Project traces origins of Chinese civilization

By DUAN DANJIE / 06-23-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

An aerial view of the Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City (from southwest to northeast) © Hangzhou Liangzhu Archaeological - Site Administrative District Management Committee

On May 27, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, presided over the 39th group study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee to further a national research project on tracing the origins of Chinese civilization.

Xi stressed that the project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization has provided a clear knowledge of the origins and formation of Chinese civilization, the history of its development, the process of the formation and development of its pluralistic and integrated pattern, and its characteristics and why it was formed in such a way. At the same time, he added, the results that have been achieved so far are still preliminary and phased, and that there are still many historical mysteries to be unraveled and a number of major issues, on which consensus is yet to be reached through evidence and further study, according to Xinhua News Agency.
Wang Wei, director of and research fellow from the Academic Division of History under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, shared with CSST his insight into this project. 
Criteria of civilization
The Xia Dynasty, established about 4,000 years ago, commences the dawning of Chinese civilization. Before Xia, Chinese civilization was in a primitive stage. In China, this is a well-known historical development process, Wang said.
In 1987, Wang was dispatched to Japan for further study. 
“During my study there, I found that almost all of the works on Chinese history published in Japan considered Yin Xu, where oracle bone inscriptions and bronze wares were unearthed, as a mark of the beginning of Chinese civilization, and Chinese civilization was believed to be only about 3,300 years old. This was a great surprise to me,” Wang said.
At that time, metallurgy, the use of the writing system, and the emergence of cities were generally regarded internationally as signs of the emergence of a civilized society. China did not meet that standard until the Yin Xu period. 
“This really struck me. Is the Chinese civilization of more than 5,000 years just a legend, or does it really exist? What is the basis for our 5,000 years of civilization? With these questions, what I want to do most is study the origin, formation, and development of Chinese civilization,” Wang noted.
New criteria offered
China’s national-level project to trace the origins of Chinese civilization was launched in 2002, and approximately 400 scholars across the country in 20 disciplines from the natural and social sciences participated in the project.
Wang explained that four archaeological capital-level city ruins from between 3,500 to 1,500 BCE have been the project’s focus in relevant studies: Liangzhu site in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province; Taosi site in Linfen, Shanxi Province; Shimao site in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province; and Erlitou site in Luoyang, Henan Province. Other major city ruins from this period along the Yangtze, Yellow, and Liaohe rivers were also highlighted in the project. Large-scale archaeological surveys of the settlements surrounding these sites were carried out.
Over the past 20 years, with the support of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, National Cultural Heritage Administration and other departments, and the joint efforts of the nearly 400 scholars, the project has verified that Chinese civilization has a history of 5,000 years, through a series of major archaeological discoveries and multidisciplinary comprehensive research.
The above-mentioned criteria for judging the formation of civilization, popular among Western academia, is not universal, Wang continued. Civilization is an advanced stage of human cultural and social development. The origin and formation of civilization is a very complex process, involving various material and spiritual aspects, social systems, and is the result of multiple interactive factors.
The project breaks the shackles of the old criteria, Wang said. Based on actual materials of capital-level city ruins, such as Liangzhu, Taosi, Shimao, and Erlitou, and taking into account the characteristics of other ancient civilizations, the research team proposed a Chinese plan for criteria of a civilized society: production development, population increase, and the emergence of cities; social division of labor and its constant intensification, and emergence of classes; constant strengthening of power, and emergence of kings and states. These characteristics are showcased through archaeological remains, such as the appearance of super-large cities, palaces, large cemeteries, and ritual vessels to indicate nobles’ status.
Through two decades of archaeological excavations and multidisciplinary research, an inner city built about 5,000 years ago with an area of three million square meters, and an outer city of 6.3 million square meters, have been discovered at Liangzhu site. The large-scale water conservancy system with a total length of more than ten kilometers to prevent floods has also been discovered. These discoveries reveal that Liangzhu had already seen class stratification, kingship, and the state, which means they entered a civilized society at that time.
In 2019, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed the Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City to the World Heritage List, due to the fact that “the archaeological ruins of Liangzhu (c. 3,300–2,300 BCE) reveal an early regional state with a unified belief system based on rice cultivation in Late Neolithic China.”
“This signifies that the criteria we put forward for a civilized society, as well as the Chinese civilization’s history of more than 5,000 years, have been recognized by the world,” Wang affirmed.
In addition, the project proposed that around 5,100 to 4,300 years ago, early states had successfully emerged in some regions, exhibiting rapid cultural and social development, and entering the civilization stage. About 5,500 years ago, the upper classes of society in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and the Liaohe River Basin, all had close exchanges. Worship of dragons took shape, jade began to be considered precious, and a ritual system appeared, where certain types of precious items could indicate the holder’s noble status.
Chinese civilization’s contributions
About 4,500 years ago, through exchanges and interactions with other civilizations outside the region, advanced cultural factors such as wheat cultivation, cattle herding, breeding sheep, and metallurgy, which originated in West Asia, were introduced into China, and these enriched the Chinese civilization and helped form the early Chinese cultural sphere, Wang said.
About 4,300 to 4,100 years ago, the regional civilization in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River experienced a relative decline, and civilization in the Central Plain continued to rise. On the basis of gathering and absorbing advanced cultural factors from various places, its political, economic, and cultural development continued, laying the foundation for entering the dynasty civilization. After its establishment, the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st–16th century BCE) exerted a strong expansive influence on the surrounding areas with its original ritual system.
Wang briefly summarized Chinese civilization’s distinctive features in the process of development. “The civilization is agriculture-oriented with a long history. It is a native-born, self-contained system. It has diverse origins, and interactive exchanges. It is characterized by ancestor worship, forming a patriarchal system. It converges and radiates, highlighting openness and tolerance.”
For example, while wheat, cattle, sheep, and metallurgy were introduced into China from West Asia, the cultivation of foxtail millet and millet native to China also spread westward to Central Asia and West Asia. Therefore, inclusion is an important foundation for the continuous enrichment of Chinese civilization.
“Through studying the origins of Chinese civilization, we can safely say that Chinese civilization has made great contributions to the development of human civilization,” Wang said. The emergence of agriculture is the basis for the origin of civilization. According to archaeological findings, among the world’s major crops, foxtail millet, millet, rice, and soybeans are all native to China. Cultivated rice dating back an estimated 10,000 years ago was unearthed at the Shangshan site in Zhejiang Province, attracting worldwide attention. During the same historical period, the earliest pottery appeared in East Asia represented by China, which is the contribution made by Chinese ancestors to the world.
Ways forward
“In the next step, we will further expand the project’s temporal and spatial scope. In terms of time, we want to go forward another 3,000 years to explore Chinese civilization’s initial stage, that is, about 8,000 years ago, and look at the initial development of Chinese agriculture, spiritual culture, and social changes,” Wang said.
The historical issues regarding the Xia Dynasty will also be a research focus, Wang continued. “We believe that the Erlitou site was the capital of the late Xia Dynasty, and that archaeological discoveries in the early Xia Dynasty—the overall excavation of the Wangchenggang site and the Xinzhai site in Henan Province—what the capital city looked like and what it meant, still need to be further studied. These studies will reveal an increasingly clear and real China.”
“In spatial dimensions, we intend to include the sites in the northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest, and other regions into the project, study the reasons, background, and process of the integration of these regions into the historical pattern centered on the Central Plain dynasties,” Wang said. This will further deepen the study of Chinese civilization’s diverse origins and its integration process, and also shed light on how the unified multi-ethnic country came into being.
In Wang’s view, it is a top priority to promote better and faster transformation and wider dissemination of the project’s research results. “I especially hope to see a theme park of Chinese civilization planned and built in a national central city rich in archaeological cultural heritage and characteristics, combining modern concepts and high-tech methods,” Wang said. Offering an immersive experience, the park can help visitors to experience the origin, development, and formation of Chinese civilization. Both entertaining and educating, it allows young people and international tourists to truly experience the glorious achievements of Chinese civilization and its contributions to human civilization.
Edited by JIANG HONG