The breakout: The origins of civilization, edited by Martha
Lamberg-Karlovsky. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum of Archaeology
and Ethnology, Harvard University, 2000 (Peabody Museum
monographs, 9). xx + 131 pp.
Reviewed by Donald B. Wagner
Originally published in Journal of world history, 2000, 14.4: 551-553.
This book is a collection of articles on the origins of civilizations, beginning with a remarkable article by the American-Chinese archaeologist K. C. Chang (1931-2001). In 1983 he had published a small book, Art, myth, and ritual: The path to political authority in ancient China,  in which he described the origin of civilization in China as the rise of political authority and explained this rise in terms which were almost purely non-material. In the Bronze Age of China (perhaps 2200-500 B.C.) the two great technological advances, bronze and writing, were insignificant for the economy and served only to support the ideological underpinnings of political authority. Agriculture remained essentially Neolithic, and writing was used for purposes related to religion and politics rather than production and economics. Stated in this bald way, Chang's thesis is difficult to accept - bronze weaponry must have been important, the question of bronze implements has still not been settled to everyone's satisfaction, and we cannot know what sort of things might have been written on perishable materials. Nevertheless the case he makes for this view of the early Chinese polity has proved to have lasting heuristic value.
In the article reprinted in the present book, originally published in 1984,  Chang summarizes the findings of the 1983 book with the statement that in ancient China the rise of civilization was associated with a differentiated access to the means of communication rather than the means of production (p. 3), then makes a breathtaking speculative leap. He points out a number of similarities between ancient China as he describes it and several other ancient civilizations, specifically the Maya and the Mesopotamian, and goes on to suggest that communication was more important than production in all ancient civilizations except one, the Mesopotamian civilization from which the modern West derives. It was there that the 'breakout' of this book's title occurred: 'The ancient inhabitants of Mesopotomia of the late fourth millennium B.C. underwent a transformative process, which too resulted in a civilized state, but nevertheless involved a wholly new set of changes . . .' (p. 9). These included new production technologies, long-distance trade, and the use of writing to facilitate economic transactions.
One important implication of K. C. Chang's ideas is that the current definition of 'civilization' among archaeologists is based on a special case, the Western 'breakout', to the detriment of our understanding of other civilizations (p. 10). And they have an immediate practical implication for policy: 'If these ideas are valid, the modernization of the developing world of today may be seen as an effort - definitely belated and possibly not yet thought through - on the part of the rest of the world to catch up with the West in a fundamental realignment of cosmology, as well as in technology, after a bifurcation more than five thousand years old' (p. 10).
Chang ends his article with a challenge to his colleagues working in other areas to confirm or modify his two hypotheses: the 'China-Maya continuum' and the 'Near Eastern breakout'. The rest of the book is devoted to comments on Chang's article by specialists on other parts of the ancient world: the Near East (C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, Gordon R. Willey, David H. P. Maybury-Lewis, Mogens Trolle Larsen), the Maya (Linda Schele), Israel (William G. Dever), Egypt (Mark Lehner), and the Indus Valley (Gregory L. Possehl). These generally cultivate their own gardens, but here and there they add new evidence to confirm or modify Chang's thesis, and will no doubt be interesting to those who find non-material answers to material questions interesting. The editor's introduction reviews the history of the historiography of the ancient world, concentrating largely on Western European thinkers, but with a brief nod to their Arabic predecessors. Mogens Trolle Larsen provides a salutary warning against Eurocentrism in studies of the ancient world.
K. C. Chang was still alive when this book was published. It would have been considerate to him and useful to readers if the editors had given him a chance respond to the comments by other scholars in this book. His condition (Parkinson's disease) might have made this difficult, but any of his many former students could have obliged.
Chang's article was originally published for a limited audience, but it seems to have made a great impression. A Chinese translation appeared in 1985  and a French translation in 1987.  He reprinted it with stylistic revisions as an epilogue to the fourth edition (1986) of his famous textbook,  and published a thoroughly revised version in 1989.  In the revised version he expands considerably his arguments concerning the nature of ancient Chinese civilization and replaces the term breakout with rupture, a word which is just as dramatic but has less positive associations. It is striking - in fact inexplicable - that neither revision is taken into account, or even mentioned, anywhere in this book.
1 Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1983.
2 In Symbols, Spring/Fall 1984, 2-4, 20-22, an internal publication of Harvard's Department of Anthropology, described by the editor as more than a newsletter but less than a journal (p. xii). I have not had access to this original, but comparison with the 1985 Chinese translation (fn. 3 below) indicates that this is the same article, with no significant revision.
3 Zhang Guangzhi, 'Gudai Zhongguo ji qi zai renleixue shang de yiyi', Shiqian yanjiu, 1985.2: 41-46.
4 'La Chine ancienne et sa signification anthropologique', Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 1987, 35, pp. 79-84 (not seen).
5 The archaeology of ancient China, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 414-422.
6 C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky (ed.), Archaeological thought in America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 155-166.