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The Eurasian Steppe Route for early China-West communication

ZHU FENGHAN | 2022-09-19 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The Eurasian steppe refers to the area of European steppe and Asian steppe stretching from the Black Sea coast in the west to Transbaikal in the east. The interaction of ethnic groups and cultures between the Eurasian steppe and the present-day northern region of China began as early as about 2000 BCE, and played a positive role in promoting the emergence and development of early Chinese civilization. In this paper, three important topics with sufficient data are selected for discussion, namely: the emergence and development of early metallurgical technology in northwestern China; the two-wheeled chariot found at the archaeological site of Yin Xu and the chariot found on the Eurasian steppe; the Xiajiadian upper culture [a culture found in the present-day Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, dated from the 8th century to the 3rd century BCE]—the vehicle of the convergence of Eurasian steppe and Central Plain culture. Its territory runs from west to east, and its time spans from 2000 to the 800 BCE. 

Early metallurgical technology

From the beginning to the middle of the second millennium BCE, a copper smelting industry emerged on an early scale in north-western China. In recent years, a variety of remains unearthed at the Xichengyi site in Zhangye, Gansu Province, located in the Hexi Corridor, show the cultural connection with Central Asia and West Asia, and more vitally, Xichengyi was an important smelting and casting center at the time. The second stage of Xichengyi (2000–1700 BCE) was dominated by smelting and casting of red bronze, while the third stage (1700–1600 BCE) and other Siba [a culture which existed at the Hexi Corridor between 1900 and 1400 BCE] cultural sites of the same period showed a large proportion of arsenic bronze. The tin bronzes unearthed in the Ganguya site in Jiuquan [which dated to the late period of the Siba culture] increased significantly, and the proportion exceeded that of the arsenic bronze. This situation clearly shows that the Hexi Corridor area experienced a trend of transformation from red bronze to arsenic bronze, and to tin bronze. The [arsenic] content of arsenic bronze in the early stage was between 3.5% and 5%, which corresponds to the ratio that allows arsenic bronze to achieve optimum performance. However, people in West and Central Asia did not know this ratio until the middle of the 4th millennium BCE. Therefore, although arsenic bronze in the Hexi Corridor area was made from local materials, it was likely that the local people adopted the mature arsenic bronze smelting technology from West and Central Asia. Judging from the proportion of tin in alloy, the shift to tin bronze dominance in the later stages of the Siba culture may have been influenced by the metallurgical technology of the east region of the Seima-Turbino Culture distributed in the central Eurasian steppe. The study of the smelting techniques developed in northwest China under the influence of the Eurasian steppe culture is of great significance in exploring the problems (e.g., the emergence of arsenic bronze, the use of Hanoi stones) in the early copper smelting techniques of the Central Plain, which had closer geographical and cultural links with northwest China.

The two-wheeled chariot

The chariot pit excavated from the archaeological site of Yin Xu indicates that the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century–11th century BCE) people possessed mature [technology of making] two-wheeled chariots and various bronze chariot and horse implements since the early stage of Yin Xu culture. Chariot driving had an important impact on transportation methods and war, and was an important driving force for the development of early civilization. However, there was no chariot in the archaeological remains of the early stage of the Shang Dynasty. The chariot suddenly appeared in the early stage of the later period of the Shang Dynasty with a very mature style, and the issue of its origin has been the focus of scholars both at home and abroad for many years. In Yin Xu, there were also sacrificial victims wearing bow vessels or northern-style bronze daggers buried in burial pits around the tomb of the Shang King, which can be connected with the chariot. In the oracle inscriptions unearthed at Yin Xu, there were both herdsmen and troops composed of members of northern ethnic groups in the Shang Dynasty. A large number of northern-style weapons unearthed at Yin Xu reflects that the Shang people’s close connection with the northern ethnic groups, through warfare and other means, and the technology of making and driving chariots and raising horses, undoubtedly came from those northern ethnic groups. 

In the 1970s, a two-wheeled chariot dated from about 2000 years ago was excavated from Sintashta cemetery in the southeast of the Ural Mountains. In particular, a two-wheeled chariot dated to 1500 BCE was unearthed in the Lchashen ancient tombs in Armenia in 1956, which bears a striking resemblance to the chariot unearthed at Yin Xu, providing important information for revealing the origins of the chariot in Yin Xu. The chariot was most likely introduced into the Central Plain region through the central and east of the Eurasian steppes, and its medium should be the northern ethnic groups with extensive contacts with Shang people. 

Xiajiadian culture

The Xiajiadian upper culture, distributed at the Xar Moron River, Laoha River, and Jiaolai River basins in northeast China, flourished in the early to mid-Spring-and-Autumn-Period, and was distinctly characterized by the interweaving of various cultures. In addition to its own regional cultural characteristics, the weapons, tools, horse harnesses, and other artifacts and their designs unearthed in some important tombs were similar to the cultural relics excavated from the tombs [built with stone slabs] at the eastern Eurasian steppe, and also contained the cultural elements represented by the Arran King tomb (Tomb No. 1) located in today’s Tuva region. The Central-Plain-style bronzes and imitations of the Central-Plain-style pottery and bronzes unearthed in some high-level tombs also reflect the communication between the Yan State [in northern China] and other Central Plain countries. The Xiajiadian upper culture should be an important medium for the connection between Eurasian steppe culture and the Central Plain culture in the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–771 BCE). In particular, the equestrian ornaments unearthed from the tombs of Xiajiadian upper culture reveal that horse-riding in the Eurasian steppe might have been introduced into northern China from the 9th to 8th century BCE through the Xiajiadian upper culture. 

The above three examples show that the development of civilization is inseparable from the interaction between different geographical regions and ethnic groups, and the collision and integration of various civilizations is an important and necessary condition for the development of human civilization.

Zhu Fenghan is a professor from the Department of History at Peking University. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.