Early China

Early China

The story of China begins three quarters of a million years ago when China first emerges into world archaeology in the form of Peking man. Peking man was originally discovered in 1932 in a cave called Choukoutien, 30 miles south-west of Peking. Peking man was clearly a different being to modern man: today he is called homo erectus, but at the time the main importance was his similarity to another specimen that had been discovered some time earlier in Java and was known as Java Man. Java man was considered at first to be something of an outsider, but with the discovery of Peking Man it became clear that early forms of man existed in East Asia.


Forensic facial reconstruction of Homo erectus pekinensis (Wiki)

Peking man is now considered to be one of the prime examples of Homo erectus, an early form of man whose remains are found throughout much of Africa and Asia. How far homo erectus is the ancestor of modern man is controversial: the currently fashionable ‘Out-of Africa’ hypothesis holds that modern man developed in Africa around 50,000 years ago and has spread outward since then, replacing Homo erectus in the East, and the Neanderthals in Europe. Whether however, the replacement was total, or whether Homo Erectus has made some small contribution to the populations of the far east remains uncertain and controversial.

But as the last ice age retreated, and our modern Pleistocene climatic era began, then a new question begins to take centre stage in Chinese prehistory. The question is that of the origin of rice. Today we tend to think of the Chinese as being the quintessential rice eating society, but archaeologically this is not so. Rice does not grow naturally in the North China along the Yellow River; instead it is essentially a southern crop concentrated along the great Yangtze River in the centre of China and more particularly along the Pearl River which runs through southern China and out to sea at Canton and Hong Kong. Instead the native crop in the north is millet and Chinese society right down into middle Imperial time was based on millet rather than rice. The origins of rice itself is extremely fascinating as it is a crop that need substantial agricultural expertise to grow successfully and this expertise seems to have been developed in the south of China and it is only in the Song period that the rice growing areas become important.

The Neolithic really blossoms in China between 5000 and 3000 BC, when the Yangshao culture flourishes along the middle reaches of the Yellow river, producing large numbers of garishly painted pots. The best-known site is the village of Ban Po situated to the west of the later capital of Xian. This was excavated in the 1950s when it caught the eye of the politicians and was greatly puffed as being the beginning of settled life in China. It is an impressive site of semi-subterranean houses, though it is still slightly difficult for an outsider to disentangle the archaeology from the politics of 1950s China.

The Shang dynasty and the oracle bones

By the time of the middle Bronze Age around 1500 BC, China begins to come into history, but unfortunately the Emperor Jin burnt all the books that contained this earlier history and Sima Qiang had great difficulty in reconstructing the story, but he never-the-less produced a sketchy account of the Shang dynasty. However archaeology begins to play a role with the discovery of the Anyang oracle bones. In 1899 Wang Yirong, the Chancellor of the Imperial College was suffering from Malaria and he was prescribed the traditional Chinese cure of ground up dragon bones. However he noted that the dragon bones provided appeared to have scratchings on them. He wondered whether they might be writings so he managed to track down the source of these animal bones to Yin Xu or city of Yin, on the outskirts of the modern city of Anyang. He built up a library of these oracle bones from which it has been possible to reconstruct the history of the early Shang dynasty.

Shang_dynasty_inscribed_scapula wiki

Ox scapula with a divination inscription from the Shang dynasty, dating to the reign of King Wu Ding

The oracle bones were mainly of tortoise shell: a small hole was scooped out and then a hot poker was applied which fractured the shell, and the fractures were then interpreted as oracles often of a fairly mundane variety such as Will it rain tomorrow? However both the question and the answer and the date and were often recorded, and from these it has been possible to build up a fairly precise history from the 12th century BC onwards. Surprisingly these largely confirm the traditional dates: Sima Qian, the historian writing in the first century BC who provides the first serious account of Chinese history expressed his own doubts as to how reliable the early days were, but his account has been triumphantly confirmed by the oracle bones.

The site at Anyang has been extensively excavated, revealing the remains of a major capital city. Surprisingly no defences have been discovered but remains of several palaces have been excavated and also no less than a dozen royal tombs. The richest however was outside the main riyal cemetery, the tomb of Lady Fu Hao, which produced over 1000 objects.

In the late Shang period from the 12th century BC onwards, China was beginning to go ahead. Not only was writing established but also large-scale bronze casting was firmly set up producing large bronze vessel sometimes rectangular, and themselves often containing inscriptions. These early ones were decorated with the Taotie Dragons that we think of as being typically Chinese. Horseriding and chariots and fighting from chariots became the norm: sometimes it is argued that horse-riding and chariot fighting was introduced from the West: this is sometimes, controversial but the chariots seem to be the best evidence for this.

Bronze_head_from_Sanxingdui wiki

Bronze head from Sanxingdui

However it was not in just in the heartlands of the Yellow River that China was going ahead. Some of the most amazing discoveries were those made in the 1970s at Sanxingdui, where two deep pits produced some fantastic statue in a very different artistic style, mostly showing human figures quite unlike to bronzes of the Shang Dynasty which showed Dragons rather than humans. However there is no sign that they were literate.

Around the 11th century BC a major change took place, when the Shang dynasty was replaced by the Zhou dynasty, which lasted, in one form or another, down to 256 BC: the Zhou had been a minor state, but at the battle of Muye in 1046, under their king Wu, they overthrew their Shang overlords.

Nominally, the Zhou dynasty was the most long-lived dynasty of all but in practice it is divided into three parts. The earlier part known as the Western Zhou, the main dynasty retained some sort of control over the whole country, but is always said to be a sort of ‘feudal’ state; the term ‘feudal’, is always controversial and in China it is particularly controversial in that it was a major part in the Marxist attempt to re-write Chinese history Marxist-style; But it appears to be in a time of ‘patrilineal primogeniture’ when rule was passed down from father to son, but at the same time younger sons were sent out to govern distant provinces which all too often established themselves as separate kingdoms and the whole system proved to be very fissiparous.

The middle period is the delightfully named Spring and Autumn period, whose history is derived from the Spring and Autumn Chronicles, thought to have been written by Confucius, but during this time, there were over 150 walled city states in China, dominated by 15 major polities.

The Warring States

It was followed by the Warring States period. This is perhaps the most interesting of all periods in Chinese history because in a way it is the most self-contradictory. And its name suggests, it was a period of constant warfare: Endymion Wilkinson in his Chinese History: a New Manual calculated that between 656 to 221 BC, there was a war every 1.7 years, and in the latter part of the period there was a war every 1.4 years. It was a period of continuous warfare, where the kings and dukes constantly led armies against each other, and the ordinary citizens were always being conscripted to serve in the army and to have their land and crops destroyed by the enemy.

But despite this, China flourished. There were many reasons for the change. Iron had been invented and was coming into widespread use – this is the beginning of the Iron Age. However unlike in Europe, the iron that was produced was cast iron not wrought iron. Cast iron depends on a higher melting temperature than wrought iron, but it does not have as good a cutting edge: it is cheap and cheerful, but if you master the furnace technology of producing cast iron, it could be produced in much greater quantity, and for everyday tools, cast iron brought about a revolution compared with stone or wood.

Hu vessel 5353_cropped

A fine example of the bronze work of this period. A bronze vessel of the type called hu, in the British Museum This hu is one of a pair and known due to its inscription as the Zhao Meng jie hu. Eastern Zhou dynasty, 5th century BC.

Agriculture increased too and the central plain now became fully cultivated, and there was a huge population increase. Figures are hard to come by, but it is often said that the population of China increased threefold during the Warring States period. Despite its name, this was the period when China took a huge step forward to becoming a mighty empire.

Most surprising of all, it was also the period of the great philosophers, Confucius, the Daoists and the Legalists who deserve a separate chapter all of their own. But despite all the wars – and one even wonders whether one should say because of all the wars – China flourished, and when the country was finally unified under the first Emperor Qi Shi Huang, it became a very big state indeed. And when it finally settled down in the Han dynasty, it became one of the greatest civilisations that the world has ever seen.



On to the Chinese philosophers,


On to the emperor Qin Shi Huang 


17th March 2015