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On the Era of the Five Emperors

HAN JIANYE | 2022-09-08 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The “Era of the Five Emperors” is the protohistoric period preceding the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century–16th century BCE), figured by five legendary emperors including Huangdi (Yellow Emperor), Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao, and Shun. This period is usually thought of as the “Legendary Era” or “Protohistoric Era.” Most pre-modern Chinese believed the existence of the era. However, since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Doubting Antiquity Movement” emerged and the existence of the Era of the Five Emperors was generally denied. Admittedly, archaeological discoveries including the Yinxu ruins since 1928 have debunked the extreme argument that there is “no reasonably dependable history prior to the Eastern Zhou (770–256 BCE),” but the history before the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century–11th century BCE), including the Xia Dynasty and further the Era of the Five Emperors, is still highly debatable. 

Historical textual and archaeological approaches 
Is there any credible historical background for the Era of the Five Emperors? It is difficult to ascertain by the studies of historic texts alone. The research should be assisted with archaeology, or in the combination of historical textual and archaeological approaches. It is necessary to study Chinese ancient history with the method of archaeology. Considering the limitation that archaeology only depends on “dead” sources, the explanation and interpretation of archaeological resources require the assistance of historical texts, ethnographies, and anthropological resources. Since ethnographic and anthropological resources only supply indirect messages, while historical texts directly provide the information of the past, historical texts are more important materials to allow archaeological materials to “speak.” If there are no documentary sources including legends of ancient history, archaeology can only reveal human cultural genealogy, genetic genealogy, and context of social development, but it is difficult to confirm the genealogy of ancestors and ethnic communities in the minds of the people of that period. 
It is possible for archaeology to empirically confirm ancient history to some degree. There is no doubt about the objective authenticity of archaeological data, and the Chinese prehistoric (protohistorical) archaeological cultural genealogy based on archaeological data has been substantially established. If there was an “Era of the Five Emperors,” then the remains of those groups of people should have largely been discovered. An effective method is needed to achieve mutual confirmation and explanation between the two. 
Two methods
We can use the “transition method” and the “genealogical method” to enhance the accuracy and validity of ancient historical evidence. The “transition method” is the combination of the research of cultural changes, settlement changes, wars, and migrations. It is easier to observe and identify such critical points in archaeology as the radical changes of cultures and central settlement resulted by large-scale migrations and wars, which were the most impressive events to the ancients, and thus the most often recorded in historical texts. It is possible to use the significant changes in archaeology to some extent, to confirm important wars or migratory events in the legends. Thereby, to establish certain basic points, and then to explore other details, it is possible to roughly grasp the basic context of Chinese ancient history during the Era of the Five Emperors. The “genealogical method” is to combine cultural, genetic, and ethnic genealogies to solve problems. 
Map of the Era of Five Emperors
These archaeological approaches have been used for exploring ancient history for a century. They have established the general map of the Era of the Five Emperors: The Era of the Five Emperors headed by Huangdi might have begun in the Chalcolithic Age dating back to 5,000 years ago, while the core figures and groups mainly lived in the valleys along the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and West Liao River. Around 5,000 years BP, two mega central settlements occupying over 6 million square meters, located at present-day Nanzuo site and the Liangzhu site, were formed. Both had large tombs, palaces, and palace cities, signifying the initial formation of the Chinese civilization. Then in northern Shaanxi and south-central Inner Mongolia, many stone-walled settlements with significant military purposes emerged, as well as the dramatic shift of the contemporary cultural landscape along the Yellow River, coinciding with Huangdi’s military victories over Yandi (Flame Emperor) and Chiyou, his unification of all territories of China, and the establishment of his regime, which are recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian. Around 4,100 years BP, the cultures in the middle reaches of the Yellow River expanded southward at a large scale. This can be related to Yu’s conquest of Sanmiao [tribes in south China at that time]. The later establishment of the Xia Dynasty was the start of the kingdom stage, when the Chinese civilization entered a mature period.
Han Jianye is a professor from Renmin University of China. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.