History and Memory of Modern Science in China: The Discovery of the Peking Man

Mar 9 12:00–1:30pm
Common Room, 2 Divinity Ave., Cambridge

Tai Li-Chuan (Associate Research Fellow, Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica; HYI Visiting Scholar)
Chair/discussant: Sigrid Schmalzer (Associate Professor, Department of History, UMass-Amherst)

Co-sponsored with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

The discovery of the Peking Man was one of the most important events for prehistoric archeology in the first half of twentieth-century China. It resulted from transnational teamwork that involved scientists of seven nationalities and was at that time considered to be the most successful Sino-foreign scientific enterprise. Based on archival research conducted on three continents, this presentation will highlight the three decisive factors that led to the success of the project: collective intelligence, generous finances, and institutional cooperation. All these aspects reflect the transnational characteristic of this scientific enterprise, which contributed to its dynamism, but also its vulnerability, when the conditions made to support it no longer existed.

Wars and political regime change marked the end of the most intense excavations and studies related to this discovery. Various memories about it have appeared in China since the 1950s. Three principal types of memories will be analyzed: (1) the commemorations of an event stressing the Chinese contributions to the discovery, (2) the promotion of the Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian, and (3) the narratives about the discovery as told by survivors.

Through this talk, the speaker will argue that history and memory are not necessarily contradictory; both are possible modes of referring to past events. In the case of the discovery of the Peking Man, however, despite the abundance of popular stories about it, historical study based on archival research is still waiting to be completed.