Agricultural origin supports China’s 5000-year civilization

By CHEN SHENGQIAN / 08-01-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Liangzhu society was representative of Chinese civilization in the long span of history. Liangzhu artifacts are on show at the Palace Museum in Beijing until Oct. 20. Photo: CHINA DAILY

Our current research on the origin of civilization, agriculture, modern man and even the origin of hominids all relies on the same model, which is to search for signature traits. For the origin of civilization, we look for the written words, metal smelting technique, cities and state. For the origin of agriculture, we look for settlement, pottery, grinding tools, and domestication of plants and animals. For the origin of modern man, we rely on art works and composite tools. For the hominid origin, we see if they walk upright, make tools and so on. 
However, there is controversy about the origin of civilization in archaeological research centers regarding the universality and limitation of these signature traits. For example, the early civilization in South America did not have written language and metalware, and the regimes of nomadic societies did not have stable cities. As for the organizational form of complex society, it is more diverse, and any standard could risk being oversimplistic. 
This kind of signature-trait oriented study tends to be concrete and easier to carry out. However, this research method is reductionist and ignores the integrated development of civilization. The spread of civilization may be likened to a fire, a spark, a flickering flame, then a mighty blaze, and the goal is to find the earliest spark of civilization and evidence of its spread. 
Unfortunately, this method can explain neither the emergence of civilization, nor the diversity and unification of Chinese civilization in history. So we need a new perspective: one that emphasizes wholeness, or system.
Civilization not in isolation
The system perspective is similar to the world-systems theory popular in contemporary world history and sociology. American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s theory was originally applied to the analysis of modern world history, emphasizing economic connections. 
On this basis, Barry Buzan and Richard Little further developed the theory and coined the international system, which could be used to explain mankind’s evolution from hunter-gatherer bands to an integrated global political economy. International system theory emphasizes the interaction between different levels of units such as system, sub-system, unit, sub-unit, and the individual in different sectors, namely military, politics, economics and society. 
Both theories tend to review social development on the macro level. More importantly, both theories are rich in content, not just a framework or general concept, which provides a new way to explain the origin of civilization. From the system perspective, different levels of units, including settlements, tribes and state, interact, integrate, and finally form a civilization system. Civilization is never an isolated existence, rather it is always in social interaction.
The origin of Chinese civilization is the formation of a system, not just one or several places where certain traits of civilization first emerged. The Liangzhu culture provides strong evidence that Chinese civilization is more than 5,000 years old. However, we still need to understand that Liangzhu is just a representative of Chinese civilization in this period. There were also the Hongshan culture in the north, the Longshan culture in Shandong Province, and the Shijiahe culture in the middle reaches of the Yangtze river, and later there were also the Taosi archaeological site in Shanxi Province and the Shimao city ruins in Shaanxi Province. 
At this point, we cannot but wonder, why did these civilizations appear at almost the same time? Why did they hold common signature traits with no similar civilization formed in their surrounding areas? For example, the Liangzhu site shares more similarities with the Shijiahe and Shimao sites, which are thousands of kilometers away, in terms of social development, than it does with its adjacent Fujian region. Therefore, we have to study from the perspective of a system. In other words, when Chinese civilization started, there was a system.
Common ground
Why was there such a system? We have to say it came from the Neolithic agricultural society. Agriculture is the foundation of civilization. It provides the production surplus needed by a civilized society and supports elites and their affiliated professional groups, such as craftsmen, soldiers and the bureaucratic class. 
We know from ethnography that there are some hunter-gatherer societies that depend on aquatic resources, especially in areas with rich offshore marine resources, such as the northwest coast of North America. However, the scale and complexity of such societies are still far from that of civilized societies based on agriculture, and there is no evidence that such societies ever built countries or cities. 
Prehistoric civilizations vary in form, but their economic basis is agriculture, with no exception. Here, our definition of agriculture needs to be clarified. It means human beings do not hunt and gather food from nature, but produce food through domestication and cultivation, including pastoral and garden farming. Agricultural production requires steady control of resources, whether animals, plants, land, grasslands, water or population. Control leads to conflict, and conflict leads to more complex social structures.
China’s prehistoric agriculture originated in two regions: northern China and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river, or more accurately, the piedmont area and the basin edge area between north China and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river. 
In addition, in southern China, a mixture of garden farming and hunter-gatherer lifestyle developed, which archaeologists call “low-level food production” or “more primitive agriculture.” Around 8,000 years ago, prehistoric agriculture began to spread out across the plains to make use of flatter, richer and more irrigable land, which required draining marshes or resisting floods and therefore more manpower and complex social structures. 
At this time, there emerged a series of archeological sites represented by Xinglong Wa culture in Liaoning Province, Peiligang-Cishan Culture in north China and Houli culture in Shandong Province. Their development and morphology are similar. The Neolithic cultural areas that developed based on them were also the areas covered by China’s prehistoric civilization system. In this sense, it was the origin of agriculture that nourished and limited the scope of China’s prehistoric civilization system. 
From the middle Neolithic age, prehistoric agriculture formed a complete cultural ecosystem, including not only domesticated crops, but also livestock, as well as supporting tools and social organization and governance ability, which began to expand to the surrounding peripheral areas. 
Neolithic cultural areas may have frequent interaction with peripheral areas. For example, the communication between western Liaoning Province (Liaoxi region) and northeast China or grassland areas should be more convenient than that of the Central Plains, but in terms of the occurrence of civilization, the relationship between the Liaoxi region and the Central Plains is closer. 
There may be two reasons for this: First, the basis of civilization is agriculture. Without the long-term development of an agricultural society, it is impossible to form a civilization, and the agricultural development in these peripheral areas lagged behind. The second is the interaction between agricultural societies. Though northeast China and the grassland areas were closer to the Liaoxi region geographically, their social interactions were not as profound as those between the Liaoxi region and the Central Plains due to the huge differences in lifestyles and social structures. It can be seen that geographical distance is not the most important factor in facilitating interactions among civilizations.
Importance of agriculture
In this light, we can assume that China’s prehistoric civilization system was shaped in the early stages of agricultural development, at least as early as 8,000 years ago when China’s early Neolithic culture emerged. The origin of agriculture is a long process, starting from the end of the Paleolithic age, lasting for as long as 7,000 or 8,000 years. About 10,000 years ago, agriculture appeared in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and north China. Around 2,000 years later, a series of early Neolithic cultures emerged, which then formed different regional centers and began to influence the surrounding areas.
However, in the development of prehistoric agriculture in China, there are two exceptions. One is southern China, where pottery and the grinding of stone tools appeared even earlier than in north China and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, but where grain appeared much later. 
The second is the Sichuan basin, which is the exact opposite of the southern China region. It started late in the Neolithic age, but developed rapidly, and later became the center of Bashu civilization. This occurred because the foundation for the development of agriculture in the Sichuan basin in prehistoric times was superior to that of southern China. With the spread of prehistoric agriculture, the surrounding areas gradually integrated into China’s prehistoric civilization system. 
The other exception is the development of nomadic tribes on the edge of agricultural societies, which did not constitute a self-sufficient way of life, but a symbiotic relationship with grain-farming society. Conventional views emphasize the conflict between the two societies, ignoring that they are still part of the same system. The central-peripheral structure forms the basic characteristics of the Chinese civilization system.
It is safe to say that the pattern of the Chinese civilization system was established around 10,000 years ago with the two agricultural centers in north China and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. This pattern supported the continuous development of Chinese civilization for 5,000 years. It was not until modern times that this system was interrupted by civilization centered on industry and commerce. From this macro historical perspective, over the past 100 years, the Chinese civilization system has undergone a complete transformation. We are now in a great era of transition, in which the Chinese civilization is moving into a new system.
Chen Shengqian is a professor from the School of History at Renmin University of China.
edited by YANG XUE