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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Erlitou Culture (Bronze Age) (China)
c.1900 - 1350 BC

The view of the way in which Early China emerged into the historical record in East Asia has undergone a revolution of rethinking since the end of the twentieth century. The picture of China's history as one of smooth progression from start to finish has been replaced by one which accepts multiple points of emergence, some overlaps, and several strands of development.

Archaeological cultures along the Early Yellow River were once thought of as the only source of China's creation, although such cultures do still form a major part of the origins of early Dynastic China and are numerous enough to require a separate focus, as do the early Yangtze River cultures.

The Erlitou culture succeeded the successful Longshan in north-eastern China, along the Yellow River. The end of the third millennium BC produced harsher climatic conditions which severely affected many early cultures and kingdoms around the world, and the Longshan appears to have been no different in this respect. The recovery took a century or two, but the Erlitou was the result.

This culture emerged in 'Upper China', in the 'Middle Plain' of the 'Middle Land', that middle land being early China itself. The culture coincides with, and is generally accepted as being the archaeological expression of, the semi-historical Xia dynasty which covers the first quarter of the second millennium BC. Erlitou is now a small village in Henan Province, which lies a little way south of the ancient settlement, but it is thought that the dynasty's founder, Yu 'the Great', had his capital here.

The emergence of both culture and dynasty had lasting repercussions for all of Chinese culture, laying down several important principles which were followed thereafter. The Xia remain largely a mystery, but at Erlitou (pronounced earl-ee-taow) archaeologists continue to find intriguing clues to their identity and the two really do seem to be tied together in history and archaeology.

All that has survived is oral tradition (later written down) and a good deal of archaeology. It certainly does seem to have been an important dynasty, however, with sixteen emperors succeeding Yu before the dynasty's end around 1766 BC.

An interesting discovery from twenty-first century archaeology in China is the realisation that much of the nation's Bronze Age technology came from regions outside China. Bronze which arrived in China originated in the Babylonia-dominated Near East or ancient Egypt.

Some of the wilder theories have put this down to an epic migration from Egypt to China, seemingly during the Hyksos period when long-distance seaborne travel was a definite possibility, although the distances involved in this case may have been far too great.

A more prosaic consensus is that bronze was transmitted into China from Central Asia through a slow process of cultural exchange (trade, tribute, and dowry) across the northern frontier, mediated by Eurasian steppe pastoralists who had contacts with indigenous groups at both ends of the chain.

Egtved girl of the Bronze Age

(Information by Peter Kessler, with 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 A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Anne P Underhill (Ed, 2013), from A Cultural History of the Chinese Language, Sharron Gu, and from External Links: Catalogue of Long Hybrid Solar Eclipses: -3999 to 6000 (Nasa), and Does Chinese Civilization Come From Ancient Egypt?, and Ancient Chinese farmers sowed literal seeds of change in south-east Asia (Science News), and the New World Encyclopaedia, and Erlitou Culture (Facts and Details).)

c.1900 BC

The Erlitou culture succeeds the Longshan following a short interlude as society recovers from the climatic-induced problems of the past couple of centuries. The Erlitou type site yields great finds which date from this period onwards, to around 1500 BC. These include pillared halls, and palaces which could be dated between 2000-1500 BC and which, in theory, can be linked to the early Xia dynasty.

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

These palaces stand on rammed-earth platforms, one of them with a triple gate which provides the pattern for all later Chinese royal cities. Pottery and bronze castings are found here, as is a burial with an exquisite sceptre made of two thousand pieces of turquoise in the shape of a dragon, the symbol of Chinese royalty since the beginning of civilisation here.

Chinese rice and millet farmers have been spreading southwards into a region which stretches between Vietnam and Burma. There, they are interbreeding with local hunter-gatherers in two main pulses, the first taking place around now and the second around the end of the first century BC.

The migrations seem to occur from southern China which, at this time, is not part of the Erlitou culture of the north, but which may still be informed and improved by it.

Map of Xia China c.2000 BC
The semi-mythical first dynasty of China emerged in territory along the Yellow River, quickly conquering and dominating the rival early states around it, especially the Shang tribe who would later pose such a threat to Xia hegemony, but also others such as the largely mysterious Pi, and Ge (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.1875 BC

The large, potentially imperial palace at Erlitou is rebuilt to a smaller size around this time. This is Erlitou No 2 site, and archaeologists will later find the remains of the original 1975 BC palace underneath the rebuild. The palace on the No 1 site dates to around this time too, or perhaps a little later.

c.1766 BC

Prior to their ascent as conquerors of the semi-historical Xia rulers, the Shang had formed a tribe which had occupied the lower regions of the Yellow River during Xia dominance.

c.1700 BC

A 2011 archaeological find reveals another palace complex at Erlitou, which is dated to about 1700 BC. Dating for the early Chinese dynasties is unreliable, but this construction may well be a Shang project.

Erlitou palace
This palace of the Erlitou culture was at its height during the Xia dynasty, but this great palace was inherited by the Shang dynasty following its act of overthrowing the Xia

c.1380 BC

In an attempt to revitalise the Shang dynasty's now-fading fortunes, Emperor P'an-keng moves the capital to Yin, thereby creating the amended form of the dynasty's name, Yin Shang. This coincides almost precisely with the ending of the Erlitou culture at the site of the (probable) former imperial capital.

c.1350 BC

The Yellow River's Erlitou culture comes to an end, to be succeeded by an increasingly historical Dynastic China which is still under the sway of the Shang emperors.

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