Working on the ‘Genealogy’ of Chinese Civilization

The Origins of Chinese Civilization Project has solidly reinforced the timeline of China’s civilizational history of more than 5,000 years

By Zhang Lijuan

Observatory at the Taosi site in Xiangfen, Shanxi Province. (QIU XIAOLIN)

Where did China come from? Does Chinese civilization really have a history of 5,000 years? Such questions have nagged not only at broad academia but also many ordinary Chinese people. In 2002, the national research project on tracing the origins of Chinese civilization, a.k.a. the Origins of Chinese Civilization Project (the “Origins Project” for short), was officially launched. The project has now been ongoing for 20 years. A series of major archaeological discoveries and multidisciplinary studies have solidified the fact that Chinese civilization has a history of more than 5,000 years.

Significance of the Project

Very early on, the international academic community began to focus on the origins of civilization, and many ideas and theories have been published throughout the years. However, for a long time, information on and systemic understanding of the origins and early development of ancient Oriental civilizations represented by China was severely lacking.

Since the 1920s, Chinese archaeology has sought to reconstruct ancient Chinese history before the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century-16th century BC). By the 1980s, Chinese archaeologists had accumulated so much knowledge and experience from previous generations that they were finally able to conduct a systematic study of the origins and formation of Chinese civilization. Since the 1980s, a series of major field discoveries have drawn extensive attention from the archaeology community to the subject of Chinese civilization.

At the end of 2000, with strong support of the National Science and Technology Program, the Institute of Archaeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University organized more than 400 researchers from over 50 research institutions around the country for phased implementation of the Origins Project with fieldwork as the core.

“Fieldwork on some major historical ruins was carried out as part of the project,” recounted Zhao Hui, vice president of the Chinese Archaeological Society and professor at the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University. “The archaeologists worked on four ruins of capital cities dating back to 3500-1500 BC including the Liangzhu site in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, the Taosi site in Xiangfen, Shanxi Province, the Shimao site in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province, and the Erlitou site in Luoyang, Henan Province, as well as ruins of regional centers in the Yellow, Yangtze, and Liaohe river basins. They also carried out a large-scale archaeological survey of the settlement clusters around those sites to explore how civilization had evolved in those regions and how the pluralistic unity of Chinese civilization had come into being.” 

The Liangzhu Ruins excavation site. (ZHU GUANCHENG)

From the perspective of human history, the origins and early development of Chinese civilization were part of the origins and early development of human civilization. Therefore, exploration of the origins of Chinese civilization has filled a very important gap in the history of world civilization.

Evolution of Chinese Civilization

A variety of explanations and definitions for “civilization” circulate. Zhao Hui explained that the “civilization” in the Origins Project specifically refers to the emergence of ancient states, with the state as the symbol of the beginning of civilized societies. It is now basically certain that China’s prehistoric agriculture began tens of thousands of years ago, which developed over a very long period of time until a relatively mature agricultural system took shape about 6,000 years ago or earlier. From about 6,000 years ago, local cultures in various regions accelerated development toward civilization. More than 5,000 years ago, represented by the Liangzhu civilization, some localities from the Yellow River basin to the Yangtze River basin led entry into the stage of civilization with the establishment of states. From then on to about 3,800 years ago, the societies in different regions established their own states and developed civilization. “That was a period in history when civilizations in different regions coexisted,” explained Zhao. “We refer to that as the ‘ancient states period’.”

“The Origins Project proved that the development of Chinese civilization has been a process of pluralistic unity,” said Zhao. “Su Bingqi, an archaeologist and professor at Peking University, called ancient Chinese culture diverse, ‘like stars in the sky.’ Based on this assessment, Professor Yan Wenming at Peking University summarized the process of the ‘integration’ of Chinese civilization. Civilizations in the Yellow, Yangtze, and Western Liaohe river basins developed relatively independently and competed with each other. In this process, they interacted and learned from each other, which eventually led to a growing trend of integration.”

Lacquered vessel inlaid with jade from the Liangzhu culture. (LIANGZHU MUSEUM)

Zhao noted that in the later stage of the “ancient states period,” the trend of integration became more obvious in the Central Plains. During this period, the Central Plains began to extensively absorb advanced factors from surrounding cultures and became an eclectic core, which provided an economic, cultural, and ritual foundation for the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties (21st century-256 BC). It was on this historical foundation that the civilization of the three dynasties unfolded.

Chen Xingcan, a researcher and director of the Institute of Archaeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, commented on the systematic fieldwork of the Origins Project. Important breakthroughs have been made at more than 20 sites, he said, and archaeologists have sought to determine the absolute age of the ancient remains with different dating techniques. They have conducted studies with techniques of physical anthropology, pathology, molecular biology, and isotope analysis to acquire new clues and empirical evidence on early population migration, mobility, and socio-cultural development. 

“Prehistoric cultural exchange and integration among different regions nurtured a common cultural gene,” said Chen, “It laid the foundation for the formation and development of a unified multi-ethnic country. In the course of its evolution, Chinese civilization has always maintained an open and inclusive attitude and actively absorbed advanced elements of other civilizations. On that basis, it has innovated and developed continuously.”

Chinese Definition of Civilization

Based on the features of Mesopotamian civilization and ancient Egyptian civilization, Western academia once summarized “a written language, metallurgy, and cities” as the three elements that define a civilized society. According to these criteria, Chinese civilization would be only 3,300 years old starting from the late Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC), with the Yin Ruins as the site of its capital city.

The achievements of China’s 20 years of comprehensive research tracing the origins of Chinese civilization are extremely important because they not only provided empirical evidence for 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, but also solidified the Chinese criteria of a civilized society.

“When we tried to apply the ‘three elements of civilization’ to the study of prehistoric China, we found the criteria not applicable,” said Zhao Hui. “To establish the criteria of civilization, we should summarize and refine the universal features through research rather than matching item by item against a checklist based on foreign material.”

“Globally, the Maya civilization in the Americas did not have metallurgy, the Inca civilization in South America did not use written characters, and the patterns on the seals of the Halapa civilization in the Indus Valley have not been recognized as characters,” argued Zhao Hui. “The ‘three elements of civilization’ are not absolute and simply a summary of the features of Mesopotamian civilization and ancient Egyptian civilization. We should proceed from China’s actual conditions and summarize with archaeological practice the symbols marking the beginning of Chinese civilization. It might not have metallurgy, nor written characters, but imperial power and states were things in common.”

According to Zhao Hui, archeologists used the results of surveys of the “ancient states period” to summarize four common features of civilized societies: First, productivity, with agriculture and handicrafts reaching a certain level of development; second, division of people into distinct social classes; third, emergence of cities as political, economic, and cultural centers; and fourth, existence of imperial power. Using these four criteria to define civilization reflects the characteristics of Chinese history while demonstrating that the development of human history has both common features and unique traits.

“The main characteristics of Chinese civilization are pluralistic unity, inclusiveness and continuity,” opined Guan Qiang, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. “The process of early development of Chinese civilization involved pluralistic unity—movement from plurality to unity. It was also inclusive of not only the different civilizations in China itself, but also outside civilizations including those in Central and Western Asia. These are two very important features of Chinese civilization. Our civilization is an open civilization, with a strong ability to integrate and absorb. That is why we are proud to say that the only continuous civilization in the world is Chinese civilization, which has not been interrupted for 5,000 years. Continuity is another feature of Chinese civilization.”

The Project Goes On

“With empirical evidence of the 5,000 years of Chinese civilization in hand, the Origins Project will explore more of Chinese civilization from 8,000 to 5,000 years ago,” said Wang Wei, researcher and director of the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. There is no clear-cut “deadline” for the project to wrap up. Archaeological surveys and research will go on.

More than 300 Chinese and foreign experts and scholars participating in the 4th International Conference on Cultural Heritage visited the Liangzhu Museum in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on September 6, 2018. (ZHEJIANG DAILY)

“In the next phase, we will explore 3,000 more years upstream,” said Wang. The scope of time and space will be expanded. The time frame will be expanded from 5,500-3,500 years ago to 8,000-2,800 years ago. The space will be expanded from the Yellow and Yangtze river basins to the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest, to study how these regions integrated into the unified multi-ethnic country with the Central Plains as the center. 

“We should also share ‘Chinese solutions’ with the world,” continued Wang. “We will bring our major archaeological discoveries, including those from the Liangzhu and Heluo sites, to the world. Archaeological findings are objective and not prone to great controversies. We would also like to enhance communication on our discoveries so that the general public around the world can learn more about the achievements of Chinese civilization.”

“We understand that the process of civilization development varies from region to region, but the current study of features in different regions is not enough,” commented Zhao Hui. “For example, how did the Central Plains region first form? What are the contributions of the civilizations of different regions? How did the Xia-Shang-Zhou civilization come into being? We still need more answers to really understand what early Chinese civilization looked like. In my opinion, we should now be seeking answers to questions like these.”

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