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Prehistoric remains unveil early Chinese culture

HAN JIANYE | 2020-10-21
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The painted jar from the Yangshao culture, in the collections of the National Museum of China, depicts a stork pecking a dead fish next to a stone ax.  Photo: FILE

"Early China in the cultural sense" refers to a prehistoric large-scale cultural community that formed based on cultural interaction and convergence of various regions within modern China's territory. It is a cultural conception, rather than a political one, of China.
China in the cultural sense is quite different from what we know about it in politics. For example, during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), the cultural territory of China was so large that it covered areas on both sides of the Great Wall, because the Han Chinese, south of the Great Wall, and the nomadic Xiongnu were culturally close. From a political point of view, however, there was deep hostility between the two regimes. Another example is the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (420-589), a time of political division in Chinese history, during which China maintained a strong cultural identity as a continuous and stable civilization.
Rise of early China
Archeologists found that during the Neolithic Era, approximately 10,000 years ago, farming had already emerged in China. The south of China was engaged in rice production while the north featured the cultivation of millet. There were five sub-cultural regions located in: southern China, the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, the Central Plain, the lower reaches of the Yellow River, and northeastern China and present-day Hebei Province. The unearthed pottery is the key element to distinguish these five sub-cultural regions. Pottery made in southern China might have inspired the other cultural regions, since ceramic shards found in southern China approximately date back about 20,000 years, making them the world’s oldest known pottery. 
At approximately 9,000 Before Present (BP), China saw monumental shifts in the concentration of cultural development to the Yangtze River, the Yellow River and the West Liao River basins.  
Chinese civilization developed into the Peiligang era around 8,000 BP. Ancestral worship was evident in the veneration of the dead, reflected by the separate burial areas, where corpses were buried deep and well dressed. Select Peiligang settlements spanned over 300,000 square meters. Some large graves were accompanied by more than 60 burial offerings, and most of the large graves belonged to men, signifying the existence of a stratified society and men’s higher social status. 
Relics dated to the Peiligang era along the Yangtze River, the Yellow River and the West Liao River suggest the presence of complex knowledge systems and the signs of social stratification in China at that time, demonstrating the origins and beginnings of Chinese civilization from roughly 8,000 years BP. The influence of the Peiligang culture entered the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, the West Liao River and the Yellow River basins, and the three regions began to share a variety of common features. This is the cradle of early China in the cultural sense.
Yangshao culture began to dominate China around 7,000 BP, bringing further cultural and social development. Settlements located in Banpo and Jiangzhai sites in Shaanxi Province were found to be surrounded by moats, with almost all houses facing a central square, representing strong social cohesiveness and geographically center-facing arrangement. 
Around 6,000 BP, many regions in China were wet and warm, greatly promoting the prehistoric development of agriculture. A period of the Yangshao culture, known as Miaodigou culture, formed in the border areas between present-day Henan, Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces. This culture was characterized by narrow-mouthed wine vessels with a pointed bottom and painted pottery with petal-like designs. A painted jar from the Yangshao culture depicts a stork pecking a dead fish next to a stone ax. The stone ax is believed to be a symbol of military power. Yan Wenming, a renowned Chinese archaeologist and a tenured professor from Peking University, interpreted this image as a commemorative painting of the victory of the clan with the stork as its totem over the one with the black carp as its totem. 
The influence of the Miaodigou culture spread throughout most of China’s territory around 6,000 BP, forming a large-scale cultural community and early China in the cultural sense came into shape. Many millions-square-meter settlements were set up on the Central Plain. 
Period of ancient states
Around 5,000 BP, the period featured frequent wars, rapid cultural development and intensive social transformation in China. Many regions entered the early civilization phase. The archaeologist Su Bingqi (1909–1997) addressed this period as the period of “ancient states.”
During the time, there were two major cultural centers in the middle reaches of the Yellow River, located on the Loess Plateau in Gansu and Shaanxi and in central Henan Province. Both belong to the late phrase of the Yangshao Culture. A large-scale settlement measuring over one million square meters was found from the Dadiwan Site in the modern Gansu Province, dating back to around 5,300 BP. The foundation of a large palace measures roughly 420 square meters and contains the basic elements of traditional Chinese buildings—halls in the front and chambers at the back, two wing houses facing east and west, and three gates with the main gate in the middle. The Shuanghuaishu Site, located in central Henan Province, also covers more than one million square meters. The site was discovered to be surrounded by three ring trenches, with a huge rammed earth foundation in its central area. The ruins, which are assumed to be the palace in the Shuanghuaishu Site, are different from the palace at the Dadiwan Site. These two types are viewed as the origins of palace buildings that existed between the Xia and Zhou dynasties (c. 2070–771 BCE). The Dadiwan and Shuanghuaishu sites might be the central clusters of two major, ancient states dating to the late phase of the Yangshao culture, revealing signs of a civilized society.
At approximately 4,500 BP, Longshan culture emerged. The role of the middle reaches of the Yellow River as the cultural center was highlighted more than before. The six-million-square-meter Qiaocun site discovered in Gansu Province dated to this era. The Taosi Ruins, another city of the same period located in southern Shanxi Province, spanned over 2.8 million square meters. In this site, archaeologists discovered gigantic structures such as large-scale palace walls, a large palace, rammed earth foundations, a semicircular astronomical observatory and grand graves with rich funerary objects, including painted ceramic plates with a dragon pattern. These archaeological findings reflect the signs of early states or civilized society in the middle reaches of the Yellow River.
During the time, the lower reaches of the Yangtze River was characterized by the Liangzhu culture, a late Neolithic culture in present-day Zhejiang Province. This culture thrived from 5,100 BP, roughly. In its site, archaeologists found the remains of the interior and the exterior of a city, large-scale water conservancy facilities, a grand sacrificial altar and burial sites. Many of the Liangzhu jade pieces are embellished with a distinctive human-shaped deity riding on an animal mask motif, which might be the deity that the people in Liangzhu worshiped. The Liangzhu culture possessed the characteristics of early civilizations, making it one of the earliest regional civilizations in China that developed into civilized society. However, it suddenly declined from 4,200 BP, although its jade art and other cultural elements spread throughout China. 
To sum up, the cradle of early China and the origins of Chinese civilization date back to 8,000 years ago. Around 6,000 BP, early China in the cultural sense came into being under the intensive influence of the Central Plain. When it came to 5,000 BP, many regions had reached the civilized stage of society and the period of ancient states. The Yellow River basin, particularly the middle reaches, saw a rapid growth in civilization around 4,000 BP, while the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River were at a low ebb. At approximately 3,800 BP, the Erlitou culture, a culture centered around the Central Plain, emerged as a state-level society dated to the late Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE). The Chinese civilization grew to maturity. 
This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Han Jianye is a professor from the Department of History at Renmin University of China.