History Files


Far East Kingdoms





Early Cultures IndexChina's Early Cultures

The view of China's emergence into the historical record has been undergoing a revolution of rethinking and examination in recent decades. Gone (or as near so as makes little difference) is the view that Chinese history has been one smooth progression from start to finish. The early cultures along the Yellow River are no longer being viewed as the only source of China's creation. Now a broader view is being taken that China evolved from the influence and input of many cultures from far afield, and not just along the Yellow River.

Nevertheless, the Yellow River region played a vital role in shaping China. This area was less promising than the water-filled plains that gave birth to the Indus culture or that of the Sumerians. From its source on the Tibetan plateau, the Yellow River turns and bends its way through the desolate Ordos Desert region to reach the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea. Like the semi-arid steppelands to the north and west, the great bend in the river around the desert's edge receives a limited and uncertain amount of rainfall. The wet monsoons that inundate much of south and coastal China are so spent by the time they reach the Ordos region that the northern part of the area is largely desiccated. However, early Chinese cultures did develop here (or more specifically, along the desert's eastern border), and one of them was the Yangshao, which appeared around 5000 BC. This was seen as one of the key progenitors of the later Chinese state, but was contemporary with the Daxi culture on the Yangtze River to the south.

The later Longshan culture (from 3000 BC) succeeded the Yangshao along the Yellow River. This can be equated with China's traditional Legendary Period in terms of general dating. It was also seen as one of the main keystones of later China, further expanding a settlement at Erlitou which reached the peak of its achievements during the subsequent Erlitou culture. The latter appears to be largely contemporary with the semi-historical Xia dynasty. Elsewhere, in a parallel development far from the Yellow River, it was during the Shang dynasty period that the western Sanxingdui culture seems to have emerged (around 1600 BC). Following an extremely short existence of just two hundred or so years this disappeared and was entirely forgotten until 1986. By this stage the central core of Chinese culture had formed, and a series of kingly - and later imperial - dynasties ruled the growing Chinese state.

(Additional information from The Cambridge History of Ancient China - From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Michael Loewe & Edward L Shaughnessy (1999), and from Beginnings of China, Stuart B Schwartz.)

Early Cultures IndexYangshao Culture (Neolithic Farmers)
c.5000 - 3000 BC
Incorporating the Majiayao Culture

This was an early Chinese culture that succeeded the Peiligang culture. It was to be found mainly in Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, southern Hebei, and eastern Gansu provinces, and was especially prominent alongside in the middle reach of the Yellow River.

In China's Neolithic period (between about 8000-1800 BC) people gradually learned to cultivate the land as an alternative to foraging. This was roughly at the same time as the Sesklo culture was introducing farming into Europe from Anatolia, and it followed a long drift towards the increased used of early crop plants in the forager diet in China, just as was happening simultaneously further west. Many groups gravitated towards the land that makes up the base of the Ordos Desert bulge, where conditions were surprisingly suitable for sedentary agriculture and human settlement. Thanks largely to the Yellow River, the region abounded in rich loess, a fine-grained, yellowish-brown soil that was deposited by powerful winds from Central Asia. In places, this extremely fertile soil built up over thousands of millennia to depths of over three hundred feet. Through this flowed the Yellow River which derived its name from the peculiar colour of the soil that permeates the river as it is carried eastwards toward the sea.

Relics from the Yangshao have been found in Yangshaocun in Mianchi County to the north-west (which gave the culture its name), and at the Erlitou Bronze Age site, both in Henan Province. It seems that the settlement at Erlitou was founded by the people of the Yangshao culture, although it only reached the peak of its achievements during the Erlitou culture from around 2200 BC. Over a thousand other Yangshao sites have been found including the Banpo site in Xian, and the Jiangzhai site in Lintong County near Xian. The majority of Yangshao sites are in Shaanxi, which today is regarded as being the culture's centre. It saw agriculture become a key focus, with the main crops being millet and chestnuts (the former becoming fully developed during the Banpo phase). Tools were made by grinding stones into useful shapes, including knives, millstones, axes, chisels, and arrowheads. Some tools were made of bone, such as harpoons, fishhooks, and similar items. These people also engaged in fishing and foraging, as well as raising pigs and dogs as livestock. During this period agriculture and animal husbandry developed tremendously, much as it was doing across several succeeding cultures in Europe, starting with the Dnieper-Donets II.

The Majiayao phase is sometimes seen more recently as a separate culture. It was prevalent along the upper Yellow River region of eastern Gansu, eastern Qinghai, and northern Sichuan, between 3300-2000 BC. It saw the widespread adoption of agriculture in this region and created painted pottery that was highly distinctive. Such dedicated and advanced work clearly indicates the emergence of a labour force which contained specialist fields. Far to the west, in Sichuan, the Daxi culture exerted an influence on local Neolithic cultures along the Jialing River. There was also some peripheral Daxi influence outside Sichuan and Hubei, with the Yangshao culture also displaying Daxi-like motifs on ceramic decoration. The Yangshao was succeeded by the Longshan culture.

(Additional information from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China, Steven F Sage, from Beginnings of China, Stuart B Schwartz, from The Times Atlas of Past Worlds, Chris Scarre (Ed, 1988), from the Encyclopaedia of China - The Essential Reference to China, its History and Culture, Dorothy Perkins (1999), from The Transition to Agriculture at Dadiwan, R L Bettinger, L Barton, C Morgan, F Chen, H Wang, T P Guilderson , D Zhang (Current Anthropology 51(5), 2010), from Centripetal Settlement and Segmentary Social Formation of the Banpo Tradition, Y K Lee (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26, 2007), from Banpo Site at Xi'an and Jiangzhai Site at Lintong, Shaanxi Province, X Yang (Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century, 2002), and from External Links: Travel China Guide, and the New World Encyclopaedia.)

c.5000 BC

The Yangshao people are foragers who begin utilising more permanent settlements than their predecessors. These early villages are divided into areas for living, for firing pottery, and for burying the dead. Yangshao society is likely to be organised into autonomous egalitarian village communities with little or no social stratification, at least none that is reflected either in house size or mortuary treatments.

Map of China c.5000 BC
The Chinese city of Xi'an seemed to provide a focus point for the Yangshao culture along the Yellow River, with several important sites being found either close to or actually inside the modern city limits, including Banpo, Jiangzhai, and Yangshao

The archaeological site of Banpo village, near Xi'an, is one of the best-known ditch-enclosed settlements of the Yangshao. Another major settlement, called Jiangzhai (also near Xi'an), has been excavated out to its limits, and archaeologists have discovered that it is completely surrounded by a ring-ditch.

4800 - 4200 BC

The Banpo phase of the Yangshao culture takes place on the central plain. The settlement at Banpo on the Wei River in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, covers more than 10,000 square metres and is founded around 4800 BC. Excavations in the 1950s uncover forty-six houses, most of which are circular. Many of the houses are semi-subterranean in nature, with the floor typically a metre below the ground's surface. The houses are supported by timber poles and have steeply-pitched thatched roofs. The settlement is surrounded by a moat, with graves and pottery kilns located outside the moat perimeter. A cemetery includes a total of one hundred and seventy-four adult burials. A further seventy-three urn burials are discovered inside the town's residential area, all of them the bodies of children placed within small conical jars. Keeping them in the residential area means that they remain close to their grieving parents. The settlement dies out around 4200 BC, ending this phase of the Yangshao.

4000 - 3000 BC

The Miaodigou I phase succeeds the Banpo until the Yangshao culture itself is succeeded by the Longshan culture around 3000 BC. It sees the Yangshao expand outwards from its original core. A degree of hierarchy begins to appear in some areas, such as in settlements in western Henan Province. A late period sees hierarchies increase and the first rammed earth wall appears around the Xishan settlement in central Henan. Miaodigou Phase II is the transition at the beginning of the Longshan into Longshan proper.

Yangshao culture pottery
This piece of painted pottery dates from around 4000 BC and was found in a Miaodigou site in western Henan Province, which saw the gradual progression of Yangshao culture into the succeeded Longshan

However, successive Yangshao phases linger on afterwards in the north-west. The Majiayao phase is dated around 3300-2000 BC in Gansu, Qinghai. This appears to be a crossover with the Copper Age and Bronze Age, as it contains the earliest discoveries of copper and bronze objects in China, and may also be a reaction to regional drought after the wet period that preceded it during which the Yangshao had emerged. The Banshan phase succeeds the Majiayao in the same areas, dated around 2700-2300 BC, and the subsequent Machang phase is dated around 2400-2000 BC.

Early Cultures IndexLongshan Culture (Neolithic Farmers)
c.3000 - 1900 BC

The Longshan culture (or Lung-shan) succeeded the Yangshao along China's Yellow River. Although they overlapped to an extent, the Longshan was centred farther east, emerging in the territory between the fading Yangshao and the East China Sea. The two Miaodigou phases acted as a transition between the two cultures (one phase for each of them), but by around 3000 BC many of the farmer settlers of the Yangshao seem to be migrating down river towards the coast. This was a coastline that was little different from its modern counterpart, unlike the sometimes vast differences that can be seen in Europe. There they gradually absorbed and replaced the late phase Dawenkou culture.

Referencing the Longshan today is limited to the middle and lower valley of the Yellow River, with other, previously Longshan-ascribed areas being categorised as separate cultures in their own right. These included the Liangzhu, which was centred around the river delta of the Yangtze River to the south. The term 'Longshan Era' has been applied by Yan Wenming to the collective cultures of this period, although it has not been accepted universally. Amongst many other sites, Longshan relics have also been found at the Erlitou Bronze Age site in Henan Province. It seems that the settlement at Erlitou was founded under the Yangshao culture, furthered by the Longshan, and achieved its heyday during the Erlitou culture from around 2200 BC. However, the first find of the Longshan was the Chengziya Archaeological Site which was discovered in 1928. This lies just outside the modern town of Longshan in Shandong Province, giving the culture its name.

Longshan pottery was a distinctive black burnished colour, giving this culture its other name, Black Pottery Culture. It was the widespread use of black pottery that had the early scholars assigning all of those regions using it to a single culture. Potters had improved and perfected their art since the Yangshao first developed dedicated potters. Now they also used a potter's wheel, and their pottery was made or traded far and wide, finding its way down to the valley of the Yangstze River. Farming techniques in terms of agriculture and raising livestock had also greatly improved. Farmers planted millet as their main crop, and raised pigs, dogs, sheep, and cattle. They also made great advancements in the area of tool making, and were able to create many stone tools that included stone knives used to drill holes, stone reaping hooks, and also stone shovels, just some of their more common tools.

(Additional information from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China, Steven F Sage, from The Times Atlas of Past Worlds, Chris Scarre (Ed, 1988), from A Companion To Chinese Archaeology, Anne Underhill (2013), from The Archaeology of China: From the Late Palaeolithic to the Early Bronze Age, Li Liu & Xingcan Chen (2012), from The Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to Early States, Li Liu, and from External Link: Travel China Guide.)

c.3000 BC

The Longshan culture succeeds the Yangshao on the Yellow River. It begins with Miaodigou II (3000-2600 BC), a transition phase between Yangshao to Longshan 'proper'. This is contemporary with the late phase of the Dawenkou culture on the coastal regions of the Yellow River delta, which it gradually absorbs, and also with the late phase of the Qujialing culture, with which it trades. It is the Longshan culture and time span to which belongs the Legendary Period that is seen to form the start of a continuous chain of Chinese dynasties. This continuous chain is a view that is being challenged by archaeology and historians, but even if its accuracy is in doubt it still provides a useful framework for whatever reality is ultimately proved to exist.

Map of China c.3000 BC
The Longshan culture succeeded the preceding Yangshao, but initially it was primarily based further east, only gradually spreading back along the Yellow River to cover depopulated Yangshao lands, and also absorbing coastal cultures such as the Dawenkou and Liangzhu

2600 - 2000 BC

Late Phase Longshan takes place along the Yellow River. It encompasses the classic Shandong Longshan culture of Longshan Town itself, the heartland of the culture. By this time, settlements that are part of this culture stretch back from the coast, following the course of the Yellow River westwards to the desiccated ground of the Ordos Desert river bulge. This great spread of settlements can be broken down into several sub-groups, which express minor variations in technology and practices.

With the Shandong Longshan farthest east, along the lower Yellow River and across the Shandong Peninsula, the sub-groups that border it to the west are the Hougang II and Wangyoufang (north and south of the river respectively), Wangwan III, Taosi, Sanliqiao II, and Kexingzhuang II. Together they stretch all the way back across the earliest settlement zones of the preceding Yangshao.

However, the Taosi at least shows no continuity back to the Yangshao, suggesting a collapse here and later repopulation from the expanding Longshan. The closely-related Sanliqiao and Kexingzhuang  areas also show much-reduced populations. These depopulations could be related to the ending of a warm period known as the Holocene Climactic Optimum (circa 7000-3000 BC). This also has a marked effect on European cultures, effectively consigning to extinction the Cernavodă culture of Romania and Bulgaria, for example.

c.2100 BC

China's first historical dynasty (or at least semi-historical) emerges along the Yellow River. The Xia dynasty has a capital that is probably at the Bronze Age site of Erlitou, now a small village in Henan Province that lies a little way south of the ancient settlement. The Erlitou culture emerges in Upper China as an immediate successor to the Longshan culture and is located in the 'Middle Plain' of the 'Middle Land', the latter being China itself. Its emergence has lasting repercussions for all of Chinese culture, laying down several important principles which are followed thereafter.

Longshan culture
The Longshan cultural items shown here come from what is now known as Longshan Town, Jinan, in Shandong Province, which itself is around two thousand years old and is famed for its numerous relics

However, despite the Erlitou culture seemingly lying at the heart of China's first (very early) dynasty, other cultures do exist either now or later in the second and first millennia BC that are separate from the Yellow River area of emerging civilisation. One such culture is the relatively short-lived Sanxingdui, which arises in Sichuan province by around 1600 BC. Others also exist, either to provide some cultural influences to the Yellow River kingdoms or to be conquered by them within the next three thousand years.

2000 - 1900 BC

The Longshan culture declines rapidly, matched by a long period of population decline and possibly even depopulation. The two probably go hand-in-hand, although the cause is still being debated. Severe environmental changes seem to be the most likely cause, whether climatic fluctuations, flooding river systems, or marine transgression. Many Longshan settlements disappear entirely, while a political shift seems to favour western Shandong and Henan. Since the reduction in site number after the Longshan period is a common phenomenon across the Shandong region, the cause may be complex, and could include both social and environmental factors. Early Chinese society in the region re-emerges in the form of the Erlitou culture.