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A Chinese influence?

A footnote to this story, and a sign of the galloping collapse of consensus amongst orthodox scholars concerning the peopling of the Americas, is a row that began to simmer in academic circles in the late 1990's concerning possible cultural links between ancient Chinese and ancient American cultures - specifically the Olmec and the Shang. The main proponents of this view are Professor Mike Xu, who teaches in the foreign languages department at the University of Central Oklahoma, USA, and Chen Hanping of China's Historical Research Institute.

According to an article published in US News and World Report, and to Internet postings, Xu believes 'the first complex culture in Mesoamerica may have come into existence with the help of a group of Chinese who fled across the seas as refugees at the end of the Shang dynasty. The Olmec civilisation arose around 1200 BC, which coincides with the time when King Wu of Zhou attacked and defeated King Zhou, the last Shang ruler, bringing his dynasty to a close.' ([Link 4])

Xu is also reported to have 'explosive' evidence in the form of archaic writings:

'Over the past three years he has found some 150 glyphs on photographs of real specimens of Olmec pottery, jade artefacts and sculptures. As well as himself leafing through dictionaries of ancient Chinese, he has also taken his drawings of these markings to be examined by mainland Chinese experts in ancient writing, and most have agreed that they closely resemble the characters used in Chinese oracle bone writings and bronze inscriptions. "At first these experts all tried to send me away, saying they could not give an opinion of foreign artefacts," Mike Xu recalls. But after his repeated entreaties, they reluctantly took a look. The moment they saw his drawings, each of them asked him: "Where in China were these inscriptions found?" When they heard they came from America they were all dumbstruck. "If these inscriptions had been found in excavations in China", says Chen Hanping, a research associate at the mainland's Historical Research Institute, "they would certainly be regarded as symbols of the pre-Quin-dynasty period".' ([Link 4])

Reaction from other scholars has been almost universally hostile (see [Link 4]). This posting, from C. Cook, Associate Professor of Chinese at Lehigh University, sums up several key objections:

'Some asked me to post my observations re the script on the Olmec celts identified by Chen, Hanping as Chinese in US News and World Report Nov 4, pp 46-8. I have finally seen the article with the reproduction of the Olmec graphs and the section that Chen believed was similar to the oracle bone script of the Shang.
  1. the graphs isolated by Chen are not Chinese. They bear some graphic similarity to some archaic Chinese graphs or parts of graphs but as single graphs equal nothing and do not have the equivalents he assigned to them. It is bogus.
  2. obviously, the graphs/glyphs pulled out by Chen should be considered within the context of the entire "inscription". This is impossible as the rest of the marks bear none but a few isolated similarities. In fact the Olmec "script" may not represent language at all, but like the Naxi and other ur-scripts, be more a code for storytelling than an actual transcription of language. The Shang oracle bone script, on the other hand, is very advanced and unquestionably qualifies as belonging to a writing system.
  3. Finally, the "inscription" must be considered within the context of the sculptures. There is very little beyond the occasional face of human representation in Shang period art (some carved jade figures, but these are kneeling, often incised, and covered with animal décor, tattoos, clothes, etc.). One famous bronze has a shaman-like figure in the mouth of an animal, but there is no similarity to the Olmec representations.
  4. A point of correction: the US News and WR article claims that Chen is the foremost authority of only about 12 scholars worldwide who are trained in ancient script. First, Chen is a very minor scholar. Second, there are more than 12 scholars in the US alone who can read Shang script, many many more in China and elsewhere.' ([Link 5])
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