On a cool Sunday evening in March, a geochemist named Sun Weidong gave a public lecture to an audience of laymen, students, and professors at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, the capital city of the landlocked province of Anhui in eastern China. But the professor didn’t just talk about geochemistry. He also cited several ancient Chinese classics, at one point quoting historian Sima Qian’s description of the topography of the Xia empire — traditionally regarded as China’s founding dynasty, dating from 2070 to 1600 B.C. “Northwards the stream is divided and becomes the nine rivers,” wrote Sima Qian in his first century historiography, the Records of the Grand Historian. “Reunited, it forms the opposing river and flows into the sea.”
In other words, “the stream” in question wasn’t China’s famed Yellow River, which flows from west to east. “There is only one major river in the world which flows northwards. Which one is it?” the professor asked. “The Nile,” someone replied. Sun then showed a map of the famed Egyptian river and its delta — with nine of its distributaries flowing into the Mediterranean. This author, a researcher at the same institute, watched as audience members broke into smiles and murmurs, intrigued that these ancient Chinese texts seemed to better agree with the geography of Egypt than that of China.
In the past year, Sun, a highly decorated scientist, has ignited a passionate online debate with claims that the founders of Chinese civilization were not in any sense Chinese but actually migrants from Egypt. He conceived of this connection in the 1990s while performing radiometric dating of ancient Chinese bronzes; to his surprise, their chemical composition more closely resembled those of ancient Egyptian bronzes than native Chinese ores. Both Sun’s ideas and the controversy surrounding them flow out of a much older tradition of nationalist archaeology in China, which for more than a century has sought to answer a basic scientific question that has always been heavily politicized: Where do the Chinese people come from?
Sun argues that China’s Bronze Age technology, widely thought by scholars to have first entered the northwest of the country through the prehistoric Silk Road, actually came by sea. According to him, its bearers were the Hyksos, the Western Asian people who ruled parts of northern Egypt as foreigners between the 17th and 16th centuries B.C., until their eventual expulsion. He notes that the Hyksos possessed at an earlier date almost all the same remarkable technology — bronze metallurgy, chariots, literacy, domesticated plants and animals — that archaeologists discovered at the ancient city of Yin, the capital of China’s second dynasty, the Shang, between 1300 and 1046 B.C. Since the Hyksos are known to have developed ships for war and trade that enabled them to sail the Red and Mediterranean seas, Sun speculates that a small population escaped their collapsing dynasty using seafaring technology that eventually brought them and their Bronze Age culture to the coast of China.
Pit of oracle bones in Anyang, China. Photo credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.
Sun’s thesis proved controversial when the Chinese travel site Kooniao first posted it online in the form of a 93,000-character essay in September 2015. As the liberal magazine Caixin commented, “His courageous title and plain language attracted the interest of more than a few readers.” That title was Explosive Archaeological Discovery: The Ancestors of the Chinese People Came from Egypt, and the essay was reproduced and discussed online, on internet portals such as Sohu and popular message boards such as Zhihu and Tiexue. Kooniao also set up a widely read page dedicated to the subject on the microblogging platform Weibo — hashtagged “Chinese People Come From Egypt” — which contains a useful sample of responses from the public. Some of these simply express outrage, often to the point of incoherence: “That expert’s absurd theory randomly accepts anyone as his forebears,” fumed one. “This is people’s deep inferiority complex at work!” Another asked, “How can the children of the Yellow Emperor have run over to Egypt? This topic is really too pathetic. The important thing is to live in the moment!”
Other commentators have been more thoughtful. If they are not fully convinced, they are at least willing to entertain Sun’s ideas. In fact, a rough count of comments from the intellectually curious outnumbers those of the purely reactionary by about 3-to-2. As one user wrote, “I approve. One has to look intelligently at this theory. Whether it turns to be true or false, it is worth investigating.” Another wrote, “The world is such a big place that one finds many strange things in it. One can’t say it is impossible.” One more wrote, “One can’t just sweepingly dismiss it as wrong or curse out the evidence as false. Exchanges between cultures can be very deep and distant.”
Anticipating his critics, Sun wrote online that to examine anew the origins of Chinese civilization “may appear ridiculous in the eyes of some, because historians long ago stated clearly: We are the children of the Yan and Yellow Emperor.” Historian Sima Qian took these legendary figures as the progenitor of the Han Chinese; and the Yellow Emperor’s great-grandson, Yu the Great, as the founder of the semimythical Xia dynasty. These served as the origin stories for imperial China and continued to be credited for decades after the Republic replaced it in 1912, so that even the nation’s most iconoclastic and rebellious sons — Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek, and People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong among them — have at some time or other felt the need to pay their respects at the Yellow Emperor’s tomb. Even now, the oft-repeated claim that Chinese civilization is approximately 5,000 years old takes as its starting point the supposed reign of this legendary emperor.
Unbeknownst to many, an anti-Qing Dynasty agitator was the first to publish (under a pseudonym) this claim for the nation’s antiquity in 1903. As his nationalist ideology had it, “If we desire to preserve the survival of the Han Nation, then it is imperative that we venerate the Yellow Emperor.” At that time, the Qing dynasty was in serious decline, its obvious backwardness compared with Western powers the cause of much soul-searching. Anti-Qing intellectuals began to examine critically the roots of Chinese civilization and, for the first time, seized on the idea that they lay in the West. The work that most captured their imagination was that of the French philologist, Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, who in 1892 published the Western Origin of the Early Chinese Civilization from 2300 B.C. to 200 A.D. Translated into Chinese in 1903, it compared the hexagrams of the Book of Changes with the cuneiform of Mesopotamia and proposed that Chinese civilization originated in Babylon. The Yellow Emperor was identified with a King Nakhunte, who supposedly led his people out of the Middle East and into the Central Plain of the Yellow River Valley around 2300 B.C.