Why studying Chinese history means you need to know an awful lot about agriculture (blog 3)

Armed with snow rakes and determination, intrepid Hebrew University students head towards a promising-looking mountain top May 2013: If you are a student in the Dept. of East Asian Studies at the Hebrew University and its Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies, there are a few challenges you need to be prepared for. The first is successfully navigating the labyrinthine corridors of the Mount Scopus Faculty of Humanities complex, an experience shared by every student, lecturer and alumnus.

Then, of course, you have to put up with people pestering you about your future prospects — even with all the chatter about China’s rise, people’s knee jerk reaction to humanities studies is still “but what will you do with yourself?” If you combine East Asian studies with another academic discipline — in my case, political science — you’ll still have to put up with people’s casual dismissal of history and regional studies.

Last but not least, you need to be prepared to learn a great deal about agriculture, which is the beginning and the end of pretty much everything that has happened in China. For example: China’s first unification in 220 BCE under the Qin dynasty? Attributed to Qin’s superior organization of agriculture. Dynastic collapse? Probably the fault of some pesky farmers disseminating a new farming technique or crops, thus triggering a population spike. Who lost China? Those who neglected the countryside in favor of the cities.

The only time you get a break from hearing about agriculture is when you are learning about the nomadic tribes (Imperial China’s historic arch-nemesis) with Prof. Michal Biran who is a world-leading expert on the Asiatic nomads and the recent recipient of a prestigious ERC grant. And even then, the cross-cultural contacts, trade and intermittent warfare will eventually bring agriculture back to center stage.

So when it comes to understanding China, historical or contemporary, you first need to understand agriculture. That starts with figuring out how, when and why human beings became sedentary in the first place. And that means tracking down whatever is left of those early human settlers — and that is how I found myself raking 10 centimeters of snow in North China.

Our typical day began with breakfast at seven in the morning, with a prompt exit to the field within 30 minutes. Once the driver got us as close as possible to the site, we’d pile out of the van and gear up — scarves, hats, gloves, coats, masks, coats, and plastic bags in our boots, if necessary. In order to orient ourselves, we would take aerial photos and the team leader would then pick a specific area — for instance, a group of fields between a dirt road and a gully.

If we were in luck, there would be a dirt path leading to the site or we would be working in a relatively flat area. Otherwise (which was most of the time), getting to the survey area meant climbing up and down terraces, into and out of gullies, across streams of snow melt, and through thorny, chest-high shrubbery. We made a point of surveying mountainous areas where possible, hoping to find enough artifacts to indicate what topography early human settlers preferred.

When we reached our destination, we’d spread out and start to search the ground for manmade artifacts such as pottery or stone tools. If we found over three pottery fragments or a single stone tool, we’d reorient and conduct a “collection.” One team member would mark the area with the GPS (which can involve more climbing in and out of gullies, up and down terraces etc), while the rest would conduct a more thorough search. If a high density of artifacts was discovered, we would take a systematic sample, collecting all artifacts within an area marked by three concentric circles.

Each artifact would be bagged and tagged, and an accompanying form filled out. Our work in the field would usually end at about four in the afternoon, when we would make our way back to our vehicles and head home. After showering and dinner, it would be back to work, sorting and cataloging the day’s finds and verifying the collection areas marked on the GPS.

Now we are all back home at the Mount Scopus campus and getting back into the rhythm of school and work. It was an amazing trip and it isn’t over yet — now that we’ve got the data, it’s time to start analyzing it.

Yochana Storch, 26, is a graduate student in East Asian studies at the Hebrew University. She is from Jerusalem; she completed her army service as a sergeant of operations.

For Yochana’s previous blogs, click below:

Blog 1

Blog 2

For more Hebrew University blogs, click here