FOR years, archaeologist Yan Wenming crusaded to open China's unexcavated riches to outside research. He met official resistance as imposing as the Great Wall.
Now, amid spreading reform, the Chinese economy is booming and the government has begun unshuttering the vast archaeological trove hidden from foreign scholars for more than four decades.
No surprise, says Mr. Yan, a professor at Beijing University. "The story of Chinese archaeology shows that when a nation is economically weak it closes. But when it is strong, it opens."
Two years ago, the government officially ended China's scholarly isolation and welcomed Western and Asian experts to join its archaeologists in the field.
To date, however, only a handful of projects have been approved by the ponderous bureaucracy, a symptom of the transition under way in Chinese archaeology.
"They are making a major transition from a more historic level to an anthropological [scientific] level," says Richard Macneish of the Andover Foundation of Archaeological Research in Andover, Mass.
"They are very interested in studying the customs of primitive people to understand social relationships," he says. "Until now, this was not done under communism because they thought they had the best system. There's been a major shift."
Foreign know-how and money will be crucial in uncovering and preserving China's cultural heritage, experts say. Yet, ironically, the lifting of scholarly restrictions coincides with rampant looting of artifacts, smuggling to the West, and government disarray over liberalizing an- tiquities sales in an emerging market economy. Objects that are more than 200 years old are not allowed to be sold.
According to the State Administration of Customs, more than 14,000 stolen artifacts are recovered yearly, even though China has executed people for stealing and exporting valuable art.
In the last five years, more than 10 percent of China's 350,000 antiquities sites have been robbed. The government has doubled its funding to protect antiquities to $40 million yearly, although that is still vastly inadequate for the task.
Western observers say it will be difficult for China to regain control of its archeological sites as economic reforms trigger disarray and corruption in many provinces. "Provincial officials control the access. They think the relics are theirs so they can make money," says a Western archaeologist with extensive experience in China.
Last month, eight people were arrested for stealing artifacts from a museum in central China. Some observers have proposed selling duplicates of valuable artifacts to raise money for protecting the remainder.
"Smuggling and robbery are partly caused by criminal gangs and partly caused by our own policy," Zhang Deqin, director of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, said. "But if we open the cultural relics market and sell as we sell cabbages and turnips, the result will be chaos."
"I'm worried that China is bleeding its heritage," says Yan, the Beijing University archaeologist. "But it's not a question of liking the free market or not. It already exists."
IN the meantime, foreign scholars are only beginning to get access to sites that they hope will further understanding of the origins of the Chinese people and distinctive features of Chinese life such as kinship, agriculture, religion, art, and authoritarian government.
Recently, a joint Sino-American project, the first approved under the new policy, unearthed about 3,000 man-made tools believed to be 1 million years old.
Their discovery in the Nihewan basin of Hebei Province in northern China indicates that humans lived in the area that long ago, countering a worldwide conclusion that humans moved to Asia after that time.
Mr. Macneish of the Andover Foundation and his Chinese partner, Yan, the Beijing university scholar and agriculture expert, hope to have government approval soon for a project studying the origins of rice cultivation, a major gap in understanding the domestication of crops worldwide.
Beginning next fall and extending for three years, the American and Chinese teams plan to excavate caves near Nanchang in Jianxi province and trace rice cultivation through analyses of pollen samples and protein of animal fossils. Macneish will fund the $300,000 project, with the Chinese providing labor, laboratory facilities, and other in-kind services.
CHINESE experts see Western cooperation as an important step in putting to rest years of suspicion rooted in foreign looting of archaeological sites before 1949. Before the communist takeover, Chinese nationalists fled to Taiwan with a vast stash of cultural treasures.
During the following 40 years, Chinese archaeologists had to go it alone, withstanding the devastation of the Cultural Revolution when thousands of monuments and artifacts were destroyed or taken from the country.
Because of the deep Chinese sense of history and culture, however, archaeology fared better than many other disciplines, and it was among the first to be allowed overseas exhibitions and scholarly and student exchanges when China began emerging from isolation in the early 1970s.
"First, there was ping-pong diplomacy and then there was archaeology diplomacy," says Wen, who Western experts say has trained most of China's finest archaeologists. "It was easier for the Chinese to deal with foreigners when they could see their own heritage."
But the big breakthrough did not come until 1990, when foreign scholars and students were once again allowed into the field. Likening China today to Mexico of the 1940s where he began working as a student, Macneish says, "They are sensitive about being exploited by imperialists. But now they are starting to see that we're not all bad and are actually quite human and worth working with."
Still, foreign scholars are not yet stampeding to China. Chinese officials acknowledge that foreigners remain skeptical about the government's commitment to open, unobstructed research.
Nor is the government ready to welcome a flood of foreign researchers. Qualifications and funding requirements have been strictly set to attract only the most prominent archaeologists, Chinese observers say.
"It is like a staircase. We have to start at the lowest level and proceed gradually," says Mr. Zhang, the cultural-relics chief.
But first, scholars say, China has to overcome cultural inhibitions that make it difficult to open its ancient past to the outside. "This is our culture," says Cao Yin, an archaeologist and the Sackler Museum assistant director. "We don't want to lose face."