Neolithic China: Dawn of Chinese Civilization

The convergence, integration, and development of various cultures facilitated the rise of civilization in the Central Plains

By Qiu Hui

The Neolithic age in China began in the middle reaches of the Yellow River about 10,000 years ago, and Yangshao Village, which is located in the region, is considered the birthplace of modern archaeology in China.

In 1921, Chinese archaeologists first proved the existence of a developed Stone Age culture in Yangshao. The small village in Mianchi County, Henan Province, became the starting point for Chinese archaeologists over the next century to study issues such as where the Chinese people came from, how the country came into being, and what the origins of Chinese civilization looked like.

The complex geographical environment in the Central Plains makes the region suitable for the survival and development of humans, and the area could have fostered the birth of Chinese civilization in the early and middle stages of the Neolithic period.

Shaoyuan Square at the Yangshao Village National Archaeological Park, Henan Province. (LI AN)

Li Xinwei, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), opined that Chinese civilization can be traced back to over 10,000 years ago and that agricultural differences in planting between north and south laid the foundation for civilizational development.

Timeline of Prehistoric Cultures

After the discovery of stone tools and painted pottery in Yangshao, European and American archaeologists also found similar items in other places in China. Due to a lack of evidence to show that these ancient artifacts were made by local Chinese, European and American archaeologists frequently suggested that Chinese civilization could have originated from Western Asia.

Chinese archaeologists, however, never gave up on refuting that hypothesis with solid evidence. Unfortunately, Chinese archaeology in the 1920s was nascent and weak in personnel and research capabilities. The Longshan Culture, discovered in 1928, and the Shang Culture, discovered around the same time at the Yin Ruins in the suburbs of Anyang, Henan Province, did not provide evidence powerful enough to invalidate the “Western origins” theory.

In 1931, Chinese archaeologist Liang Siyong returned to China after studying abroad and participated in the archaeological excavation at Xiaotun and Hougang sites of the Yin Ruins. During this excavation, Liang discovered the famous “three-layered accumulation” in Hougang. The layers, with ruins of the Yangshao Culture, the Longshan Culture, and the Shang Culture from bottom to top, explained in stratigraphy that the Chinese civilization evolved along the same strain and thus was not inherited from the West.

In 1945, Chinese archaeologist Xia Nai conducted in-depth studies of the Qijia cultural site in Gansu Province in northwestern China and began speculating that ancient Chinese culture actually spread from east to west. Later, a large amount of painted pottery was excavated in Xinjiang in western China. Studies of the Qijia site and the discoveries in Xinjiang proved that painted pottery in China did not come from the West. On the contrary, pottery found in Xinjiang has demonstrated that Chinese culture diffused from east to west.

Archaeologists regard the Yangshao Culture as a milestone marking the beginning of Neolithic China. It was consolidated by excavations and discoveries in the 1950s at the Taosi site in Linfen, Shanxi Province, and the Miaodigou site in Shaanxian, Henan Province. In 1953, excavation of the Banpo site in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, captured a complete picture of primitive settlements during the Yangshao Culture period, providing unprecedentedly abundant references for the study of social organization.

A visitor examines exhibits at the Miaodigou Yangshao Culture Museum in Henan Province, on October 17, 2021. (LI AN)

Later, Chinese historian Yin Da proposed that cultures of various primitive systems in the Neolithic period gradually evolved into distinctive cultures of different regions and tribes in ancient China. Many academics have agreed that Yin’s proposition explains relations between patterns of prehistoric Chinese cultures and patterns of China as a multi-ethnic state.

From 1949 to 1979, more than 6,000 Neolithic archaeological sites were discovered. For Chinese archaeologists the three decades, according to Li Xinwei, were a stage for the accumulation of materials and the exploration of academic theories. The timeline of the prehistoric cultures in China was primarily established during the stage.

In 1959, Xia Nai published the article On Archaeological Naming of Cultures, which provided theoretical reference for establishing a timeframe of prehistoric cultures. Carbon-14 dating technology, which is still in use today, was also first applied during this period and became an extremely important archaeological technology.

Dawn of Civilization

Historical materials show that the transition from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic Age, as well as the formation of agriculture, happened in various regions in China from 15,000 to 6,000 years ago. The regions spent a long period in early development of social complexity.

The Peiligang Culture in central China, which dates back to around 8,000 years ago, achieved basic agricultural development at an early stage. At the Jiahu site in Wuyang, Henan Province, ancient villages and public cemeteries with more than 8,000 years of history were discovered alongside considerable carbonized rice. Most of the rice was identified as cultivated rice.

The planting of rice is closely related with the development of human civilization, and the study on the origination of rice crops has always been a major theme for the agricultural archaeology in China. Most of the ancient rice evidence had been discovered in southern China, and this discovery proved that during the Peiligang Culture period, rice was already a staple crop in central China.

A big discovery from the Jiahu site was seven-hole bone flutes. The bone flutes are the oldest flutes ever found globally, and some have been tested to play a scale close to seven tones. The flutes are the earliest wind instrument with the best musical performance discovered in China, and the discovery rewrote the history of world music. “The bone flutes prove that between 8,500 and 7,000 years ago, many important civilizational phenomena had already appeared,” Li Xinwei said.

An inscribed bone fragment for divination in the Shang Dynasty unearthed at Yin Ruins in Anyang, Henan Province. (TENG YANYAN)

Several tortoise shells were also unearthed from tombs at the Jiahu site. The inscribed symbols at the bottom of some tortoise shells appeared similar to the pictographs on the Shang oracle bones “目”, so there is a possible connection between the two. Han Jianye, a professor at the School of History of Renmin University of China, believes that the shape of the tortoise shell likely indicates cosmology of “orbicular sky and rectangular earth” at that time.

Li Xinwei noted that the period from 6,000 to 5,300 years ago was a splendid turning point for prehistoric China. During the period, leap-forward social development took place simultaneously in various regions, as evidenced by cultural relics such as large-scale communities of the Miaodigou Culture, a massive cemetery of the Dawenkou Culture, and a large cemetery of the Daxi Culture.

The Miaodigou Culture, which dates from 6,000 to 5,500 years ago, reached its most developed stage during the period of the Yangshao Culture. It radiated widely from western Henan, southern Shanxi, and eastern core area of the Central Shaanxi Plain to almost the entire middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River.

Some call this period the “sprawling stage” of the Miaodigou Culture and believe it closely relates to the formation and expansion of early Chinese ethnic groups. This period was also the first stage that the civilization in central China clearly caused wide-ranging influence on the surrounding areas.

A painted pottery pot exhibited at Miaodigou Yangshao Culture Museum. (LI AN)

Chinese archaeologist Wang Renxiang described the spread of Miaodigou painted pottery as “an art wave in prehistoric China.” Li Xinwei added that the cultural tradition characterized by inclusiveness was also diffused with the painted pottery, which helped unite the spirits of peoples across a vast area. “Peoples with shared beliefs laid a solid cultural foundation for grand unification in Chinese history,” said Li. 

Han Jianye holds that the spatial scope of the Miaodigou cultural community is strikingly similar to the political and geographical scope of the Shang Dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BC). Geographically and culturally, such similarities facilitated the emergence of later dynasties and ancient China in general, so the spatial scope of the Miaodigou Culture could be called the “earliest Chinese cultural community,” or even “early China” based on its cultural significance.

Cultural Integration

About 5,800 years ago, the culture of the Central Plains began to impact the surrounding areas, and the influenced area continued to expand until around 5,300 years ago. The stage was also an important period for the formation of civilizations in various regions of China.

Yan Wenming, a professor and archaeologist at Peking University, proposed in 1987 that the most famous place in China’s pattern of prehistoric cultures was the Central Plain cultural area, a hub that joined regions of the Weihe River basin and the three provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Henan. The area is broad enough to cover Hebei Province as well.

Yan likened the Neolithic cultural area to a “a giant flower on the land of China,” and the Central Plains at the center of the “flower” is susceptible to the cultures of the surrounding areas and thus constantly absorbing various advanced factors that were beneficial to its own development. Such a geographical feature would mean that civilizations first came into being in China in the Central Plain region.

According to Wang Wei, director of the History Department and chairman of the Institute of Archaeology of CASS, during this period social differentiation intensified in the Yellow, Yangtze, and Liaohe river basins, pushing the regions to gradually evolve into civilized societies. Although the cultures originated and developed in different regions, mutual exchange and learning produced cultural similarities.

Since the productivity of prehistoric societies was relatively low, collaboration within families or clans effectively ensured the survival and reproduction of groups. Li Xinwei explains that this type of social organization stimulated a huge drive for expansion of both population and land, so the “peripheral areas” were continuously incorporated into the “core area.” This process helped absorb elements of other cultures, which was significant for the evolution and development of ancient Chinese civilization.

“Prehistoric political elites traveled far for various purposes,” said Li. “But whether it was for glory or to gain knowledge of astronomy, geography or even supernatural power, such travels empowered them with ‘world vision’ and a better ability to pursue cultural development through mutual learning.”

The upper levels of society in various regions made great efforts to carry out long-distance exchange of the most advanced cultural achievements of the time, such as the astronomical calendar, advanced production technology, and funeral and sacrificial rites. Li concluded that “Chinese civilization has a unified pattern that integrated various cultural characteristics and took shape in a complex and diverse environment.”

A boar tusk carving of silkworm unearthed at Shuanghuaishu archaeological site in Gongyi, Henan
Province. (XINHUA)

Large settlements emerged in the western half of Zhengzhou in Henan Province 5,500 years ago. The Shuanghuaishu site in Gongyi, which dates back 5,300 years ago, is the largest ancient settlement site from the period to be discovered in the middle reaches of the Yellow River thus far.

The Shuanghuaishu site and the surrounding sites of the same period were found to have a progressive and left-right symmetrical architectural layout, which seemed to set precedent for architectural layouts of ancient Chinese palaces. Nine clay pots arranged in the shape of the Big Dipper were also found in the ruins alongside the earliest boar tusk carving of a silkworm, believed to relate closely to the origin of silk.

The convergence, integration, and development of various cultures empowered the civilization of the Central Plains region to gradually become so advanced that it evolved into what would become the modern concept of a state. With the development of the Longshan Culture in the Central Plains, China entered an era featuring the legend of the “Five Emperors.”

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