> topics > History

Origins of the Chinese civilization re-examined

GAO JIANGTAO | 2020-10-28
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The picture shows an observatory at the historic site of Taosi in Linfen, north China's Shanxi Province. Photo: XINHUA

Studies of the origin and formation of the Chinese civilization have entered a new stage in the 21st century. Archaeological materials and research outcomes are prolific, and a wide spectrum of specific studies thrive. 
With so many materials, it is important to summarize and extract regularities from the rich archaeological studies in a timely manner, with the goal of understanding the development and evolution of ancient Chinese history. As ancient Chinese civilization began to form, three pairs of concepts are worthy of note. 
Diversity and unity
Contained within the borders of modern China were remarkably diverse cultures, and each geographical unit or region in the prehistoric era evolved in their own way. 
Renowned Chinese archaeologist Yan Wenming, who is a tenured professor at Peking University, proposed the following model to articulate the unity and diversity of prehistoric Chinese culture. He argued that the ancient Chinese civilization was like a flower with multiple petals: The Central Plains in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River represent the center of the flower, and cultural traditions in the surrounding areas represent the layers of petals. This speaks to ancient China's diversity and unity. 
With the continuous discovery of archaeological evidence in each region and the deepening of pertinent studies, scholars have found that the history is much more complicated. Diversity and unity did not always exist concurrently. 
From new research perspectives, the Chinese civilization stemmed from multiple origins and also from one single origin. The multi-origins theory means that major regional cultures in prehistoric China, such as the Central Plains, Haidai Area (Shandong Province and neighboring areas), and the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, had their own characteristics and developed independently of one another. 
However, regional cultures seemed to gradually decline from approximately 4000 to 2000 BCE, with one exception: the Central Plains culture. For many communities, progress toward civilization either terminated prematurely or was disrupted. Only the culture of the Central Plains continued to develop. Advanced cultural elements from other regions gathered in the Central Plains, and its cultural identity absorbed these elements, but was not fundamentally changed. 
The Central Plains remained the foundation upon which the Chinese civilization developed constantly and took shape. From this perspective, the ancient Chinese civilization originated from one single culture, and the single origin was one of the multiple sources. Therefore, the so-called multi-origin and single-origin theories were different interpretations of the same phenomena, from broad and narrow perspectives. 
In terms of civilizational formation and development, diversity and unity occurred on a spectrum which varied through time. The Miaodigou culture type (c. 4500–2780 BCE), a subset of the broader Yangshao Culture (c. 5000–3000 BCE), represented the first stage of massive cultural communication and integration in early Chinese cultural history, and the early-to-mid phase of the Longshan Culture (c. 2500–2000 BCE) represented the second stage. 
Fed by interactions and communication, the cultural strength of the Central Plains grew incrementally. During the late Longshan period, the cultures and societies in surrounding areas declined successively, while the Central Plains society began to grow. 
After the Erlitou Culture Phase II (1705–1635 BCE), the Central Plains region secured its status as the center of the Chinese civilization. The Erlitou Culture interacted extensively with groups on the peripheries, and in response, the surrounding areas changed the course of their development. Independent development tracks derailed, and focus shifted to the Central Plains as the core, for the sake of joint development. Diversity thus evolved into unity. 
Before this, regional cultures coexisted, but didn't have a center. The cultural traditions were distinct from each other, making it difficult to determine whether or not one held the cultural center. When the Erlitou Culture developed, of the Central Plains gained more cultural strength, while unity began to take shape without stifling cultural diversity. Therefore, Chinese civilization unfolded from centerless diversity to centered unity, with diverse characteristics. This might be the most salient feature of ancient Chinese civilization’s development and evolution. 
State and dynasty
Objectively, the concepts of the state and the dynasty are closely related. In the long course of Chinese historical studies, the state was often equated to the dynasty. For example, the Xia state was defined exactly as the Xia Dynasty. 
However, the two concepts are different. Their differences stem from real conditions in Chinese prehistoric archaeology. The state was a form of political organization whereas the dynasty was a ruling model of political power. A dynasty must be a state, but a state was not necessarily a dynasty. The dynasty controlled a vast, trans-regional territory, while the areas managed by early states were simple and limited. The dynasty's core was kingship, while the state had a variety of ruling models, perhaps theocracy-based, perhaps not. 
As society became increasingly complicated, a state emerged in Liangzhu in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, roughly during the period from 3300 to 2300 BCE. The Liangzhu society was extremely religious. This consensus is widely accepted in academia. Although a handful of symbols for kingship, such as the jade yue, were unearthed from large tombs in a Liangzhu site, these artifacts were rare and insignificant compared with the proliferation of sacrificial artifacts like the jade bi or jade cong. The culture was unified in its reverence for their gods, while kingship was rooted in military power, and in this culture it was obviously subordinate. Liangzhu was clearly an early state, although theocracy was at the core of Liangzhu state governance. 
In the culture that followed, the Taosi (c. 2300–1900 BCE) is of note due to the significance of their burial practices. Archaeologists excavated five large tombs concentrated in one area and built in an orderly fashion, which were of highest standards and dated to the early phase of the culture. All of the tomb owners were men who were accompanied by rich burial objects. This shows that certain men from the most prominent families enjoyed an exceptionally high social status. They were obviously not tribal leaders or chiefdom heads, but supreme rulers of early states, or kings. 
In a recent excavation, an imperial city wall of nearly 130,000 square meters was discovered outside the palace area of a Taosi site. The city wall spatially highlights the difference between kings and ordinary people, placing these rulers above ordinary rulers, signaling the formation of kingship. 
The Taosi society was basically marked by the despotism of kings. Even observatories and gnomon systems were monopolized by the kings, indicating the autocratic ideology of kingship. Kingship was at the core of state governance in the Taosi Culture. 
Compared with the high level of state formation in the subsequent Erlitou Culture, Taosi was evidently much more primitive. The primitiveness is manifested in the narrow territory under its de facto control. Restricted to the Linfen Basin in north China's Shanxi Province, Taosi did not yet administer multiple geographical units or cross many archaeological cultural regions. Erlitou, on the other hand, covered a number of regions with advanced cultures. In Chinese history, this kingship-based state with a vast territory was the earliest dynasty. 
Notably, early states overemphasized the role of their capitals, be it Liangzhu or Taosi. Their capitals rose or fell in synchronicity with the state, society, and culture. Moreover, the capital was fixed for a long time, unlike later dynastic states like the Xia, Shang, and Zhou, which relocated their capitals from time to time. 
Inheritance and development
In prehistoric times, the cultures of different regions across China evolved continuously or with disruption, all the while interacting and communicating with each other. To any specific archaeological culture, the immediate results of cultural interactions were reflected in the constant convergence of advanced cultural elements transferred from its surrounding areas. This simultaneously threatened the local culture and inspired it to develop progressively. It was the contradiction between challenge and response to the challenge that drove civilizational evolution. 
Amidst cultural interactions of different forms, such as trade, exchange, war and technical communications, some ethnic groups copied other cultures to expand their own traditions, and others selectively innovated their symbols to form new cultures and make their communities more cohesive. 
During the period of the Miaodigou culture type, communications featured the mixing of Yangshao Culture within the surrounding Daxi, Dawenkou and Hongshan areas. During the Longshan era, cultural interactions seemed to reach a climax. Remains typical of the Longshan Culture, the Taosi Culture and the Shimao Culture (c. 2200–1900) all display the assimilation of advanced cultural elements from peripheral societies. 
In addition, lowland culture represented by the Liangzhu Culture was much more advanced than the highland culture, typically the Taosi and Shimao cultures, in terms of techniques and wealth. During the period from 2300 to 1900 BCE, the highland culture rose to prominence through cultural assimilation and inheritance. 
The Taosi and Shimao cultures were characterized by tall, complicated and defensive city walls, which they built to protect their peoples. The Taosi Culture even built observatories to guide agricultural and economic production, showing more pragmatism. 
It is important to note that the Central Plains people living in the Longshan era didn’t simply replicate external cultural elements. They tended to change or innovate. Apart from the modification of daily utensils, some very important implements, such as jade artifacts, were rarely identical with cultural products from the place of origin. In the Central Plains, the absorption of elements from one archaeological culture represented the dominant culture inheriting other cultures’ advancements. Through selection and innovation, the culture was carried forward and developed. 
Gao Jiangtao is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.