Overview of the Yangshao culture

By ZHAO CHUNQING and GAO FANXIANG / 03-30-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A jade eagle of the Lingjiatan culture All Photos: COURTESY OF ZHAO CHUNQING, GAO FANXIANG

The Yangshao culture was the first archaeological culture named in China. Archaeologists spanning several generations have researched and established its absolute date to be from approximately 5000 to 2900 BCE. This period holds great significance in the early development of Chinese civilization. 

When and Where

The Yangshao culture’s sphere of influence was vast. When at its peak, also known as the Miaodigou period (c. 4005–2780 BCE), its sphere of influence spanned to the Hetao area [a plain named by its location in the “Great Bend” of the Yellow River along its north bank] in the north, bound by the Dawenkou culture of present-day Shandong Province in the east, the Songze culture of the Lake Tai basin in the southeast, the Daxi culture in the south, and the Majiayao culture in the west. With its influence spanning vast stretches of land, the Yangshao culture is the largest, longest lasting, and most influential archaeological culture in prehistoric China. It formed the Yangshao era in Chinese archaeology, together with the various surrounding archaeological cultures.

The Yangshao era, which endured for more than 2,000 years, was a historical stage of significant changes in prehistoric China. It can be divided into early, middle, and late periods corresponding to different stages of social development. The early period was from around 5000 to 4000 BCE, which some experts have further divided into the Banpo and Shijia phases. Studies on typical settlements and tombs found at the sites of Banpo [located in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province] and Jiangzhai [a Banpo-phase archaeological site, about 15 km east of the Banpo site] indicate that Yangshao in its early period was a clan-based society. Remains of the Jiangzhai phase I are well preserved. It was a village based on clans, consisting of five groups of houses surrounding a large square in the center. Each group of houses consists of three sizes of structures: large, medium, and small. The large houses, typically over 100 square meters in area, have a long doorway and separated rooms. There should have been five burial grounds outside the village, but only three remain intact. The buried individuals in each burial ground are believed to be members of the same clan. It is estimated that the average population of each clan was about 20-30 people, based on the houses in the village and the tombs outside the village. Settlement forms similar to that of the Jiangzhai phase I have been widely found in Guanzhong [a historical region of China, present-day central Shaanxi Province] and Longdong [the east of Gansu Province] regions.

Settlements and city ruins

Currently, the earliest known city ruins dated to the Yangshao period are the Chengtoushan site in Li County, Hunan Province, which was built around 4000 BCE, roughly equivalent to the early Miaodigou period of the Yangshao culture. The Longzui site in Tianmen, Hubei Province, also revealed city ruins of the Yangshao period, dating from 3900 to 3500 BCE, close to the Miaodigou period. These two city sites are the earliest prehistoric city ruins found in China, with sloping rammed walls but small areas and no high-level buildings. Therefore, they were more like walled settlements and far different from later city sites. 

This paper speculates that these two city sites and the Yangguanzhai site, located near Xi’an, Shaanxi, were in the same developmental stage. The Yangguanzhai settlement covers an area of 800,000 square meters and is surrounded by a ring moat. It contains a large water pool shared by the whole settlement, and there are no signs of palaces or other high-level buildings. A public cemetery of the Miaodigou period lies to the northeast of the Yangguanzhai settlement, where archaeologists have excavated hundreds of graves without finding any traces of significant social stratification. 

During the late period of the Yangshao culture, from 3500 to 3000 BCE, the number of city sites increased greatly, and the layouts of the individual city sites present a sense of the regional center. Some of these large city sites had evolved into regional political centers, and even into cities composed of many settlements. By the Longshan period (c. 2500–2000 BCE), the city clusters had expanded to the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, with larger scales, more complex layouts, and higher levels of civilization. They were all modeled after the city clusters of the late Yangshao period.

Art and religions

As mentioned before, the Yangshao culture can be divided into three stages. Among them, the painted pottery of the Miaodigou period had the largest sphere of influence, featuring floral patterns and their variations. The most common floral patterns found on painted ceramics of the Miaodigou period are composed of two, four, or six petals. Apart from these designs, a Miaodigou cultural jar is also notable for a painting on its surface, the so-called “A Stork, A Fish, and A Stone Axe.” This painting has been interpreted by many scholars as a tribe represented by the stork defeating another tribe represented by the fish [the axe symbolizes power]. It has been considered by art historians as the earliest Chinese painting.

Some scholars believe that jade artifacts are also outstanding artistic treasures of prehistoric China. Jadeware during the Yangshao period consisted of three major systems: the Hongshan culture [a Neolithic culture in the West Liao river basin in northeast China between 5000 and 8000 years ago], the Lingjiatan culture [a culture existing in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River between 5300 and 5800 years ago], and the Songze-Liangzhu culture [the Songze culture existed in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River from around 5300 to 6000 years ago, followed by the Liangzhu culture]. Among them, the jade dragon of the Hongshan culture is particularly important, indicating that China’s tradition of venerating dragons had matured [at that time].

Various religious relics have been dated at as early as the late Paleolithic period. The most famous religious relics dated to the Yangshao period are probably the shapes of a dragon and a tiger outlined in shells [on either side of the deceased] discovered at the Xishuipo site in Puyang, Henan Province. The ancients of the Yangshao period at Xishuipo may have incorporated dragons and tigers into their beliefs, a manifestation of the maturity of primitive religion.

In addition, various artworks of the Yangshao period, such as animal and plant motifs carved on the ceramics of the Hemudu culture, are delightful. In particular, the image of “a pair of phoenixes facing the sun” carved on an ivory artifact [excavated at the Hemudu site], with two phoenixes facing each other as the red sun rises, is considered an artistic masterpiece.

Matrilineal or patrilineal?

There has been a fierce debate about the social nature of the Yangshao culture—whether it belonged to a matrilineal or patrilineal society. Some scholars believe that the Yangshao culture was matrilineal, drawing their conclusions mostly from its early graves, where women were buried with lavish funeral objects and children were often buried with their mothers. Such burial practices reflect the central position of women. This is similar to the layout of arranging houses in a settlement with doors facing the central square, indicating that the blood ties that maintained clan unity were deeply rooted, reflecting the nature of the matrilineal society. 

However, some scholars propose that the Yangshao culture was a patrilineal society. Adult men and women have been found buried together, as well as adult men and children, and a large number of small-house sites have been excavated. They argue that those are indicators that monogamous families grew increasingly dominant at that time, and the Central Plain entered the patrilineal society at the beginning of the Yangshao culture.

Currently, it seems that the Yangshao culture underwent significant changes in the early, middle, and late periods. If the early Yangshao period was still an egalitarian clan-based society, then after the cultural assimilation of the middle period, or the Miaodigou period, the social civilization had been launched in the late period, manifested by the appearance of settlements of various size, the social stratification, and the development of city sites and other civilizational factors. It also indicates that [in the late Yangshao era] the egalitarian society no longer existed, and society entered the stage of ancient states, or the primary civilization. At that time, the first batch of ancient states in China, such as Liangzhu, Qujialing, Heluo, Dawenkou, and Hongshan cultures, began to flourish and move towards a primary civilization society.

Zhao Chunqing (teacher) and Gao Fanxiang are from the Department of Archeology at University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Zhao is also a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the CASS.