History Files

Far East Kingdoms



Early China

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

The view of what is now 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, although the Early Yellow River cultures do form a major part of the origins of China's early imperial dynasties and are numerous enough to require a separate page, as do the Early Yangtze River cultures. They also provide the foundation for the Sino-Tibetan language family which now dominates China and Tibet. Those cultures which are claimed as Chinese but which lay outside its early control or influence are included in the general page for East Asian cultures.

Now a broader view is being taken in which China can be seen to have evolved from the influence and input of many cultures from far afield, and not just along the Yellow River. Modern humans seemingly reached China at a surprisingly early stage of the general exodus from Africa via the Near East, well before Europe became subject to modern human integration. Early cultures in ancient Korea and Japan seem to have evolved along roughly the same time span while seeming not to be heavily influenced by the generally less developed cultures of Central Asia. The latter initially seemed to concentrate largely on bleeding into Siberia while the East Asians of what is now China and Korea were also primarily involved in peopling the Americas.

The desolate Ordos Desert region is where one of East Asia's earliest archaeological cultures can be found in the form of the Ordosian. The wet monsoons which 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.

Early Chinese cultures developed along the rivers which headed east from the desert and the Tibetan plateau, of which the Nanzhuangtou was just about the earliest. The later Yangshao was seen as one of the key progenitors of the Chinese state, but this was contemporary with the Daxi culture on the Yangtze River to the south. A later Yellow River culture can be equated with China's traditional Legendary Period in terms of general dating, while the Shang dynasty period is contemporary with the western Sanxingdui culture. Following that, a series of kingly - and later imperial - dynasties ruled the growing Chinese state from the Yellow River.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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 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.)

c.12,500 BC

In 2012, what seems to be the remains of a previously unknown human species is identified in southern China. The bones, which represented at least five individuals, are dated to between 12,500 to 9,500 BC.

An artist's rendition of a Red Deer Cave person
One theory for the origins of the Red Deer Cave people posits that they represent a very early migration of a primitive-looking Homo sapiens which lived separately from other forms in Asia before dying out

FeatureThey are named simply the 'Red Deer Cave' people, after one of the sites from which they are unearthed, at Maludong (or Red Deer Cave), near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province. A further skeleton is discovered at Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Province. The skulls and teeth from the two locations are very similar to each other, suggesting they are from the same population (see feature link for more).

Nanzhuangtou Culture (Neolithic) (China)
c.10,600 - 9300 BC

This was one of the very earliest cultures to be undeniably Chinese in terms of its location. It is slotted into the beginning of the Neolithic period in East Asia, although conditions here had never been as harsh as they were in Northern Europe, where the people of the Hamburg culture were  pushing north into virgin lands which were still losing their ice cover.

The dating for this culture are subject to some debate at present, although this may in part be due to the current range of finds and determining a specific 'core' period for the culture. The dates given here can be shortened by some scholars to about 9500-9000 BC, perhaps by excluding early, less specific finds. The type site lies near modern China's Lake Baiyangdian in Xushui County, Hebei Province. Evidence of pottery use here was plentiful, along with stone grinding tools for processing millet. Signs were also available to show that immediate descendants of the Nanzhuangtou people had domesticated the dog by about 8000 BC. The archaeology lies around 1.8 metres below ground level, under millennia of silt and lake deposits.

China's later Neolithic period (between about 8000-1800 BC) saw people gradually learning 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. 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. The Nanzhuangtou faded out without a direct local successor, but its ideas and developments would soon form part of the the Early Yellow River's first specific culture, the Peiligang, a little over two millennia later, and the Cishan soon after that.

Siberian cultural bone markings

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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 Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to Early States, Li Liu (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and from External Links: Travel China Guide, and the New World Encyclopaedia.)

c.2100 - 1900 BC

China's first historical dynasty (or at least semi-historical) emerges along the Yellow River. The Xia dynasty has a capital which is probably at the Bronze Age site of Erlitou, now a small village in Henan Province which 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 which 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.