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Origins of Chinese Civilization

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Summer Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(2) page(s): 16

When asked how old is China, many answer three to four thousand years. Colleagues say their teachers told them it began with the Shang Dynasty as recorded in The Book of Documents (circa 1600 BCE). Now, there are new clues that this country began even earlier than that.

The Erlitou Culture is documented with bronze-age finds in the city of Yanshi south of the Yellow River; that is near Louyang. There, 1959 artifact findings shed new light on the age of this longest continuous civilization in the world. The more it is studied, the more it is understood, especially when examining and radio-carbon dating newer finds.

The capital of the Xia Dynasty is said to have been established in/near the city of Yanshi in the period following the Lingshan Black Pottery Period. That time preceded early Shang times which were the 21st to the 16th century BCE.

Nowadays, many historians say that China began five thousand years ago. Others who study the history of this country say that doubling that number might be more accurate. Why? Because during the past eight to ten years, archeologists explored and designated a half dozen sites of more ancient cultural heritage. These are the Neolithic Xipo in Lingpao County, the Wangchengang site in Dengfeng, the Xinzhai site in Ximo County, the Dashigu site in Zhengzhou, and the Erlitou site in Yanshi County. The latter is said to have the earliest palace complex found to date. It is believed to be the place where the capital was during the Xia Dynasty (2100 - 1600 BCE). All of these sites are in the Henan Province. There is another site in the Shanxi Province known as the Taosi; it is in Xiangfen.

Archeologists document the Dadiwan Ruins in China's northwest Gansu Province as ten centuries earlier than the famous finds at Banpo Village. There are other ruins including those at Jinsha in the southern Sichuan Province that predate the Xia Dynasty. Some researchers comment that China predates the legendary emperor Huang Di. They think that additional radio carbon dating that is currently in progress should prove them correct.

The above sites were large towns in prehistoric China, the one called Taoshi dates to about 2300 BCE. Evidence indicates it was destroyed by a bloody war. Tombs there, a thousand of them, have been opened and funeral objects found in some ten percent of them. These are being radio-carbon dated, too.

The first evidence of humans were found in the Zhoukoudian cave; these are called Peking Man who is estimated to have lived some three hundred thousand years ago. While these dates are not exact, ancient China certainly was one of the earliest centers of human civilization. Because its name changed during various regimes, and the word China is probably derived from the Sanskrit word cina which refers to a yellow-colored barbarian tribe, these finds have not always been considered just Chinese.

The earliest evidence of modern man comes from Liujiang County in Guangxi where a head was found and dated as 67,000 years ago. This was long before the first unified Chinese state was established in the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE. China's language was forcibly standardized and the office of the Emperor set up during the Qin.

No, historians are not making a mistake in arithmetic even though some in China celebrate the Chinese New Year more than once in a current calendar year. Those that do actually celebrate twice a year, once in summer and another time in winter. These are Yi people and they use a different calendar, one with ten months a year. It is said their calendar has been used at least since 4000 BCE. The months on their calendar have thirty-six days, and most have five or six extra days in months set aside for festivities. This Yi calender named its months for animals, namely the tiger, crocodile, boa, pangolin, muntjac, blue sheep, ape, leopard, and lizard; and it is no longer in use. In the Tang Dynasty, months for the five elements (earth, metal, water, wood, and fire) were considered yang months or planting time. The second five months in the year were yin or times of plant maturation. These calendars aid in the confusion.

A Chinese octogenarian said his first history teacher confirmed that Chinese history began with Shang Shu or The Book of Documents. His sister said she read something almost identical in John Fairbanks's China: A New History (published in 1992). Wang Wei, deputy director of China's Institute of Archeology said the cradle of Chinese civilization did start in or near the Yellow River and that latest discoveries show China had pottery before any was recorded in the west. He believes the Dadiwan findings are probably ten centuries older than most have thought, and that cultural relics unearthed from southern digs will enrich knowledge of that part of China, as will newer findings from Xian. Therefore, the origins of Chinese civilization seem to be growing older with every dig; how old do you think they are?

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