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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Longshan Culture / Black Pottery Culture (Neolithic Farmers) (China)
c.3000 - 1900 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 The picture of China's history as one of smooth progression from start to finish has been replaced by one which accepts multiple points of emergence, some overlaps, and several strands of development.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 Longshan culture (or Lung-shan) succeeded the Yangshao along the 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 Yangshao's 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 which was little different from its modern counterpart, unlike the sometimes vast differences which can be seen in Europe thanks to the retreat of the ice. There the early Longshan people 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, with 'Longshan Era' now being applied by Yan Wenming to the collective cultures of this period, although this 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 which had the early scholars assigning to a single culture all of those regions which were using it. 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 (and its contemporary Qujialing culture). 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 which included stone knives used to drill holes, stone reaping hooks, and also stone shovels, just some of their more common tools.

Peiligang culture tools

(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 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'.

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

This is contemporary with the late phase of the Dawenkou culture on the coastal regions of the Yellow River delta, which it gradually absorbs, with the late phase of the Qujialing culture with which it trades, and with the early Majiayao which has succeeded the Yangshao on its vast western flank.

It is the Longshan culture and time span to which belongs the Legendary Period which is seen to form the start of a long chain of Chinese dynasties. This 'chain' is a view which is being challenged by archaeology and historians, but even if its accuracy is in doubt it still provides a useful framework for whichever version of events is ultimately proven to be the correct one.

c.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.

Majiayao culture pottery
Decorated pottery, a two-handled jar from the Majiayao culture, Banshan type, adorned with painted black and red geometric patterns and standing forty-five centimetres high

By this time, settlements which 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 which 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.

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 Majiayao and Longshan

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.

A mega-drought of about 2200 BC may also play a part. This can also be linked to the decline of Sumerian civilisation, the Akkadian empire, and the Egyptian Old Kingdom, the start of Egypt's 'First Intermediate' period, and flooding in Bronze Age Britain.

c.2100 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.

c.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.

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)

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 numbers 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.

c.1900 BC

With the rapid decline of the Yellow River's Longshan culture, early Chinese society in the region re-emerges in the form of the Erlitou culture.

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