History of Early China Studies at the University of Chicago

With the appointment of Herrlee G. Creel (1905-1994) as professor of Chinese in 1936, the University of Chicago came to be regarded as one of the Western world’s leading centers for the study of the cultural history of early China. Already the author of The Birth of China: A Survey of the Formative Period of Chinese Civilization (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936; for Professor Creel’s own reflections on this book, “On the Birth of The Birth of China,” click here), which introduced the important ongoing archaeological excavations at Anyang that were demonstrating the historicity of the Shang dynasty, Professor Creel would go on during his distinguished career to study virtually all aspects of early Chinese civilization, from bronze inscriptions of the Western Zhou dynasty through the textual tradition of the Warring States period (for an account of his study of Confucius, click here). He attracted to the university such luminaries of Chinese archaeology and paleography as Dong Zuobin 董作賓 (1895-1963) and Chen Mengjia 陳夢家 (1911-1966), and trained Cho-yun Hsu, who in his own turn went on to a distinguished career at the University of Pittsburgh.

The subsequent appointments of Edward Shaughnessy (1985), Wu Hung (1993), and Donald Harper (1999) strengthened the University of Chicago’s reputation as one of the Western world’s centers for the study of early China. All three of these faculty members have published widely in both English and Chinese; all three contributed to the Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), still the most important monographic study of the field; and both Shaughnessy and Harper served as editors of the journal Early China, the premier journal in the field of early China studies (the web-site of the Society for the Study of Early China, the sponsor of the journal, is still housed at the university). Graduates have gone on to win appointments at some of the finest universities in the country, including Harvard (Michael Puett), Yale (Jaehoon Shim), Columbia (Li Feng), the University of Texas (David Sena), the American University in Cairo (Paul Fischer) and the University of Oklahoma (Garret Olberding). Current graduate students are working on doctoral dissertations on such diverse topics as Shang oracle-bone inscriptions, the concept of “motherhood” in early China, the notion of law and the writing of legal statutes in the state of Qin, the “Daybooks” (ri shu 日書) of the Qin and Han periods, and the epistemology of astronomy in early imperial China.

The University of Chicago has long been a center for scholarship in the Midwest, and its program in early China studies has been particularly active in this regard. From 1986-1996 the university regularly hosted the annual Midwest Early China Seminar, which brought together scholars and graduate students from throughout the Midwest to present and discuss recent research. After the death of Professor Creel in 1994, the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations established an annual lecture in his honor, the inaugural speaker being Cho-yun Hsu 許倬雲 and the most recent being Li Xueqin 李学勤 (for a list of Creel Lecturers, see below; for a report on Professor Li’s lecture, click here).

Creel Lecturers:
1995 Cho-yun Hsu 許倬雲
1996 David Keightley 吉德炜
1998 Edward Shaughnessy 夏含夷
1999 Michael Loewe 鲁惟一
2000 Rudolf Wagner 瓦格诺
2001 Christoph Harbsmeier 赫慕耶
2002 David Nivison 倪德韦
2003 Edwin Pulleyblank 蒲立本
2004 William Boltz 包则岳
2005 Qiu Xigui 裘锡桂
2006 Chen Jian 陈伟、Chen Songchang 陈松长
2007 Li Ling 李零
2008 Robert Gassmann 高斯满
2009 Donald Harper 夏德安
2010 Li Xueqin 李学勤