In the past year, Sun Weidong, a highly decorated geochemist, 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.
In a lecture Sun gave at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, the capital of the province of Anhui in China, the scientist presented several historical and scientific reasons to support the theory that the Xia dynasty, dating from 2070 to 1600 B.C., was founded by Egyptians. The professor cited several ancient Chinese classics, among which historian Sima Qian’s first century historiography, the "Records of the Grand Historian."
In this work, Sima Qian described the topography of the empire, traditionally regarded as China’s first dynasty: "You trace the Yellow river from Stone-pile to Dragongate, southward to the north of Mount Hua, eastward to Tich‘u, again eastward to the ford Mêng, eastward you pass the junction of the Lo river to Tapei, northward past the Chiang water to Talu, northward the stream is divided and becomes the nine rivers, reunited it forms the opposing river and flows into the sea." (translation: Herbert J. Allen)
In other words, the stream in question wasn’t China’s famed Yellow River, which flows from west to east. Amazingly, these ancient Chinese texts seemed to better agree with the geography of Egypt than that of China, as a map of the famed Egyptian river Nile and its delta — with nine of its distributaries flowing into the Mediterranean— would show.
An important archaeological artifact for understanding the early cultural and technological development of China are the splendid Yin-Shang bronzes found in the ancient city of Yi, dating back to ca. 1400 BC. These objects, representing a significant advancement in metal working, appeared suddenly at that time in the alluvial plain of the Yellow River, in Henan Province, central China, and also from several places in southern China at roughly the same time or slightly earlier. It remains obscure where the copper, lead, and tin ores used to manufacture the bronze came from, especially when attempting to explain the radiogenic isotopic compositions of their lead and the paucity of the required tin deposits within the territory of Yin-Shang in central China.
In the 1990s, Sun conceived of a connection with Egypt when he was performing radiometric dating of the ancient Chinese bronze wares. To his surprise, their chemical composition more closely resembled those of African mines, which is the same as those from ancient Egypt, than native Chinese ores. Sun argues that this 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.
Sun 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 the Shang who, between 1300 and 1046 B.C., were China’s second dynasty. In Egyptian history books and curricula, the Hyksos were always referred to as the people who brought along an early industrial revolution to Egyptians with their carts. Since they 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.
Both Sun’s ideas and the controversy surrounding them flow out of a much older tradition of Chinese archaeology, 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? Already in 1892, French philologist Albert Terrien de Lacouperie 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.
Peking University history professor Liu Shipei was among the first to promote Sino-Babylonianism in books such as his 1903 History of the Chinese Nation. By 1915, the theory was widespread enough that the national anthem of the republic, commissioned by President Yuan Shikai referred to it obliquely, calling China “the famous descendant from Kunlun Peak,” which Chinese mythology locates in the far, far West. Another endorsement came from Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China, who stated in his 1924 Three Principles of the People lectures that the “growth of Chinese civilization may … be explained by the fact that the settlers who migrated from another place to this valley already possessed a very high civilization.”
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Marco Polo's 13th century journey to China was the first to be well-documented. However, Chinese historians recorded much earlier visits by people thought by some to have been emissaries from the Roman Empire during the Second and Third Centuries AD. Archaeologists say inspiration for the famous Terracotta Warriors, found in 1974 at the Tomb of the First Emperor near today's Xian, may have come from Ancient Greece. They believe the First Emperor was influenced by the arrival of Greek statues in Central Asia in the century following Alexander the Great, who died in 323BC. The same Greek influence had led to the birth of Buddha statues in India, where until then it was prohibited to portray him.
There's now evidence that close contact existed between the First Emperor's China and the West before the formal opening of the Silk Road, far earlier than was previously thought. European-specific mitochondrial DNA has been found at sites in China's western-most Xinjiang Province, suggesting that Westerners may have settled, lived and died there before and during the time of the First Emperor.
Anticipating criticism, Sun wrote 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. 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.
Although the public has mostly received Sun’s theory with an open mind, it still lies outside the academic mainstream. Since the 1990s, most Chinese archaeologists have accepted that much of the nation’s Bronze Age technology came from regions outside of China. But it is not thought to have arrived directly from the Middle East in the course of an epic migration. The more prosaic consensus is that it was transmitted into China from Central Asia by a slow process of cultural exchange (trade, tribute, dowry) across the northern frontier, mediated by Eurasian steppe pastoralists who had contacts with indigenous groups in both regions.
Despite this, the fascination with ancient Egypt appears unlikely to go away soon. This was on display again during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Egypt in January to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations. On arrival, Xi greeted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with an Egyptian proverb: “Once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return.” They celebrated the antiquity of their two civilizations with a joint visit to the Luxor temple.
Undoubtedly, Sun's theories are quite revolutionary, but at the same time, the discussion he has opened was quite heated – as most of the reactions he has gotten believe his theories do not prove that Egypt build ancient China, but are merely influenced by it.