Li Feng


Professor of Early Chinese History and Archaeology
Columbia University

Director of Graduate Studies
East Asian Languages and Cultures

407 Kent Hall; Mail Code: 3907







I am both an archaeologist and a historian focusing on Bronze Age China. As an archaeologist, my early field work dates back to 1983-1990 when I was a research fellow in the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Beijing), excavating the capital sites Feng and Hao of the Western Zhou dynasty (1045–771 B.C.) in Shaanxi province. In recent years, as the PI of Columbia’s archaeological project in Shandong (2006-present), my research focus has been shifted from such central sites to the periphery of the Shang-Zhou world. I am interested in issues such as the rise and dynamics of early states, transition to imperialism, early society political economy, writing and the development of literacy, and regional variations of Bronze-age cultures and their communications, particularly the way that different complex-society cultures responded to each other.  

As a historian, I have spent much of my last fifteen years on analyzing inscriptions on bronze vessels from the Zhou period (1045-256 BC) and on exploring their implications for early states and society in China. In particular, my research in bronze inscriptions in the past developed along two lines. The first examined evidence for the political structure of the Western Zhou state and the origin of bureaucratic government in China, while the second considered calligraphical and technical features of inscribed bronzes as a way to authenticate them and to understand the social system in which they were created. In recent years, I spent more time on Eastern Zhou (770-256 BC) bronzes and their inscriptions for the purpose of graduate teaching in Columbia University.

Believing that our true knowledge of the past can be better achieved on the basis of impartial understanding of all surviving evidence, archaeological, inscriptional, and textual, I look for ways to integrate the material form of evidence and the written records in the study of early states and societies. I have been directing the Guicheng archaeological survey and excavation in Shandong, China, since 2006 (see below). I am also co-chairing the Columbia Early China Seminar, an inter-university forum for the study of China from the Neolithic to A.D. 220. All interested Columbia instructors and graduate students are welcome to attend the meetings. The current and past programs can be found at:




2013  New Release – September

Early China: A Social and Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Early China offers critical new interpretation about the period from the beginning of human history in China to the end of the Han Dynasty in AD 220. The volume draws on the most recent scholarship and archaeological discoveries from the past thirty years, highlighting key issues in early Chinese civilization such as the origins of the written language, the rise of the state, Shang and Zhou religions, bureaucracy, law and governance, the evolving nature of war, the creation of empire, the changing image of art, and the philosophical search for social order. Beautifully illustrated with a wide range of new images, this book is essential reading for all those wanting to know more about the foundations of Chinese history and civilization


Paperback and hardback are both available at first publication and can be ordered from Cambridge’s website:















Writing and Literacy in Early China: Studies from the Columbia Early China Seminar, edited by Li Feng and David Prager Branner. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.


Writing and Literacy in Early China examines a topic of international importance: the emergence and spread of literacy in ancient human society. Writing arose separately in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mesoamerica, and China. Modern Chinese orthography preserves logographic principles shared by its most ancient forms three thousand years ago, making it unique among all present-day writing systems. In the past three decades, the discovery of previously unknown texts dating to the third century BCE and earlier as well as older versions of known texts has revolutionized the study of early Chinese writing.


This new volume brings together studies by eleven sinologists from multiple disciplines to clarify the origin and social dimensions of literacy in Early China. Taking writing as a phenomenon of literacy, the studies examine a series of issues: possible stages in the invention of the Chinese writing, ways by which literacy was acquired, evidence of the multiple social spheres they represent, extent of literacy across regions, classes, genders, and professional social groups, etc. This is the very first book on early literacy in China.































Bureaucracy and the State in Early China: Governing the Western Zhou. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, December 2008. Paperback 2013.


The book explores and interprets the origins and operational characteristics of one of the World’s earliest bureaucracies on the basis of the contemporaneous inscriptions of royal edicts cast onto bronze vessels, many of which have been discovered quite recently in archaeological explorations. The inscriptions clarify the political and social systems of the Western Zhou state and the ways in which it exercised authority. The book also discusses the theory of bureaucracy and criticizes the various models of early-archaic states on the basis of close reading of the inscriptions. It redefines the Western Zhou as a kin-ordered and settlement-based state.


























Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou (1045-771 B.C.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, March 2006.

This book addresses the complex relationship between geography and political power in the special context of the crisis and fall of the Western Zhou. Drawing on the latest archaeological discoveries, the book shows how inscribed bronze vessels can be used to reveal changes in political space, and how the three disciplines, archaeology, history, and geography can work together to achieve a coherent understanding of the Bronze Age past. Embracing an interdisciplinary approach and enhanced by the full coverage of sources, the book thoroughly reinterprets late Western Zhou history and questions deeply into the causes of its gradual decline and eventual fall.




Archaeological Fieldwork


The Guicheng Project:

The Guicheng Project was established in 2006 as a field-collaboration between Columbia University, the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the Shandong Provincial Institute of Archaeology. Guicheng was a prominent late Bronze-Age city (10th to 5th centuries BC.), measuring 7.5 km2 and located in the eastern part of the Shandong Peninsula of China. During the four field-seasons conducted in 2007-2009, we have systematically surveyed and mapped the entire city-complex and have cored and test-excavated its central citadel. The fieldwork has yielded important information for understanding the social political transition in this multicultural environment, particularly the indigenous culture’s responses to the advanced bronze culture in central China. An official monographic report on the fieldwork is currently under preparation.






Other Publications




Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China, by Roel Sterckx (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2011), American Historical Review, 117 (2012): 1557-1558.

Excavating Asian History: Interdisciplinary Studies in Archaeology and History, edited by Norman Yoffee and Bradley L. Crowell (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006), Journal of World History, September 2009, pp. 442-51.

Archaeology of Asia, edited by Miriam T. Stark (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), Journal of Asian Studies 66.1 (2007), pp. 210-13.




“The End of ‘Western Zhou Feudalism’,” newspaper interview. Shanghai Bookreview of the China Eastern Post, Shanghai, Sept. 2, 2012.

“The Teaching and Practice of Archaeology in China and in America” (in Chinese). In Zhang Haihui, Comparative Experiences in Chinese and American Higher Education: Interviews with Prominent Chinese American Scholars, pp. 90-103. Beijing: Renmin daxue, 2010.


Articles or Chapters

Forthcoming: “A Study of the Bronze Vessels and Sacrificial Remains of the Early Qin State from Lixian, Gansu.” In Edward L. Shaughnessy ed., The Places of Kinship. Chicago.

Soju sidae toksa nungryok kwa sosa ui sahoejok maekrak.” In Jae-hoon Shim ed., Hwa i pudong ui Tongasiahak: Minjoksa wa kodae Chungguk yon'gu charyo songch'al (East Asian Studies Harmonized and yet Different: Reflections on the National History and the Sources of Studying Early China), pp. 167-204. Seoul: P'urun yoksa, 2012.

“The Study of Western Zhou History: A Response and a Methodological Explication.” Early China 33-34 (2010-2011): 287-306.

“New Discoveries and New Perspectives in Western Zhou Archaeology — Postscript to Professor Cho-yun Hsu’s Xizhou shi” (in Chinese), forthcoming, Beijing: Sanlian Bookstore.  

“Literacy and the Social Contexts of Writing in the Western Zhou” (in English). In Li Feng and David Prager Branner ed., Writing and Literacy in Early China: Studies from the Columbia Early China Seminar, pp. 271-302. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.

“A Study of the Bronze Vessels and Sacrificial Remains of the Early Qin State from Lixian, Gansu” (in Chinese), Wenwu 2011.5, 55-67.

“A Preliminary Report on the Survey of the Western-Eastern Zhou Dynasty Guicheng City in Longkou, Shandong” (The Sino-American Joint Guicheng Archaeological Team, co-author), Kaogu 2011.3, 30-39. PDF

 “The Study of Early China and Its Archaeological Foundations: Perspectives in a New Age of Global Integration” (translated into Chinese by Hu Baohua), In Zhang Haihui ed., Chinese Studies in North America — Research and Resources, pp. 51-69. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2010.

“Cities Plans and the Nature of the Ancient State” (in Chinese). In Chen Pingyuan, Wang Dewei et al ed., Xi’an: City Image and Cultural Memory, pp. 1-20. Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2009.

“Transmitting Antiquity: The Origin and Paradigmization of the ‘Five Ranks’” (in English). In Dieter Kuhn and Helga Stahl ed., Perceptions of Antiquity of Chinese Civilization, pp. 103-134. Heidelberg, Germany: Edition Forum, 2008.

“A Cultural Ecology of the Northwestern Frontier of the Western Zhou State” (in Chinese). In Choyun Hsu and Zhang Zhongpei ed., Archaeology in the New Century: Multi-Agent Interaction between Culture, Region, and Ecology, pp. 171-204. Beijing: Forbidden City Press, 2006.

“Rethinking European ‘Feudalism’ and Its Implications to the Periodization of Chinese History” (in Chinese), Zhongguo xueshu (China Scholarship) 24 (2006), 8-29.

“The City of Zheng, the Eastward Migration of the State of Zheng, and Related Historical Issues” (in Chinese). Wenwu (Cultural Relics) 2006.9, 70-78. 
“Succession and Promotion: Elite Mobility during the Western Zhou.” Monumenta Serica (Germany) 52 (2004), 1-35.

“Textual Criticism and Western Zhou Bronze Inscriptions: The Example of the Mu Gui” (in English). In Essay in Honour of An Zhimin. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2004. Pp. 280-97.

“Feudalism and Western Zhou China: A Criticism” (in English). Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 63.1 (June 2003), 115-44.

“Literacy Crossing Cultural Borders: Evidence from the Bronze Inscriptions of the Western Zhou Period (1045-771 B.C.)” (in English). Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquity (Sweden) 74 (June 2002), 210-42.

“‘Offices’ in Bronze Inscriptions and Western Zhou Government Administration” (in English). Early China 26-27 (2001-2002), 1-72.

“Solving the Historical-Geographical Problems of the Inscription of the Duoyou Ding” (in Japanese). In Chûgoku kodai no moji to bunka (Writing and Culture in Ancient China). Tokyo: Kyûko shoin, 1999. Pp. 179-206.

“Ancient Reproductions and Calligraphic Variations: Studies of Western Zhou Bronzes with 'Identical' Inscriptions” (in English). Early China 22 (1997), 1-41.

“A Chronological Study of Late Shang Bronze Inscriptions with Year Notations” (in Japanese). Research paper published by the Kobayashi Setsutaro Foundation, Fuji Xerox Company. Tokyo, Japan. Pp. 1-39.

“On the Contents and the Origins of the Predynastic Zhou Culture” (in Chinese). Kaogu xuebao 1991.3, 265-84.

“Japanese Studies of Chinese Archaeology” (in Chinese). In Zhongguo kaoguxue nianjian (The Yearbook of Chinese Archaeology), 1990. Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1991. Pp. 140-50.

“On the Inscription of the Silver Ingot of the 2nd Year of the Jianhe Era, Later Han” (in Chinese; co-authored with Matsumaru Michio). Shanghai qianbi tongxun 20 (1990.8).

“The Characteristics of Tomb No.1 at Qiangjia” (in Chinese). Wenbo 1989.3, 35, 46-48.

“Periodization and Dates of the Ritual Bronze Vessels from Western Zhou Tombs in the Valley of the Yellow River” (in Chinese). Kaogu xuebao 1988.4, 383-419.

“Periodization of Bronzes from the Cemetery of the State of Guo and Related Historical Questions” (in Chinese). Kaogu 1988.11, 1035-43.

“Periodization and Regionalization of Shang-Dynasty Bronzes from Shaanxi Province” (in Chinese). Kaogu yu wenwu 1986.3, 53-63. 



“New Trends in European and American Archaeology: Rethinking Theory and Methodology” (in Chinese; co-authored with Yuan Jing; translation of Japanese article by Goto Akira). Prehistory (Xi’an) 1-2 (1986), 172-200.