In the 6600s BCE — a full three thousand years before construction began on Egypt’s Great Pyramid — the people of China’s Yellow Riverplain had already developed a taste for the finer things in life.
At the site of Jiahu, within a walled town surrounded by a moat, the elite members of a “complex, highly organized society” dined on boar and beef, sipped wine fermented from rice and honey, enjoyed the music of flutes, and draped themselves in amulets of carved turquoise.
This wasn’t quite writing — not yet; not exactly — but many of the symbols do look intriguingly similar to those of the Oracle Bone Script, which would someday evolve into China’s earliest organized system of characters.
These deceptively simple questions have proven remarkably difficult to answer. One reason for this difficulty is that Chinese writers have always traced their lineage back through a legendary past — and the further back in time you go, the further the legends diverge from the archaeological evidence.
If we’re all in agreement that a society capable of producing a Confucius or Sun Tzu qualifies as full-fledged “Chinese civilization,” then there’s no question that China’s classical age extends at least as far back as the 400s BCE — making it a contemporary of golden-age Athens and Alexandria.
It might be easy, for example, to relegate the legendary Yellow Emperor to the realm of myth — but what about Tang of Shang, the founder of the (most certainly real) Shang dynasty? What about Yu the Great, who allegedly ruled the Xia dynasty who preceded the Shang? What about Emperor Shun, who appointed Yu to control a great flood that raged throughout China?
Should we read characters like Yu and Shun and the Yellow Emperor as literal, individual human beings — or perhaps as representations of clans, or tribes, or complex coalitions of people who accomplished certain cultural transformations over the course of proto-historic centuries?
Maybe there is no black-and-white line, but rather a gradient. Perhaps — as in so many other cultures — mythical characters like Adam and Eve gradually give way to semi-legendary figures like King Solomon — who, in turn, eventually hand over the reins to well-documented rulers like Alexander the Great.
Even so, at some point we’ve got to draw a line and say, “Verified history reaches at least this far back. From this line forward, we can be certain we’re firmly within the realm of proven historical fact.”
Shang noblemen were buried in richly appointed tombs, which give us a clear sense of the dynasty’s material culture: elegant bronze vessels, jade jewelry — and the earliest known examples of true Chinese writing, inscribed on tortoise-shells and other bones for divinatory purposes.
Since writing seems to have been formalized under the Shang, historians of China have an unfortunate tendency to gloss over the epochs between the first arrival of Homo sapiens in China, and the rise of the Shang dynasty more than 30,000 years later. (One popular book, for example, glibly sums up all those millennia in a single brief chapter titled, “From Ape-Men to the Shang.”)
According to these texts, the Xia ruled in the 2000s BCE, which would make them rough contemporaries of the Sumerians, and of ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom — and thus, one of the earliest documented Bronze-Age civilizations on earth. (It goes without saying that these are hotly contested titles.)
The Xia dynasty’s most famous ruler was a semi-legendary figure known as Yu the Great. This virtuous emperor — like Mesopotamia’s proto-historical king Gilgamesh, with shades of Hammurabi — is said to have single-handedly invented flood canals, dynastic monarchy, China’s first organized justice system, and an impressive range of other innovations.
Okay, but that requires some suspension of disbelief, doesn’t it? Sure, most civilizations claim to have a pedigree dating back to the creation of the universe — but modern archaeologists have good reason to treat these tales of primeval patriarchs with a healthy dose of skepticism.
There’s no question that Homo sapiens have been living in China since the last Ice Age — if not even earlier. But until the 20th century, most attempts to connect prehistoric remains to primordial Chinese dynasties were laughed out of the building.
On the one hand, there’s no positive proof that these palaces were built by the dynasty known as the Xia. On the other hand, they occupy the exact same sites assigned to the Xia in ancient texts — and radiocarbon dating has placed them firmly in the period when the Xia were said to reign.
For all these reasons, a growing community of archaeologists are now convinced that the Xia were a real historical dynasty. These revelations push the dawn of Chinese dynastic history back nearly 1,000 years before the Shang — into that remote epoch inhabited by the Sumerians and the Egyptian pyramid-builders.
What we now know for certain is that by 5000 BCE, northern China was already home to a diverse array of cultural centers — many with well-developed traditions of town-building, bronze-casting, pottery, weaving, and rice cultivation.
Since these peoples did not write, our main evidence for grouping (and dividing) them is their material culture: the types of houses and tombs they built, the pottery they sculpted, the fabrics they wove, the crops they grew, and the livestock they raised.
The Yellow River, for example, would have formed a natural barrier between Inner Mongolia and the Yangtze River Valley — as it still does today. Similarly, the thick vegetation of Guizhou would have encouraged rice farmers to settle further north, in the fertile plains around Henan.
And indeed, these are the areas where we find most prehistoric Chinese settlement concentrated: a) on the high plains of Gansu and Shaanxi, b) up north in the Yi-Luo river basin — and, in later centuries, c) down in the Yangtze River valley around Anhui.
On the warm western plains, people cultivated fields of millet — a hardy grain that would eventually become known as the main ingredient in peasants’ porridge and birdseed. They fired red clay pottery with painted bands, and may have been the originators of China’s jade carving tradition.
At the site of Dadiwan, these people laid a square foundation of rammed earth layered with burnt clay. Atop it they built a great communal meeting hall whose outer courtyard measured 4,500 square feet (420 sq m).
At the site of Nanyangzhuang, meanwhile, people had learned to cultivate silkworms, and developed expertise in spinning silk fibers into threads, which they wove into garments of unparalleled fineness.
Around the same time, people down in the Yangtze river valley were building walled towns of rammed earth, protecting large populations of specialists who developed exquisite skill in sculpture.
While certain prehistoric practices — for example, the firing of black lacquer pottery and the cultivation of rice — would someday become synonymous with Chinese culture, other traditions — such as matriarchal rulership and ritual skull deformation — appear to have vanished altogether by the time China emerged from prehistory.
In fact, while some phases of prehistoric culture do seem to be connected with the earliest Chinese dynasties, others seem wildly out of sync with recognizably Chinese civilization — while some may be more closely linked with surrounding peoples like Tibetans, Vietnamese and Mongols.
As this Encyclopedia Britannica article puts it:
“There was not one ‘Chinese Neolithic [period],’ but a mosaic of regional cultures whose scope and significance are still being determined. Their location in the area defined today as China does not necessarily mean that all the Neolithic cultures were Chinese, or even proto-Chinese.”
Some of these peoples were great wall-builders. Others were silk-weavers, while still others were flute-players and inscribers of symbols on bone. Some cultivated rice; others raised cows and kept chickens, or fished the marshes, or hunted in the forests.
Over the course of this series, we’re going to meet many of those primordial peoples. We’ll see how trade and travel brought them together, and how warfare and environmental disaster pushed them apart — sculpting the very foundations of East Asia’s cultural landscape.
Because in truth, this seemingly monolithic civilization is a cunning assemblage of many interlocking parts, which were forged long before anyone spoke the names of Babylon or Egypt.
If China has long been an enigma to the outside world, its cultural origins have often been perplexing even to its own people. The further back we go, the more this civilization’s past becomes a maze.
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