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‘Early China’ differs from ‘early Chinese civilization’

LI YUJIE | 2019-09-26
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 
Pictured are ritual crafted bronze objects consisting of an altar table and 13 wine vessels, which date back to the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (c. 1600–771 BCE) that academics generally refer to as early China. Photo: FILE
 

 

Currently, the origin of the state and the evolution of civilization in China have become issues of common interest to historians and archaeologists. They concern the origin and spatial-temporal characteristics of the early state and early civilization in China. 

 
Different concepts 
The state is not only the outcome of a civilization when it is developed to a certain degree but also a result of the interplay among the civilization’s political, economic, cultural, military and even administrative factors. The aggregation of the factors advances the stratification and social integration of the political state. The emergence and development of the state and the civilization are not synchronous. This is the case with “early China” and “early Chinese civilization.” Academics generally hold that early China refers to such dynasty-states as the Xia (c. 2070–1600 BCE) and Shang (c. 1600–c. 1046 BCE), the earliest of those established in the Central Plains.
 
Large amounts of archaeological materials and ancient books unearthed since modern times have enabled us to gradually restore historical memories and objective history previously lost due to the absence of documents. Despite close connections between early China and early Chinese civilization in many aspects, the two differ significantly from each other in connotation and extension. 
 
Early China is a concept of political state and dynasty. It concerns the characters “Zhong Guo” (China) that first appeared as an inscription on Hezun, a bronze chalice of the early Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE), and relates to the concept of “China” mentioned in documents of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), such as The Book of Shang and The Book of Songs
Whether in ancient documents or in inscriptions on ancient bronze objects, early China implies dynasty-states and capitals in the Central Plains. 
 
Chinese civilization is a specific definition, denoting the evolution of the unified multiethnic state created jointly by all ethnic groups of China from the past to the present. It includes not only the first three dynasty-states in the Central Plains, but also the majority of land within the territory of present-day China. The vast land, complicated landform, and sophisticated, diverse geographical and ecological environments spawned different multiethnic and multiregional cultures in ancient times. Amid the fusion and mutual penetration of diverse regional cultures, the early civilization and dynasty-states in the Central Plains developed, playing a core role in Chinese civilization. 
 
From an archaeological perspective, “culture” is different from “civilization.” Generally, civilization refers to a state of society that is developed materially and intellectually, hinting at the overall development level of social and natural behaviors in the organization. Early Chinese civilization was a social state in which material and intellectual culture was advanced to a certain extent. The earliest dynasty-states in the Central Plains, or early China, were a result of the accumulation and transformation of civilization featuring the integration and mutual penetration of diverse cultures. 
 
 
Commonness of regional civilizations 
The examination of early Chinese civilization is based on voluminous historical and archaeological materials. Archaeologically, humans had dwelled, lived and reproduced in many regions of China as early as in the Paleolithic Age. In the Neolithic Period, different forms of culture and social organization, which were developed to varying degrees, had emerged in the Yellow River, Yangtze River and Liaohe River basins, the Sichuan Basin and the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Though developing in different forms and with distinct features in the vast land of prehistoric China, regional civilizations had much in common. 
 
Excavations of many prehistoric sites reveal that a regional culture was not the product of the linear development or spread of the culture of a core area, but took shape and developed spontaneously out of different regions. Due to the inland nature of ancient China and the interflow of river basins, regional civilizations continuously acquired new cultural factors by communicating and blending with other cultures. 
 
Moreover, primitive agriculture was the predominant mode of production and life in most regions, supplemented by gathering, fishing, hunting and husbandry. The productivity was extremely low, relying on wooden and stone implements. And surplus products were scarce. 
 
The dependence on land gave rise to stable social organizations, and efforts to safeguard land boundaries made the society cohesive, as evidenced by lots of defensive, centripetal settlements unearthed from prehistoric sites. In the meantime, the clan- and tribe-based lineage system intensified, while religious and sacrificial rituals centered on ancestor worship were perpetuated, leading to the transition from primitive religions to rites. 
 
Because of imbalanced regional cultural development, cultural centers changed from time to time, but some stood out in particular, such as the Hongshan Culture (4000–3000 BCE) in northern China; the Yangshao Culture (5000–3000 BCE), the Majiayao Culture (4200–3300 BCE) and the Dawenkou Culture (4300–2500 BCE) in the Yellow River Basin; and the Qujialing-Shijiahe Culture (3300–2200 BCE) and the Liangzhu Culture (3300–2000 BCE) in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. 
 
Notably, around 4,500 years before the present, the decline of the Hongshan and Liangzhu cultures dominated by sacrificial authority synchronized with the thriving of the Longshan Culture (2500–2000 BCE) featuring political authority. The rise and fall of the cultures brought about major changes to the cultural pattern of prehistoric China. Owing to its simple and effective organizational and managerial characters, as well as its efficiency in massive social mobilization and integration, the Longshan Culture progressively bred dynasty-states in the lineage of the Erlitou Culture (1735–1530 BCE). 
 
The excellence of social mobilization and organization in the cultural centers was exemplified by massive settlement clusters or time-honored cities alongside magnificent buildings and altars. These undertakings required not only enormous amounts of manpower and human resources but also precise planning and specialized division of labor. 
 
This indicated that early regional cultural centers had clear social hierarchies and erudite professional groups such as priests, apart from strong abilities in mobilizing and organizing the people of surrounding settlements. The professional social division of labor, social management and material strength, such as cities and exquisite sacrificial vessels, were the rudiments of civilization. 
 
 
Gradual evolution 
The argument that the Xia Dynasty was the first political state in the Central Plains is supported by historical documents, myths and legends. However, be it the development of early civilization or of political states, it was a gradual process. 
 
Historical records, myths and legends suggest that political civilization had already existed during the reign of Emperor Shun prior to the Xia Dynasty. The claim that Chinese civilization has a history of 5,000 years stemmed from the Five Emperors (Yellow Emperor, Zhuangxu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun) and Three Kings (founders of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties) of the emperor and king systems in the Central Plains. And the discovery of the Liangzhu Culture dating back to 5,000 years before the present advanced our understanding of the origin of early Chinese civilization. 
 
Without doubt, the ancient city of Liangzhu had the various attributes of an early regional state. Despite no discoveries of metalware or writing systems, the so-called symbols of civilization, the civilizational significance of the Liangzhu Culture cannot be underestimated. Behind the unearthed materials of the ancient city, large dams and altars along with delicate jadeware and ritual vessels stand as models of social organization and symbols of civilization beyond our knowledge. Therefore, we should take a holistic view when examining early Chinese civilization. 
 
The long history of the Longshan Culture in the Central Plains and early states in Erlitou, which were representative of early China, as well as their achievements in creating basic models for ancient Chinese political civilization, is justifiable. 
 
In the fierce war between tribes and clans back then, the pragmatic organizational form of political power that integrated military and religious authority fitted well with the fixed and refined production mode of agricultural settlements. By absorbing the advanced cultural factors of surrounding regions, they fostered an exemplary civilization characterized by unity and diversity on Chinese land. 
 
The making of political states in the Central Plains substantively shortened the evolutionary course from prehistoric tribes and clans to early China and expedited the development of Chinese civilization. However, the process was also gradual, from quantitative changes to a qualitative leap. It didn’t start from the Xia and Shang dynasties, but was instead created by earlier social and political organizations that were active in the Central Plains. 
 
 
Revelation of the Records 
Legends about the Five Emperors originate in the books of pre-Qin scholars. Borrowing from old legends, early Han historian Sima Qian began the Records of the Grand Historian with the “Annals of the Five Emperors,” regarding the Five Emperors as the beginning of the Chinese political course and evolution. This reflects the people’s worship of the Jiang and Huaxia tribes led by the Yan and Yellow Emperors, respectively. The worship of the emperors resulted from the desire of the people to survive and develop. 
 
Since the Spring and Autumn Period, relations among ethnic groups in China were tense to an unprecedented degree. As the Huaxia tribe was inclined to unify all ethnic groups, vassal states united into a greater polity amidst fighting. During the period, the Huaxia culture of high national identity, represented by the civilization of the Central Plains, became a flag of unification. From then till the Han Dynasty, the Yellow Emperor was widely held in high esteem as the “Saint King” and “First Ancestor” of China. Thus both Chinese civilization and the state and nation in China trace back to the history of the Yan and Huang Emperors. 
 
With the Yellow Emperor as the first emperor of China, the Records took a broad vision of national identity that incorporated all ethnic groups into a genealogy with Huaxia as the common origin, thereby constructing the 5,000-year history of Chinese civilization that starts from the Five Emperors and Three Kings. The Records historical achivement in regard to national identity has important implications for our examination of early China and early Chinese civilization. 
 
 
Li Yujie is a professor of history at Chongqing Normal University. 
edited by CHEN MIRONG