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Introduction | Late Prehistoric | Bronze Age | Chu Culture | Early Imperial | Timeline

Late Prehistoric China

Until this century, China's remote past was known mainly from historical narratives written during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). References to the prehistoric period in these texts are few, however, and include vague claims, such as the existence of a "jade age," which modern scholars considered the stuff of legend. The advent of archaeology has provided a means to distinguish fact from fiction. By scientifically excavating history's physical remains, archaeologists have filled crucial gaps in our understanding of the past and, in some cases, corroborated the historical accounts. The most significant result is a new view of the origin of Chinese civilization, which was long believed to have arisen in the Yellow River valley and spread from there throughout the country. Excavations over the past few decades have revealed that prehistoric societies also flourished along the Yangzi River to the south and at remote sites in far northeastern China, demonstrating that Chinese civilization developed not from a single source, but through the gradual blending of several distinct cultures.

The earliest excavations focused on sites along the Yellow River, which runs more than thirty-four hundred miles from the Himalaya Mountains across the northern plains to the sea. The fertile river valley encouraged the rise of farming settlements where people cultivated millet, and domesticated pigs and other livestock. By the late prehistoric period, peoples of the Yangshao culture (c. 5000-3000 B.C.) were producing distinctive ceramics painted with geometric designs and images from the world of nature, a marked departure from the plain wares in use in the previous millennium. A flask from the Banpo phase of the Yangshao culture combines one of the earliest human images in Chinese art with an elegantly abstract pattern that signals a new aesthetic sensibility (no. 3). Mysterious symbols on a large urn from the Dawenkou culture (no. 23) may be a form of picture-writing, indicating that the origins of Chinese writing reach back to the early third millennium. (Prehistoric cultures are named for the village or site where certain types of objects were first excavated; that name is then applied to other sites where archaeologists uncovered similar cultural remains.)

Far to the northeast, in the Manchurian hills, archaeologists have uncovered traces of a ceremonial center at Niuheliang associated with the Hongshan culture (4700-2920 B.C.). The remains include foundations of one of the earliest temples built in China, as well as clay fragments of statues, perhaps representing goddesses, that were twice or even three times life-size. Excavations in a nearby cemetery have brought to light more than sixty tombs made of stone and covered with stone mounds. Twenty-six contained jade objects. The coiled dragon (no. 10), found in 1984 on the chest of the deceased, is so called because the earliest known Chinese character for "dragon" depicts just such a coiled body attached to an animal head. In this case, the large snout suggests that the animal derived from a pig, a staple of the Neolithic economy.

Far greater quantities of carved jades were produced by people of the Liangzhu culture (3300-2200 B.C.), which flourished at some three hundred sites in the Yangzi River basin near modern Shanghai. It was in this warmer, southern climate that rice cultivation began some ten thousand years ago. Liangzhu tombs at Fanshan and Yaoshan have yielded more than three thousand carved jades, lending credence to ancient historians' claims that a "jade age" preceded the Bronze Age. Because jade can be shaped only by slow grinding with abrasive crystals, jade-carving is labor-intensive and requires special skills. The Liangzhu jades thus provide evidence of the existence of a stratified society in which an upper class employed workers to fashion precious goods for the elite's use in the afterlife. Later Chinese texts associate jade with immortality and purity because of its durability and translucency. The discovery of Neolithic jades in a funerary context signals that the Chinese reverence for jade, which persists even today, originated in remote antiquity.

Introduction | Late Prehistoric | Bronze Age | Chu Culture | Early Imperial | Timeline