The Wild East, Part 1: A Mirror Frontier
Previous Mysteries of Primeval China, Part 3: Bronze Kingdom of the West
They colonized the Pacific, raised labyrinthine temples, and laid the foundations of imperial rule. Meet the Hemudu culture — China’s first great sea power.
As the people dragged their long canoes up onto the beach, they gazed up at the mountainous jungles of what seemed an untouched paradise.
The sky was bright blue, and birds sang among the verdant vegetation. A mild wind carried the familiar scent of the sea. Pet dogs barked, leaping from the canoes to bounce joyously in the surf, while the people unloaded the plump grunting hogs they’d brought from home.
They had paddled for days and nights to reach this place — traveling farther south than anyone in living memory, in hopes of finding new groves of nuts, melons, and peaches, as well as new hunting grounds.
Suddenly, a young warrior froze, eyes wide. He pointed up into the trees — where a band of strangers stared back. The people were not alone here.
Cautiously, the locals crept down to the beach, stone-tipped spears in hand. They were much shorter than the people who’d just arrived — their skin the color of dark earth, their faces decorated in colorful paint, their heads and arms adorned with feathers.
The locals and the newcomers watched one another with wary curiosity. A fight could break out at any moment.
Warriors reached into the canoes for their bows and arrow-bags. Dogs snarled nervously. Women clutched their babies tightly to their breasts.
But then an elderly man rose from his seat at the rear of one canoe. His gray hair and beard marked him out as a chieftain, as did the elaborate beaded necklaces and bands of red ochre that adorned his body.
The chief raised both hands, palm-outward: the universal gesture for, We mean you no harm. Then he reached beneath his seat and drew out an artifact the locals had never seen before: a black-fired clay pot decorated with carved images of boars and deer.
Stepping forward from the canoe, passing through the ranks of his people, the chief placed the vessel on the sand, midway between the newcomers and the locals.
For a long moment, time seemed to stand still. At last, the headman of the locals crept toward the vessel, and bent down to retrieve it from the sand. He raised it to eye level, whistling appreciatively — then turned to his warriors, barking out a few words of instruction.
Reluctantly, the squat, dark-haired warriors unfolded hide-wrapped packages from the satchels on their backs. They crept forward and placed the satchels on the beach, unwrapping them to reveal steaks of fresh-roasted venison.
The newly arrived warriors sighed with relief. Their chieftain smiled. The people could trade with the locals here — which meant that for now, they would be safe.
After that first tense meeting, the next few months flew by quickly. The newcomers gathered wood from the forest, and built tall houses on stilts at the edge of the sea. They constructed kilns where they fired their elegant black pottery — and planted rice in carefully tilled fields.
Here in this new land, the people were reconstructing the world they’d left behind, one piece at a time. Unlike the squat, earth-skinned locals, the newcomers were not from this part of the world. They’d come from much further north.
From China’s southeast coast, the people brought rice, pottery, and many other innovations to the islands of Luzon, Borneo, Sumatra and Java — giving birth to the modern Austronesian peoples.
Though we don’t know what the newly arrived people called themselves, we know them today as the Hemudu culture, which flourished from about 5000 to 4000 BCE — about a thousand years before the first Sumerian and Egyptian cities.
We know even less about the short, earth-skinned locals. These stone-age navigators probably came from southeast Asia sometime around 70,000 BCE — and had been the sole inhabitants on these islands for tens of thousands of years before the Hemudu people arrived.
As the centuries passed, the newcomers either assimilated the locals or exterminated them — or some combination of both — pushing their domain further southward. Today, isolated populations of their descendants survive in inland Australia, and on the island of Papua New Guinea.
Meanwhile, back in the Hemudu homeland, on China’s southeast coast, the newcomers’ relatives prospered and developed along separate lines — becoming one of primeval China’s most advanced cultures.
By 3000 BCE — around the time that Egypt’s Great Pyramid was under construction — Hemudu culture had given way to a phase known today as Majiabang. Rice cultivation scaled up, and pottery and weapons became more refined.
A mere hundred years later, around 2900 BCE, this culture — now known as Hongshan — reached a new apex. As hunting-and-gathering gave way to large-scale rice farming, stilt-house villages grew into full-size towns — each ruled by a chieftain, who may also have served a shamanic role, consulting with the spirit world and interpreting omens for the common people.
And for the first time in Chinese history, craftsmen learned the art of jade-carving, and crafted elaborate jewelry and arm-bands for their upper class.
At the site of Niuheliang, Hongshan people constructed an elaborate underground temple complex. They raised great stone columns along its walls, which they adorned with complex murals and jade figurines depicting an entire mythology unknown to us.
Most mysteriously of all, the temple at Niuheliang contained clay statues three times the size of a human being, with inlaid eyes of jade. Were these the deities of the people who dwelled here?
We simply don’t know — because, for reasons still poorly understood, almost all traces of China’s original indigenous gods have been wiped out.
Still, one thing’s for certain: by around 2600 BCE, the descendants of the Hemudu people had developed a culture that strongly resembled that of the Xia dynasty — the first dynasty known by name in recorded Chinese history.
Like the Xia — who would rise to power a few hundred years later in the 2200s BCE — the people at sites like Niuheliang, Dawenkou and Liangzhu dwelled in large towns built around central temples. They were most likely ruled by chieftains, who would shortly be known as China’s first emperors.
Unlike their hunter-gatherer ancestors, most people in these towns were peasant laborers, working fields of rice and raising pigs for the slaughter.
Agriculture on this scale would have required significant centralized administration — and indeed, the first recorded tales of Xia heroes (like Yu the Great) have them organizing irrigation and staving off floods.
The people in these towns revered dragons, which they depicted in amulets of jade, and on elegant black pottery. The designs of their ceremonial centers reflected the principles of feng shui, hinting at the development of a recognizably Chinese cosmology.
In short, the final phases of this culture bring us right up to the very brink of recorded Chinese history — not only in time, but also in social organization, material culture, and religion.
Here, for the very first time, we seem to be watching the birth of recognizably Chinese civilization.
And this is hugely significant because — as you know if you’ve read this series from the beginning — many cultures that inhabited primeval China seem to have nothing to do with the culture we call “Chinese.”
The aristocratic elites at Jiahu, whom you met in Part 1 of this series, appear to have vanished into the mists of prehistory, leaving no cultural descendants at all. Meanwhile, the nomads at Yangshao, whom you met in Part 2, seem to have been much more Mongolian than Chinese.
And yet, in the earliest Chinese historical records, we do find small hints of all these cultures — faint traces of a strikingly different primeval world.
For example, while the Xia dynasty’s ruling class lived in palaces and ruled over towns, the historical sources make it clear that most of the peoples the Xia “ruled” were nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers — who were, in all likelihood, not even genetically related to their emperors. Could some of these have been the descendants of the Yangshao people?
Similarly, Xia emperors dressed in robes of silk — which were first woven at Jiahu, by people who were (again) very likely unrelated. These early emperors fought from chariots, using bronze spears — both of which were once military hallmarks of Siberia’s Seima-Turbino Phenomenon.
As I said in Part 1 of this series, China’s seemingly monolithic civilization is in fact a cunning assemblage of many interlocking cultures.
By the time the Xia dynasty rose to power, all competing cultures seem to have been absorbed, conquered — or at least forced to pay tribute. All deities and myths unrelated to the Xia ancestors were wiped from the historical record. “China,” as a geopolitical entity, was hammered into existence by sheer force of will.
But if we could travel back just a few centuries before the Xia, we’d find ourselves in a very different China — a place of far greater cultural diversity.
We’d find the northwest was ruled by nomadic tribes; the southeast by rice-farming chiefdoms. And along the Yangtze River valley we’d find dozens of walled city-states, each of them fiercely independent from the others.
The mysteries of this primeval land are still a long way from being unearthed. Every year brings startling new discoveries — and lends new complexity to the story of China’s cultural birth.
I’m a one-person operation, and I gladly write these articles for free — but support from readers like you helps a lot with my hosting and domain costs.
So if you’d like to show some love (and get a FREE hardcover book while you’re at it)…