China and Inner Asia Project

Interactions which changed China (1000-200 BC)


The sudden appearance in China of carnelian and faience beads, of armour, belts, personal weapons (first in bronze then later in iron), and an outlandish fashion for gold, all during the first millennium BC, are signs of extensive connectivity between China and its neighbours. This 5-year Leverhulme Trust funded project (2011-2016), explores how the incorporation of such foreign materials, technologies and ideas into the repertoire of the early dynastic elites both marked and stimulated major social changes across ancient China.

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The societies that grew up within the sparsely populated, marginal areas of steppe and semi-desert, which arc around the northern and western borders of China’s fertile Central Plain, have played a critical role in this process. These were distinctively different cultural communities from those in the densely populated agricultural heartlands of China, sharing some characteristics and elements of material culture with the Chinese, but many more with groups to the north and west, in modern Mongolia, Siberia and Kazakhstan. For many centuries, these communities mediated China’s broader relationships with the Eurasian world.

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Although this project nominally focuses on the first millennium BC it also focuses strongly on evidence of interaction in the preceding millennium. The group gathers evidence for routes of exchange, investigates critical flows of material across Inner Asia, and identifies specific phases where interaction with China appears to grow particularly intense, correlating these with wider evidence of continuity and change within China itself. Understanding the forms and focus of interactions and examining the ways in which they are managed, integrated, and transformed will help us to demonstrate China’s remarkable power to exploit innovations to its own ends. Exploring the impact of China’s specific physical-geographical environment and ecology alongside its wider cultural context within Inner Asian prehistory, will help to understand how these factors have affected and continue to affect China’s approach to the wider world.

Project Team

The project team is led by Professor Jessica Rawson (PI), Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology, who has a long-standing interest in the wider context of Chinese material culture, ornament and art. She is joined by Professor Jianjun Mei (Co-Investigator), formerly of the University of Science and Technology Beijing and current Director of the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, who is well known for his research into early Chinese metallurgy. Between 2011 and 2014, the team has been supported by Dr Peter Hommel (PDRA), who has identified and facilitated access to relevant research and key materials within the Russian language literature for members of the project team. He has also undertaken primary research into the significance and context of change in bead production during the Zhou period (in collaboration with Margaret Sax of the British Museum).

The project is also providing funding for three PhD students: Yiu-Kang (Gary) Hsu, who is using the chemical composition of copper-alloy artefacts to investigate the circulation of metals in the Bronze and Early Age of eastern Eurasia;  Beichen Chen who focuses networks of interaction between north and south China, exploring differences in burial and ritual traditions within the Suizao corridor and their connections with the major customs of the Zhou centre and its regional principalities; and Rebecca O’Sullivan who is analysing the petroglyphs of the Tianshan and Altai mountains as a means to study mountain contacts with Siberia, Central Asia and Western China during the 2nd millennium BC.

The work will continue over the next few years in conjunction with the Flame project in the Research Laboratory for Art History and Archaeology, University of Oxford, investigating the circulation of bronze across Eastern Siberia and China. 

Collaboration and Interaction

The team members have been active in securing and arranging visits from a number of senior figures within the world of Eurasian and Chinese Archaeology, all of whom have given very well attended public lectures within the Oxford Centre for Asian Art, Archaeology, and Culture Seminar Series, including Profs. Xu Tianjin, Evgenij Chernykh, Bryan Hanks, Natalia Shishlina and Tsagaan Turbat.


Project members have also given a variety of presentations and lectures on the subject of this research at conferences, workshops and special events across in Europe, America, China and Russia 

Research Visits 

Over the course of its first three years, members of the project team have made research visits to key sites, museums and university departments outside China to build relationships and study material first hand. Between 2012 and 2014 visits were made by the PI and PDRA to Moscow and St Petersburg, southeastern Kazakhstan, Chelyabinsk (Southern Urals), Barnaul (Altai Mountains), Abakan and Minusinsk (Middle Yenisei), Chita, Ulan Ude and Irkutsk (Transbaikal).

Throughout the project the PI has made regular visits to institutions across China. In the summer 2014, the group made a join survey visit to the Hexi Corridor in Gansu Province, with members from Peking University. Many of these visits have been partially or entirely funded from sources external to the project.


Rawson, J. 2013. “Ordering the exotic: ritual practices in the Late Western and Early Eastern Zhou”, Artibus Asiae 73, 5-76.

Rawson, J. 2012. “Miniature Bronzes from Western Zhou tombs at Baoji in Shaanxi Province”, Radiance between Bronzes and Jades—Archaeology, Art and Culture of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, Taipei: Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, 2013, pp. 23-66.

Rawson, J. 2012.“The Han Empire and its Northern Neighbours: the Fascination of the Exotic”, in James Lin (ed.), The Search for Immortality, Tomb Treasures of Han China, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 23-36. Translated in Studies of Ancient Tomb Art, vol. 2, Hunan meishu chubanshe, 2013, 55-71.

Rawson, J. 2012.“Inside out: Creating the exotic within early Tang dynasty China in the seventh and eighth centuries”, World Art, vol. 2, no. 1, March 2012, pp. 25-45.

Hommel, P., J. Rawson & M. Sax. 2013. Vnutri Kitaya i za ego Predelami: Proizkhozhdenie i Rasprostranenie Bus V Period Zapadnogo Chzhou, in A.A. Tishkin and N. Serëgin (ed), Sovremennye Resheniya Aktual'nykh Problem Evrazijskoj Arkheologii, 320-324. Barnaul: Altai University University Press [In Russian].

Hommel, P. and Sax, M. 2014. Shifting materials: variability, homogeneity and change in the beaded ornaments of the Western Zhou. Antiquity 88, 1213-1228.