Searching for the Xia Dynasty

Archaeological surveys show that the Erlitou site is “extremely likely” where the capital city of the Xia Dynasty was located

By Qiu Hui

Dragon-shaped device inlaid with turquoise unearthed from the Erlitou site. (ERLITOU SITE MUSEUM OF THE XIA CAPITAL)

“Did the Xia Dynasty actually exist?” This question has plagued archaeologists for decades. The Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century-16th century BC) is often referenced in Chinese historical documents as the first hereditary dynasty. It is considered the first component of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou (c.11th century-256 BC) dynasties in ancient classic literature such as Shi Jing (The Book of Songs) from the pre-Qin period (prior to 221 BC) and Shi Ji (Historical Records), compiled during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24). However, in contrast to the Shang Dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BC), which left oracle bone inscriptions and Yin Ruins as evidence, the Xia Dynasty has not yet been fully recognized by academic circles due to a lack of internal evidence or written materials. 

Erlitou is a village in the Yanshi District of Luoyang City, Henan Province. Archaeologists excavated a site in the village and discovered what is believed to be China’s oldest imperial palace and oldest urban trunk road network. The Erlitou site fits with the Xia Dynasty chronologically, geographically, and across other factors, providing a basis for the presumption of “the existence of the Xia” in academic circles. Although some disagreements on details persist, strong consensus has been reached that Erlitou was most likely the site of the Xia capital. 

Zhao Haitao, an associate researcher at the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is the current leader of the Erlitou site archaeological team. He considers pondering the existence of the Xia Dynasty and its relation to Erlitou unnecessary, saying rushing to conclusions will not be very effective in the study of the Xia Dynasty. Instead, Zhao suggests further studying and analyzing the remains of the Xia Dynasty represented by Erlitou to acquire a more comprehensive and in-depth understanding of social life at that time.

Key Breakthrough

Erlitou is closely associated with Xu Xusheng, a well-known archaeologist who first discovered the site. In the 1950s, Xu, a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology (now under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) of the then Chinese Academy of Sciences, began to collect clues about the Xia Dynasty.

Aerial view of the Erlitou Site Archaeological Park in Luoyang, Henan Province. (VCG)

Shi Ji by Sima Qian clearly documented 17 emperors of the Xia from Yu to Jie, and the story of Yu the Great “harnessing the waters” has been popular among the general public. However, Shi Ji was compiled 2,000 years after the Xia Dynasty, which causes doubts about its credibility. In the field of archaeological research, controversies about the evidence of the existence of the Xia Dynasty persist.  

In the summer of 1959, 71-year-old Xu Xusheng led a team from Beijing to western Henan to look for ruins of the Xia Dynasty. In Erlitou Village, Xu happened to see a large number of pottery pieces discovered by locals who were digging a fish pond. Many of the pieces were from the early Shang Dynasty. Xu deduced that it might be the site of an ancient capital city. At the end of the month-long investigation, the team found more than 20 sites.  

After returning to Beijing, Xu wrote a preliminary report on this investigation tour, which marked a breakthrough in the archaeological research of the Xia culture and attracted great attention of academic circles. Archaeologists were excited about the discovery of the Erlitou site, which many deemed likely to be an important step needed to confirm the existence of the Xia Dynasty. 

Bronze drinking vessel with intricate engravings unearthed from the Erlitou site. (ERLITOU SITE MUSEUM OF THE XIA CAPITAL)

In the fall of 1959, an archaeological team from Xu’s institute arrived at Erlitou to conduct excavations. Over the next 60-odd years, excavations have continued. Hundreds of archaeologists under four generations of leadership have joined the relay to uncover the mysterious “Erlitou culture.” The Xia Dynasty is turning from legend into real palpable history.

Xu Hong, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that one of the most important achievements of the first generation of Erlitou archaeologists was designation of Erlitou as the site of an ancient capital city. Bronze ritual vessels and jade ware excavated from tombs at the site provided evidence for that conclusion.

Professor Sarah Alan, an American paleographer and scholar of ancient China, once noted that Chinese bronze civilization from Erlitou to the Zhou Dynasty is consistent from ritual vessels and ancestor worship activities to the “rites” in Li Ji (Records of Rites), and from daily life articles to elements of aristocratic culture.

Majestic Capital City

In the spring of 2002, everyone was surprised by the discovery of a bronze bell. Further excavation around it brought to light a large “dragon” with all the right curves and bright colors. The 64.5cm dragon-shaped artifact features diamond-shaped turquoise scales and a garlic-shaped nose. Archaeologists were thrilled with the discovery because the 3,700-year-old turquoise dragon was singular among all known dragon images from ancient China.

Zhao Haitao dubbed the dragon a national treasure. Furthermore, the overall layout of the capital city and the architecture of palace buildings feature many signatures of “the earliest China.” At the center of the site, at least four roads—two east-west roads and two north-south roads—were built, each 10-20 meters wide. The crisscrossing roads not only effectively served the purposes of transportation, but also divided the capital city into different functional zones. 

Zhao Haitao explained that the grid of trunk roads in the central district was the result of rigorous and orderly planning, reflecting a hierarchical social structure with a mature and developed ruling system—the most important sign of a dynastic state.

In the spring of 2003, archaeologists finally found the complete wall of the imperial palace between the trunk roads. Within the palace were two groups of symmetric buildings facing south. On the east-west trunk roads were traces of carriages with two wheels one meter apart. 

Turquoise-inlaid bronze plaque with animal mask unearthed from the Erlitou site. (ERLITOU SITE MUSEUM OF THE XIA CAPITAL)

Large orderly buildings often indicate a high concentration of political and religious power. Xu Hong described the imperial palace as “China’s earliest forbidden city.” He said that the sites of capital cities excavated earlier had adopted measures to suit local conditions. Although the Erlitou imperial palace was only one seventh the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing, it was the beginning of the qualitative change of imperial palaces.

Most researchers agree that the Erlitou site is an unprecedented site of a dynastic capital city. The emergence of the Erlitou capital city shows that the imperial palace ritual system and ritual music system, which reflected the degree of development of ancient Chinese political civilization, had already come into being in the highly-developed, prosperous kingdom civilization. 

In his book The Earliest China, Xu Hong concluded that the Erlitou site represented the capital city of the earliest dynastic state in China and even East Asia and that the Erlitou culture was the earliest core culture in East Asia. Xu believes that it was “the earliest China.”

According to Zhao Hui, vice president of the Chinese Archaeological Society and a professor at the School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University, before the Erlitou culture, many other splendid cultures had emerged on the vast land of China including the Taosi culture in southern Shanxi Province, the Liangzhu culture in the Yangtze River basin, and the Longshan culture in Shandong Province. It was an “ancient states period” in which many cultures coexisted.

“Among those, the Erlitou culture emerged into a more mature form of civilization and evolved into a dynastic state,” opined Zhao Hui. “An ‘integrated dynasty’ was gradually shaped in the Central Plains, meaning that the Erlitou culture was both the end of the ‘ancient states period’ and the beginning of an age of dynastic states.” 

Capital of Xia?

Excavation of the Erlitou site is still ongoing. It has been generally acknowledged that Erlitou was an unprecedented find with signs of the development of the earliest Chinese state.  

Archaeological excavation at Erlitou site in Henan Province, August 2003. (NIE MING)

In archaeology, the most convincing evidence of the existence of a dynasty is written language. The oracle bone inscriptions excavated from the Yin Ruins in Anyang, Henan Province, confirmed the existence of the Shang Dynasty, as recorded in Shi Ji, which established the status of the Yin-Shang civilization in archaeology.

Zhao Haitao explained that in the literature of the Zhou Dynasty, the dynasty that existed before the Shang in the Central Plains was called “Xia.” Archaeological findings and research prove that from 1750 to 1520 BC, a strong and developed dynasty existed in the Central Plains with the Luoyang Basin at the center. From the available context, the Xia culture is the most compatible with the Erlitou culture.

Skeptics of Erlitou’s affiliation with Xia demand local written materials to prove the existence of the Xia Dynasty. Zhao Haitao argued that Erlitou belonged to the “original history” period in archaeology—they had not yet developed a written language and could only be recorded by other civilizations. The only writing found at Erlitou has been a few symbols carved on some pottery ware and bone tools. A mature written language like the one discovered at the Yin Ruins had not yet formed.

For most researchers, augmentation of time, region, stage of social development, and cultural features led to the conclusion that the Erlitou site was the capital city of the middle and late Xia Dynasty and that the Erlitou culture was the Xia culture. That is the “general consensus” of academia at this point.

“Erlitou is extremely likely the Xia capital,” asserted Zhao Haitao. The consensus among academia that the Erlitou site was the Xia capital is based on three main scientific considerations. First, it was determined by archaeological stratigraphy and typology that Erlitou culture was between Longshan culture and Shang culture. Second, the latest results of carbon-14 testing showed that the Erlitou site was 3,750-3,520 years old, consistent with the middle and late Xia Dynasty in historical records. Third, the Erlitou site is located in western Henan, which is compatible with the main geographical features of the Xia in historical records. 

The Erlitou site covers an area of roughly 3 million square meters. After 62 years, the archaeological teams have excavated only 1.7 percent of it. Zhao Haitao estimated that at the current rate, it would take more than 3,000 years to complete the excavation. “We have long-term plans for the excavation of the site,” said Zhao. Although major results have already been achieved on archaeological excavation of the site, there are still blank spots to explore.

Zhao Haitao added that Erlitou is the most important starting point and reference for tracing the origins of Chinese civilization. Comparing archaeology to cracking criminal cases, Zhao doesn’t consider it necessary to draw a conclusion on the affiliation of the Erlitou site. Instead, the site can serve as an example for further study of structural layout and the evolution process of ancient capital cities, he said. Everyone can agree on its value in terms of acquiring a better understanding of the features and development of imperial power at that time.

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