I was reading The Cambridge History of Ancient China yesterday for an independent reading seminar and stumbled upon this golden quote from Princeton’s own Robert Bagley (unfortunately, I did not get to take any classes with him while I was there):
“No student of fifth-century Athenian culture would be content to describe it as an early stage in the rise of Byzantine civilization, but this is exactly the sort of backward view that shapes the study of China before the Zhou period.”
There’s a pervasive preoccupation with defining what “ancient China” is; indeed, it’s a preoccupation that is arguably misleading. Perhaps we believe the Xia and Shang dynasties are the progenitors of “Chinese” civilization simply because Sima Qian said so. And given that he lived centuries after their putative existence, why should his determination be the final word on the matter?