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Li Xueqin

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Li Xueqin

Li Xueqin
Born (1933-03-28) 28 March 1933
Beijing, China
Fields Ancient Chinese history, archaeology, and epigraphy
Institutions Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Tsinghua University
Alma mater Tsinghua University

Li Xueqin (Chinese: 李学勤; Wade–Giles: Li Hsüeh-ch'in, born 28 March 1933) is a Chinese historian, archaeologist, epigrapher, and professor of Tsinghua University. He is considered in China to be "the most important historian working today".[1] He has served as Director of the Institute of History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Director of the Institute of Sinology of Tsinghua University, head of the Pre-Qin History Association of China, and Director of the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project.[1]

Early life and education

Li Xueqin was born 28 March 1933 in Beijing.[2] After finishing middle school in 1948, he tested number one in the entrance examination of the electrical engineering department of the National Beiping High School of Industry. However, he was unable to attend the school because a medical examination misdiagnosed him with tuberculosis.[3] After graduating from high school, he was admitted to Tsinghua University in 1951, where he studied philosophy and logic under professor Jin Yuelin.[3]

At Tsinghua, Li's main hobby was studying the oracle bones in the library, putting together pieces of oracle bones like puzzles. At the same time, scholar Guo Ruoyu (郭若愚) was writing a book on the oracle bones. Chen Mengjia, the oracle bones expert, thought the book needed more work, and recommended Li to assist Guo in his work.[3] Li was thus "borrowed" by the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to become a research assistant to Guo and Chen.[3]

In 1952, the Communist government reorganized Chinese universities in the Peking University (PKU). Instead of moving to PKU with the philosophy department, Li chose to stay with the Institute of Archaeology, and never finished college.[3]


In 1954, Li Xueqin moved to the Institute of History of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (later of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). In the 1950s, he systematically collated Shang dynasty oracle bones excavated from Yinxu, studied the events and historical geography from the oracle scripts, and identified oracle bones from the Western Zhou period. In the late 1950s, he studied the bronze inscriptions, pottery inscriptions, seals, coins, bamboo and wooden slips, and silk texts from the Warring States period, facilitating the formation of a new branch of Chinese paleography.[2]

After the major disruptions of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Li participated in the research of the major archaeological discoveries of Mawangdui, Shuihudi, and Zhangjiashan, making important contributions to the understanding of ancient cultural history of the Warring States and the Qin and Han dynasties.[2]

From 1985 to 1988, Li served as Vice Director of the Institute of History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, later becoming Director. Beginning in 1996, he served as Chief Scientist and Director of the government-commissioned Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project.[2] In August 2003, Li returned to his alma mater Tsinghua University as a professor. Since 2008, he has focussed his research on the newly recovered Tsinghua Bamboo Slips.[3]


Li is considered in China to be "the most important historian working today".[1] According to the American writer and journalist Peter Hessler, a number of Chinese scholars told him that Li had the rare ability to do excellent research while satisfying the Communist Party.[4] He is a prolific author, and several of his books have been translated into English, including Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilizations (translated by Kwang-chih Chang), The Wonder of Chinese Bronzes, Chinese Bronzes: a General Introduction, and The Glorious Traditions of Chinese Bronzes.[5]

In 1993, Li made an influential speech in which he called for historians to "leave the 'Doubting Antiquity' period". It became the manifesto of the "Believing Antiquity" movement, in contrast to the Doubting Antiquity School that had been highly influential since the 1920s. Scholars of this viewpoint argue that archaeological discoveries of recent decades have generally substantiated Chinese traditional accounts rather than contradicted them.[6]

Criticism of Chen Mengjia

When the Anti-Rightist Movement began in 1957, the eminent scholar Chen Mengjia was labeled a Rightist and an enemy of the Communist Party for his outspoken opposition to the simplification of Chinese characters. Li, then a research assistant to Chen, published a review which criticized Chen's scholarship and attacked him as "arrogant" and having "an extreme tendency to boast".[4] In 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Chen was again severely persecuted for his ideas and committed suicide.[4]

In the 2000s, Peter Hessler surprised Li Xueqin with questions about Chen Mengjia during an interview. In response, Li expressed deep regret of his action as a young man, and said that he was pressured by the Institute of Archaeology to write the review, and that he kept the criticism to the minimum and took care to avoid using more damaging political labels such as "Rightist".[4]:390


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