecimiento del poder blando de China y probablemente desempeñará un papel aún más importante en la configuración de la práctica arqueológica global en el futuro.

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Source: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Central Asian Archaeology Research Unit

Figure 4

Source: Yu Ding


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The authors are grateful to the 65th China Postdoctoral Science Foundation Grant (2019M651399) and the National Social Science Foundation of China (19CKG019) for financial support. We are also thankful to several anonymous reviewers whose commentary has helped improved the quality of this manuscript.

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Storozum, M.J., Li, Y. Chinese Archaeology Goes Abroad. Arch (2020).

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Key Words

  • Chinese archaeology
  • Nationalism
  • Soft power
  • Belt and Road Initiative
  • Cultural diplomacy