Chinese Civilization

The ornate dragon in the center of the colorfully painted ceiling in the Pavillion of Ten Thousand Spring Seasons in the Forbidden City dates back some 400-600 years but pulls from artistic traditions far older and still current today. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Two things everyone knows about China are that it is very big and that it has been around a very long time (by the way, Happy New Year 4713!). The look of the buildings, the style of art, and the form of the language almost seem to be timeless.

In presentations at the 2015 Dialogue of Civilizations being held this week in Beijing though, archaeologists are peeling back layers of history and revealing the latest discoveries and theories of the culture’s origins.

Here are some key takeaways so far:

1. China, Like Rome, Wasn’t Built in a Day

For as far back as certain elements of Chinese civilization and culture go, the build up was still a gradual one with plenty of ups and downs.

Professor Li Boqian of Peking University (PKU), curator of the Sackler Museum there, opened the conference discussing the development (seen in many places around the world) from hunter-gatherer chiefdoms to early settled agricultural states to full-blown empires expanding and coordinating society over large areas.
Intricately decorated rams’ heads decorate the four sides of this large bronze wine vessel from the Shang era, 1300-1046 BC, from the permanent collection of the Palace Museum, Forbidden City. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Intricately decorated rams’ heads adorn the four sides of this large bronze wine vessel from 1300-1046 B.C., during the late Shang Dynasty, from the permanent collection of the Palace Museum, Forbidden City. The Shang has often been viewed as the dawn of Chinese civilization. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Some 80 years of archaeology have shown though that it wasn’t a straight shot. Different sites in different parts of the region grew and shrank, combined and separated, and these different threads weave together to tell the full story of China’s beginnings. Some such key sites are Liangzhu, Shimao, and Erlitou.

2. The Writing System Goes Way Back

“It’s hard to imagine what China would be like without Chinese characters,” said Xu Tianjin, head of the Chinese Archaeology Research Center at PKU as he discussed the system’s

The Shang Dynasty of the second millennium B.C. is often seen as the start of Chinese civilization, which occurred during an era that also saw the destruction of Troy and the reign of Rameses the Great, King Tut, and the Hebrew patriarchs.

In addition to intricate bronze vessels and large states though, the Shang era also produced oracle bones—shoulder blades and turtle shells inscribed with signs and symbols, many of which are recognizable as Chinese characters to this day.

Professor Xu points out though that these long engravings, used for divination and containing some 5,000 signs in total, already represent a mature system of writing. Intriguingly, pottery dating back several centuries earlier is painted with some of the same symbols, often grouped together as though forming a sentence. What preceded that or what was inscribed on more perishable items such as wood or cloth is at this point anyone’s guess.

3. Some Early Cities Were Tigers, Some Were Bunnies

During his introduction, Li Boqian also pointed out that in early China, large settlements seem to take one of two paths: They emphasize either godly power or military might. He said the former “pay attention to their own cultural tradition and continual development of their society.”

Liu Bin is director of excavations at Liangzhu, a walled city and capital of a culture dating from around 3300 to 2300 B.C. He described the differences that show up in the archaeological record.

At some sites such as Hongzhu, he said, there are just platforms for rituals, elite burials, temples, or ceramic statues, probably related to worship of important figures.

Others, such as Liangzhu, have these ceremonial elements as well but also contain actual weapons and symbolic ones, buried in large number with the rulers. For these cultures, looking outward, conflict, and might become important themes reflected in the objects they value.
(Photo by Andrew Howley).

BONUS: Some Things Never Change

Finally, in perhaps the most disheartening revelation, PKU professor Sun Hua described certain buildings from around 1500 B.C. that he was able to recognize as consistent with historic descriptions of administrative centers from A.D. 500. So for over 2,000 years, he said, office space was office space.

The Dialogue of Civilizations is an annual conference sponsored by the National Geographic Society and bringing together top archaeologists focused on different ancient civilizations from around the world. In public presentations they discuss what they can learn by better understanding each other’s sites and how those lessons can help us better understand and navigate the world today.