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Broad definition of ‘Primitive China’ clarifies civilizational development

LI XINWEI | 2020-05-19 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A display at the Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Listed as a world cultural heritage site in July 2019, the Liangzhu Site has been internationally acknowledged as remains that confirm the 5,000-year history of the Chinese civilization. Photo: FILE

As early as 1979, late renowned archaeologist Su Bingqi pointed out that Chinese archaeology should properly handle such issues as the origins of the Chinese culture, the formation of the Chinese nation, and the formation and development of the unified multi-ethnic state. After decades of material accumulation and in-depth studies, the archaeological community has reached a consensus that the earliest embryonic form of the unified multi-ethnic state, which had come into being in the prehistoric era, should be called “Primitive China.” However, opinions are divided regarding the precise definition. 
Narrow definition 
Some scholars have defined Primitive China as the state-level regime that was primitive, located in the central regions of China in ancient times, leading and linking surrounding areas. 
The definition is grounded in two bases. First, zhongguo, the pinyin for China, literally means middle kingdom or central state. It implied a high-level polity at the center of a certain cultural sphere, which inspired awe in all quarters. Second, at the beginning of the formation of the unified multi-ethnic state, there existed a pattern in which the polity was at the center both geographically and culturally leading the entire country. Only such a powerful center would have been able to unify the cultural sphere into a whole and embark upon the formation of a centralized unified multi-ethnic state. 
Based on this narrow definition, the Taosi Site in the Linfen Basin, Shanxi Province, which aligns with the area of the legendary emperor in Chinese mythology Yao’s movements, and the Erlitou Site in the Luoyang Basin, Henan Province, the central region of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), both dating to around 4,000 years before the present (BP), are regarded as top contenders for being the site of Primitive China. 
Whether the Liangzhu Site in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, which dates to around 5,000 years BP, is part of the Chinese civilization and how it relates to Primitive China has thus become confusing, though it was listed as a world cultural heritage site in July 2019 and internationally acknowledged as remains that confirm the 5,000-year history of the Chinese civilization. 
The Shimao Site in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province, which was roughly contemporary to the Taosi Site and where major discoveries have been made successively in recent years, faces the same awkward situation in terms of its status in the origination of the Chinese civilization. Fundamentally, the two bases of the narrow definition of Primitive China are problematic. 
First, zhongguo didn’t really mean the higher-level polity at the center of a cultural sphere or the center of civilization. It simply referred to the central region in the cultural sphere geographically. In terms of archaeological material, zhongguo first appeared on inscriptions on hezun, an ancient Chinese ritual bronze vessel of the zun shape from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE). On it reads, “The King Wu of Zhou declared this place as the Center of All Under Heaven (zhongguo) to rule the people.” The earliest written document of the term was Shang Shu, or the Book of Shang, in which the Timber of the Rottlera section says: “Great Heaven having given this Middle Kingdom (zhongguo) with its people and territories to the former kings.” In this context, zhongguo hinted at the Central Plains where the Yellow River and the Luohe River converged. 
The people of the Zhou Dynasty advocated that “under the wide heaven, all is the king’s land,” as was said in the Book of Poetry. In this light, zhongguo was simply a central area of Tianxia, or “All Under Heaven,” in their geographical and political conception. To them, the strategic position of zhongguo was more important than its political and cultural dominance. 
During the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), till the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE), “zhongguo” increasingly carried the connotation of the center of civilization. 
According to the Hereditary House of Zhao section of the Shiji, or the Records of the Grand Historian, Cheng, a son of the Zhao house during the Warring States Period, said that zhongguo was a hub for intelligent and wise men. Here zhongguo generally covered areas controlled by vassal states in the Zhou Dynasty. 
It is documented in the Treatise on Dayuan of the Shiji that the Emperor Wu of Han heard that Dayuan (Ferghana), Daxia (Bactria) and Anxi (Parthia) were big countries with many rare treasures and local specialties similar to zhongguo. Hereby zhongguo referred to the core area ruled by the Han Dynasty. The scope of the term was expanding. 
Moreover, increasing archaeological materials have suggested that the formation of the Chinese civilization and the emergence of early states and dynasties were not processes of a powerful geographical and power center leading all quarters. 
In the Longshan Era (4,300–3,800 BP), the time of the Taosi Culture, the whole prehistoric culture could roughly be divided into the “West Highland” covering the Loess Plateau and the “East Plain” including the Yellow and Huai rivers as well as the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. 
In the north of the West Highland were powerful groups of the Shimao Culture, and the Gansu-Qinghai Region in the west featured the prosperous Qijia Culture. On the East Plain, the Dawenkou Culture had started to integrate the entire region since 4,800 years BP. In the Longshan Era, the Longshan Cultures of Shandong, Henan and Hubei were brought into being with the rise of many towns. 
Stemming from the West Highland, the Taosi Culture was at the intersection of the eastern and western regions, absorbing many cultural factors from the East Plain and evolving into a highly developed early state, but it was inadequate as a power center to lead surrounding areas. 
The Erlitou Culture from the East Plain, which likewise stood at the intersection of the western and eastern cultures, was promising to grow into a dynasty, where porcelain, jade and ritual vessels were widely spread. However, whether it had the core power to lead the development of surrounding areas is worth discussing. More and more evidence revealed that the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE) inherited many cultural factors from the northwestern region, so the leading role of the Erlitou Culture is insufficient to explain the rise of the Shang. 
The above Taosi and Erlitou cultures, along with the formation and development of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, can’t be properly interpreted without placing them in the context of regional interaction within the cultural sphere that resembles the “All Under Heaven” idea upheld by the Zhou people. 
Broad definition 
In 1986, famed American archaeologist Kwang-chih Chang argued that around 4,000 years BCE, prehistoric cultures of many areas in China interacted so closely that they formed an interaction sphere stretching from the Liaohe River Basin in the north to Taiwan and the Pearl River Delta in the south and from eastern coasts to Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan in the west, a situation he called the “Chinese interaction sphere.” 
Because the prehistoric sphere formed the geographical core of China during the period and all regional cultures within the sphere played certain roles in the formation of the Chinese civilization unified by the Qin and Han empires, Chang proposed that the sphere could be called Primitive China, which initiated the process of developing into the unified multi-ethnic Qin and Han dynasties. 
The author of this article holds the same view. In the latter half of the fourth millennium BCE, major cultural regions in prehistoric China, based on simultaneous social development, interacted deeply on all levels and in all aspects centered around long-distance exchanges among the upper strata of society. They gradually formed a cultural community sharing a similar cultural essence, greatly influencing the development of China throughout history geographically and culturally. This was Primitive China. The formation of Primitive China can be regarded as the origination of the Chinese civilization. 
Compared with the narrow definition, the broad Primitive China that denotes a wider cultural sphere fits better into the formation of the Chinese civilization as reflected by archaeological materials. 
More appropriate definition 
First, the broad definition of Primitive China agrees more with the scope of the term zhongguo, which connotes the center of civilization across the ages. It was the geographical and cultural community formed by the interaction among regional cultures within this scope that laid the historical foundation for the unified multi-ethnic state. 
Second, all major social changes within this scope can be explained with the broad perspective of Primitive China. Around 5,300 years BP, the Liangzhu Culture, subject to the influence of the Hongshan Culture, integrated the demographic, economic, political and religious resources of the Lingjiatan remains and the Songze Culture, thus creating the first super-powerful political and religious center in prehistoric China. 
Around 4,300 years BP, the decline of the Liangzhu Culture was like a stone dropping into water, rippling outward wave after wave, influencing the Taosi Culture’s completion of the construction of the early state. 
Around 2,800 years BP, the Erlitou Culture rose amid the conflict between the Taosi and Shimao cultures and alongside complicated social turmoil in the Longshan Cultures in the east. The establishment of the Shang and Zhou dynasties could also be comprehensively interpreted from the perspective of regional interaction within Primitive China. In this great process, the geographically central area of Primitive China didn’t always play a powerful and core role in leading surrounding areas. 
The spectacular unfolding of Chinese civilization occurred in Primitive China, the nearly 3 million square kilometers of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and the Liaohe River Basin. Against this backdrop, the Zhou Dynasty fulfilled its mission of claiming all land under heaven as the king’s through the enfeoffment system 3,000 years ago. 
All in all, the broad definition of Primitive China is key to understanding the unique formation of the Chinese civilization. 
Li Xinwei is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
edited by CHEN MIRONG