Historical Background

Chinese archeology covers a very large area, and new information, often radically changing earlier ideas, continues to pour in. The present summary relies heavily on Chang's (1986) general study and on his study of the Shang (1980). A million years or more of the Palaeolithic of China, with slow changes in the human physical type and the stone tools in use, provided an already well-diversified group of populations at the end of the Pleistocene. There are some microlithic cultures succeeding the Palaeolithic, but by around 6500 b.c., there were several different varieties of Neolithic culture in existence in North China, which Chang groups together in the P'ei-li-kang Culture. The people lived in round or rectangular houses with plastered floors, usually sunk somewhat below ground level. Pottery was in regular use, as were polished stone tools, including axes, hoes, and mortars and pestles. Shells were used to make blades for sickles. Underground storage chambers were used for grains. At least two species of millet seem to have been domesticated, and both dogs and pigs were also domesticated, although hunting was still an important aspect of the cultures. Bone spearheads, arrow points, and harpoons were in use. Turquoise ornaments served for decoration, and clay figurines of pigs have been found. People were buried in cemeteries.

In South China and neighboring Thailand, pottery seems to go back as early as 8000 b.c., and domesticated pigs were comparably early. A wide range of plants were recovered from Thailand, but it is not certain which were domesticates, although some probably were.

Between ~5000 and 3000 b.c., spindle whorls, needles, the use of silk, human figurines, and fishhooks were important innovations in the Yang-shao culture of north-central China. Houses were bigger and more complex, and the layout both of villages and cemeteries suggests a division of the people by clans and lineages. Basketry designs are known from impressions on pottery, and some pottery is elaborately painted with designs of plants, fishes, birds, mammals (including humans). Most strikingly, a number of symbols on the pottery resemble later writing. There is, as yet, nothing to suggest that these symbols were actually being used as writing, but they furnish possible prototypes that may have led to writing. Chang (1980, p. 165) suggests that particular symbols may be connected with particular lineages. Comparable changes occurred elsewhere in China, and there is good archeological evidence of extensive interaction between the various regions by 3000 b.c., which leads to increased homogenization of the culture. By 2000 b.c., some bronze was in use but still as a relatively unimportant element of the culture.

Chinese traditions of their origins extend before 2000 b.c. and tell of mighty deeds of the first five emperors (regarded as mythical by nearly all modern scholars1). In the Middle Yellow River area, the Lung-shan culture developed out of the local version of the Yang-shao culture; a Lungshanoid horizon was widespread. In this period, walled towns appear (some nearly square and oriented about 6°W of N), and burials have been discovered with people who had been killed and scalped; warfare had become important. Towns were drained by well-made pottery pipes. A major change in pottery technology was the use of the potter's wheel. Pottery spindle whorls are known from this period. Stone net sinkers suggest the importance of this type of fishing. Cattle and chickens appeared as farm animals. Water buffalo and sheep are known as domesticated animals from other contemporary sites. Crocodile skin drums and music stones

1 Exceptions are K.C. Wu and K. Pang. Wu (1982) has attempted to defend and interpret the historicity of these kings and their immediate successors of the Xia (Hsia) and Shang dynasties. Pang (1987) and Pang and Bangert (1993) have attempted to determine certain dates relevant to that period on the basis of astronomical evidence.

were found in some elite burials. These are mentioned in later texts among the insignia of royalty. Jade became extremely important as a symbol of elite status. A curious jade tube, called a ts'ung, was rectangular in cross section, with a round central opening. Needham (1959) argued that these tubes were astronomical sighting devices. Although still unimportant economically, a few copper and bronze tools have been found, which show a technologically well-developed metallurgy.

From the Lung-shan culture, the Three Dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Chou) developed; this is the first period for which we have some contemporary historical evidence. Although traditionally considered to be sequential rulers, archeological evidence has made it clear that they represent regionally distinctive developments out of the Lung-shan culture. Political supremacy did pass from one to the other, but the underlying distinctions remained. An early phase of the Shang culture, called Cheng-chao, is already important archeologically and is potentially important historically, but for present purposes, the late Shang culture is of primary importance.

The historical accounts of the Xia and Shang dynasties were widely regarded as untrustworthy by many scholars. For the Shang Dynasty, inscriptions on bronze vessels had been a good indicator of the dynasty's existence, but details were scanty. However, the discovery of inscribed oracle bones [Chang (1980, p. 39) quotes estimates of about 100,000 pieces known at that time] and the subsequent location of their place of origin, Anyang, completely altered that situation. So far, however, there have been no discoveries of books or historical texts of any sort.

The Shang civilization was using a fully developed bronze technology that included mining of both tin and bronze. Pottery kilns have been uncovered in some places, which gives us a good knowledge of their technology of pottery making. Local city states with hereditary rulers constantly jockeyed for power. Effective horse-drawn chariots were in regular use. There were standing armies, and one oracle bone mentions an army of 10,000 troops of the king supplemented by 3000 troops of the queen (Chang 1980, p. 195). Warfare was accompanied by extensive human sacrifice. In one case, over 600 people were sacrificed in connection with the building of a single house. Kings were buried in chariots, accompanied by horses, charioteers, and other servants. Farming had been expanded to include soybeans, wheat, and rice. However, although later tradition ascribed irrigation and water control to the emperor Yao, no archeological evidence of irrigation, even in late Shang times, has yet been found. Chang believes that political power developed in this area from shamanistic practices associated with divination and that shamans were the political forerunners of kings. Our first direct astronomical evidence comes from this period and suggests that the power of the kings may have been partly rooted in their astronomical knowledge, particularly the ability to foretell eclipses. Traditionally, a leading Chinese astronomer of the Shang period was Wu Hsien; however, this name was used by an otherwise anonymous scholar of the 4th century b.c.

For ease of identification of the approximate dates associated with Chinese dynastic periods, a somewhat simplified chronology of China is provided in Table 10.1. An extensive treatment of the historical aspects of Chinese astronomy can be found in Joseph Needham (1959, Vol. 3).2

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