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Archaeological evidence verifies five thousand years of Chinese civilization

YANG YANG | 2018-06-06
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The picture shows a ritual jade unearthed from the Liangzhu sites in the Yangtze River Delta of China. The Liangzhu culture, which is 4,300 to 5,300 years old, was highly stratified. The clear distinction drawn between social ranks in funeral structures indicates stratification of society and emergence of an early regional state. (XINHUA)


Archaeological evidence has been found to verify that Chinese civilization has existed for at least 5,000 years, according to the research results of a comprehensive investigation into the origin and early development of Chinese civilization unveiled by China’s State Council Information Office at a news conference on May 28.

The investigation project, which began in 2001 and completed its fourth stage in 2016, has taken a multidisciplinary approach characterized by archaeological investigation and excavation and supported by modern science and technology.

It has concluded that signs of civilization emerged around 5,800 years ago in areas of the Yellow River, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and the West Liao River in northeast China. Various regions of China gradually began to embrace civilization around 5,300 years ago. A more mature civilization developed in the Central Plain area some 3,800 years ago and began to exert cultural influence over surrounding areas, establishing itself as the core and leader of the overall development of Chinese civilization, said Wang Wei, a team leader of the project’s expert group and Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Wang said that the important findings have been achieved after extensive archaeological investigations and excavations in a number of important sites that are 3,500 to 5,500 years old, including the ruins of Liangzhu in Zhejiang Province, the Taosi site in Shanxi Province, the Shimao site in Shaanxi Province, and the Erlitou site in Henan Province.

Guan Qiang, deputy director of China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said the project has revealed three general characteristics of Chinese civilization: pluralistic integration, inclusiveness and continuity.

The research shows that at the origin and early stage of civilizational development, local societies differed in their environments, economies, social mechanisms as well as religions and social consciousness, presenting a pluralistic pattern.

Through a long process of exchange and interaction, they promoted and complemented each other in an eclectic way. Finally, they condensed into the core civilization represented by the Erlitou culture, ushering in the civilization era of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. The origin and early development of Chinese civilization are a process of pluralistic integration, Guan said.

The origin and early development of Chinese civilization were not directly recorded in written form. Zhao Hui, a team leader of the project’s expert group and professor from the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University, said that now we can describe this period of history after more than a decade’s efforts and the research team’s early accumulation of expertise.

Clear stratification of society can be found during the era of the myriad states. For example, as a political, economic and  cultural center, a city is densely populated. The composition of its residents is not like that of an ordinary agricultural village with blood and clan as the foundation. It is organized according to industries and different functions, and there is also the ruling group at the highest level. As such, there is a clear urban-rural divide, and a clear affiliation between the two. The construction of large-scale buildings can be seen in these cities, especially the central cities. In addition, there are deaths of human beings caused by war and violence. This means the existence of compulsory power, in other words, royal power.

Zhao said that agriculture and handicrafts, the stratification of society, and the emergence of central cities and large-scale buildings can be regarded as prominent features that define the dawn of a civilization. It is noteworthy that these phenomena do not include the two essential signs of civilization commonly used in the Western academia based on the study of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia: writing and metallurgy. “This difference precisely reflects both the universality and particularity in human history. This is also where Chinese civilization differs from other civilizations as we find and summarize in our research.”


YANG YANG is a correspondent with Chinese Social Sciences Today.

(edited by JIANG HONG)