Beginnings Of China
Author: Schwartz, Stuart B.
Date: 1992

A Bend In The River And The Beginnings Of China

The region that gave birth to Chinese civilization was less promising
than the once-fertile Indus plains. The Yellow River, from its source on the
Tibetan plateau, turns and bends its way through the desolate Ordos Desert
region to the Yellow Sea thousands of miles to the east.

Like the semi-arid steppelands to the north and west, the great bend in
the river receives a limited and uncertain amount of rainfall. The wet
monsoons that inundate much of south and coastal China are so spent by the
time they reach the Ordos region that the northern part of the area is desert.
Thus, the Ordos bend does not seem to be a place in which to settle, much less
one in which to lay the foundations for one of humankind's greatest
civilizations.

Human Settlements

Humanlike creatures as well as humans have lived on the north China plain
for hundreds of thousands of years. Peking man, one of the most famous of the
hominids - two-legged primates - had campsites along the Fen River nearly
400,000 years ago, and several Paleolithic sites have been uncovered along the
Yellow River where it arcs through the Ordos Desert. From Neolithic times (c.
8000-1800 B.C.) cultivating peoples gravitated to the lands that make up the
base of the Ordos bulge, where conditions were surprisingly suitable for
sedentary agriculture and human settlement.

The region abounded in rich loess, a fine-grained, yellowish-brown soil
that was deposited by powerful winds from central Asia in prehistoric times.
In places, this extremely fertile soil built up over thousands of millennia to
depths of over 300 feet. The Yellow River derived its name from the peculiar
color of the soil that permeates the river as it is carried eastward toward
the sea. Rich soil and the abundant supplies of water in areas near the Yellow
River and its tributaries made the southern portions of the Ordos bulge, and
the areas eastward along the North China plain suitable for intensive
cultivation of grain crops and dense settlement. In addition, the region was
shielded by mountains to the west and south, but open to trade with and
migratory movements from the grasslands to the north.

By 4000 B.C. human communities supported by sedentary agriculture were
spread across the loess zone. These communities coalesced into two widely
spread cultural complexes that laid the basis for the Shang dynasty and
Chinese civilization. Both the Yangshao culture (c. 2500-2000 B.C.) and the
Longshan culture (c. 2000-1500 B.C.) that followed it were based on very
different mixes of agriculture and hunting. In the Yangshao period, hunting
and fishing predominated, while foods supplied by shifting cultivation were
supplementary. By the Longshan period, the cultivation of grain, millet in
particular, was the central preoccupation, while sedentary cropping techniques
made it possible for them to support large, permanent villages surrounded by
walls of stamped earth. Hunting and fishing continued, but domesticated pigs,
cattle, and sheep became important sources of food and materials for shelter
and tools. The finely crafted and painted pottery, and the production of silk
which were prominent features of each culture, suggest the beginnings of
specialized labor.

The Role Of Irrigation

Increasingly elaborate irrigation systems were vital to the expansion of
the agrarian base of society. Some of China's most ancient and venerated
cultural heroes were linked to the building and restoration of the system of
dikes and canals that grew up along the Yellow River. The shallow bed of the
river after it empties onto the plains of north China, and the large
quantities of silt it carries, render the river particularly treacherous in
the springtime when the melting snows of the Tibetan plateau and Kunlun
mountains turn the river into a raging torrent. From ancient times,
controlling the river by building and maintaining great earthen dikes has been
a major preoccupation of peasants and rulers.

These concerns may have given rise to China's first rulers and prompted a
high level of community and intervillage cooperation. It is significant that
one of the most abused of China's early and semi-mythical leaders was a man
named Kun, who proved incapable of controlling a succession of great floods.
His son, Yu, who devised an effective system of flood control, has been
revered for millennia as one of the great monarchs of China's mythical golden
age. When later thinkers such as Confucius searched China's past for leaders
whose skill and virtue might be emulated in their own times, men such as Yu
came readily to mind.

We know little about the social organization and daily life of the
Yangshao and Longshan cultures, but two practices are worthy of note. China's
first agriculturists buried their dead. Their rather extensive cemeteries and
burial mounds may reflect a veneration for the deceased that was to become a
central feature of Chinese social life and religious practice. The peoples of
both cultures also employed animal bones for divination. When seared by heated
pokers, the collar bones of cattle and other animals cracked in a variety of
ways. The meaning of the patterns produced were then interpreted, probably by
specialized seers or priests. This key mode of religious expression was, in
the next phase of Chinese development, to be linked to the development of
writing. And writing was to provide for the Chinese, perhaps more than any
other people, the core ingredient of civilized life.

The Warrior Kings Of The Shang Era

Semi-legendary Chinese accounts tell us that Yu, the father of north
China's great network of dikes and canals, also founded China's first kingdom,
Xia. Because no archeological sites connected to Xia have been found, it is
possible that it was purely the fabrication of later writers. But in the
centuries before 1500 B.C., numerous small kingdoms had begun to emerge south
of the Ordos bulge and east along the north China plain. Most of these were
ruled by nomadic tribal groups that continued to filter into the area from the
north and west.

This region of different ethnic and linguistic groups formed a
distinctive Chinese culture. Key features of this culture included its cooking
vessels and cuisine, its reliance on cracked animal bones for divination, its
domestication of the silkworm and use of silk fabrics for clothing, and its
practice of ancestor worship. The form of ancestor worship followed also
suggests that Chinese culture was already patrilineal. By 1500 B.C. one of the
tribes in the Ordos region, the Shang, conquered most of the rest and founded
a kingdom that would lay the foundations of Chinese civilization.

Until recent decades we knew little more about the Shang than their Xia
predecessors. But extensive excavation of Shang sites at Anyang, Zhengzhou,
and elsewhere in recent decades have given us insights into many aspects of
Shang culture and society. In some respects they were very like those of the
Aryans who were in the process of conquering northern India in this same era.
Like the Aryans, the Shang were warlike nomads. They fought on horseback and
from chariots with highly lethal bronze weapons. Non-Shang subject peoples
provided the foot soldiers that made up the bulk of their armies. Like those
of Aryan India and Homeric Greece, Shang battles were wild melees that hinged
on hand-to-hand combat between a few champions on each side. But unlike the
Indo-Aryans and ancient Greeks, the Shang warriors were ruled by strong kings
who drew on their vassals' energies and military prowess to build a remarkably
extensive empire.

The Shang monarch was seen as the intermediary between the Supreme Being,
Shangdi, and ordinary mortals. His kingdom was viewed as the center of the
world, and he claimed universal dominion over all humankind. Shang rulers
directed the affairs of state and bore ritual responsibilities for the
fertility of their kingdom and the well-being of their subjects. In the
springtime, they participated in special ceremonies that included a symbolic
mating with female fertility spirits. In times of drought and famine, Shang
rulers or perhaps designated surrogates were obliged to perform ritual dances
in the nude. The dancer, presumably the surrogate, was later burned alive to
placate the spirits whose anger had caused the natural calamities.

Shang Society

Though Shang monarchs were served by a sizeable regular bureaucracy in
the capital city and the surrounding areas, most of the peasant and artisan
population of the kingdom was governed by vassal retainers. These were
recruited from the former ruling families and the aristocratic classes of the
many small states. The vassals depended on the produce and labor from the
commoners in these areas to support their families and military retainers. In
return for these grants of control over the bonded peasants, warrior
aristocrats collected tribute that went to support the monarch and his court.
They supplied soldiers for the king's armies in times of war, and kept the
peace and administered justice among the peasants and townspeople.

Shang rulers and their families, servants, and noble retainers lived
within walled towns in large compounds that housed extended families. The
extended families consisted of several generations of the family patriarch. As
in Aryan India, family life at least among the upper classes was dominated by
the elder males in the household. At marriage women went to live with their
husband's family who were virtual strangers. Unswerving obedience was expected
of both women and younger males. Within their own household and family
spheres, patriarchs and husbands exercised absolute authority. Their wishes
and commands were carried down the family hierarchy from elder to younger
brother and mother-in-law to young bride.

Judging from later social arrangements in China, the extended-family
pattern was widespread only among elite groups who had the resources to
support the large households and many servants it required. Ordinary peasants,
who made up the great majority of the population, lived in modified nuclear
families - households consisting of husband and wife, their children, and
perhaps a grandmother or orphaned cousin. It is likely that peasant families
were as male-dominated and patrilocal - the wife went to live with her
husband's family - as those of the elite.

Peasants were in effect the servants of the nobles. By Shang times they
grew a wide range of crops, but the staple foods were millet, wheat, beans,
and rice. They worked the land in the village in cooperative work teams using
a variety of wooden hoes, spades, and crude plows. They lived in sunken houses
of stamped earth, and made offerings to local gods of the soil and eitchen
hearth.

Though the peasants had only very limited opportunities for social and
economic advancement, they were better off than most of the slaves who made up
the lowest strata of society in the Shang era. The large numbers of slaves in
the Shang era indicate that the Shang warrior elite relied on a variety of
systems to control and extract resources from the artisan, cultivating, and
herding population that came under their rule. Though it is likely that many
of the artisans were slaves, some were free and quite prosperous. It is
probable that this latter group was engaged in the manufacture of products
that required a high degree of skill, such as silk textiles (one of the
earliest of many inventions the Chinese have bequeathed to humanity) and the
casting of bronze. Though their dwellings were located outside the walls of
Shang towns, some were surprisingly large and commodious.

Life for the majority of the commoners was generally a good deal less
rewarding than that of the skilled artisans. Much of what the commoners
produced with long hours of backbreaking labor went to support an increasingly
rapacious warrior elite. Given the vast tracts of unoccupied, arable land that
existed both within the Shang domains and beyond to the south and east, it is
not surprising that the elite resorted to measures such as enslavement and the
bonding of peasants to the land they worked. These devices were employed to
discourage flight to the nearby forests or long-distance migration to the
frontier wilderness.

Shang Culture And The Development Of Writing

Given their frequent involvement in warfare and concern for controlling
peasant groups, it is not surprising that the Shang elites were preoccupied
with rituals, oracles, and sacrifices. In addition to the fertility functions
of the ruler the entire elite was also involved in propitiating spirits to
provide good crops and numerous offspring. Shang artistic expression reached
its peak in the ornately carved and expertly cast bronze vessels that were
used to make these offerings. Shang bronzes have been compared favorably to
the great bronze sculptures that were produced in Italy during the Renaissance
some 2500 years later.

Some offerings, such as fine grain, incense, wine, and animals, to the
spirit world were sometimes a good deal less innocuous than others. Shang
records tell of water festivals at which ritual contests were waged between
rival boats, each seeking to sink the other. Those aboard the losing craft
drowned when it capsized and were offered up to the deities responsible for
fertility and good harvests. War captives and servants were also buried with
deceased Shang rulers and major officials. Like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt,
the kings of Shang went to the other world accompanied by their wives,
servants, and loyal retainers as well as their favorite horses and hunting
dogs, war chariots, and weapons. The ancestral veneration grew into a cult of
the royal clan that involved sacrifices of war captives, mass burials, and the
construction of tombs for each of the emperors.

Concerns for abundant harvests and victory in war led the Shang elite to
put great stock in the predictions provided by the shamans, priests who
performed oracular rituals. Warriors about to go into battle, officials
embarking on long journeys, or families negotiating marriage alliances
routinely consulted the shamans to ensure that their enterprises would turn
out well. This reliance on the shamans strongly influenced beliefs and
behavior in the Shang era. The actual procedures followed by the shamans also
gave rise to perhaps the single most important element in Chinese culture -
writing.

As in pre-Shang times, oracles made their prognostications on the basis
of "readings" taken from animal bones or tortoise shells. Each of the bones or
shells was drilled with a hole and touched by a red-hot iron poker. The bones
or shells then cracked and the patterns of cracks were then interpreted by the
shaman. Gradually the practice evolved of inscribing the bones and shells with
painted designs that became part of the patterns the shamans "read." Over
time, these designs became standardized and came to form the basis for an
ideographic - relating to graphic symbols - written Chinese language.

The development of writing became the key to Chinese identity and the
growth of civilization in China. The many and diverse peoples of the loess
region and the north China plain spoke a bewildering variety of languages that
were often mutually unintelligible from one group to the next. They were
surrounded by nomadic herders on the north and shifting cultivators to the
south, whose contacts with and movements into the loess zone further
complicated the linguistic muddle. But the written language that developed
made communications possible between the educated elites of many of these
peoples.

Like the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians, early Chinese characters
were pictographic. Thus, they readily conveyed the ideas they were intended to
express. The original character for the sun, for example, was a circle with a
dot in the center, while the character for a tree was a single tree and a
forest was a set of three tree characters. Combinations of characters made it
possible for the Chinese literati to convey increasingly complex ideas. The
character for emperor, for example, combined elements of the ideographs for
king, heaven, earth, and harmony.

Over time the number of characters has increased substantially. By the
end of the Shang period, there were an estimated 3000 characters. A
well-educated scholar in the modern era would need to master some 8000
characters. The way they are written has also changed significantly. The
character for the sun, for example, has been modernized.

Originally the characters were carved into bones or bronze vessels rather
than written. Bones and shells gradually gave way to bamboo slips, silk
scrolls, and wooden plates, and they in turn were supplanted in the 1st
century A.D. by paper (another critical Chinese invention). An assortment of
fine brushes and inks were developed to "paint" the characters, which in later
periods became a major mode of artistic expression.

Use of the increasingly standardized and more sophisticated characters
provided the bond that gave growing numbers of the peoples of the loess zone a
common identity. This sense of identity was felt most keenly by the elite
groups that monopolized the use of the characters, but eventually thetsense of
identity filtered down to the cultivating and artisan classes. After centuries
of use, the characters gave the Chinese a powerful sense of continuity in time
and space. With the persistence and growth of this identity, the Chinese
people entered history for the first time. Increasingly distinct from the many
nomadic herders and shifting cultivators with whom they continued to war,
trade, and intermarry, the Chinese used their written language to build the
educational and bureaucratic systems that would become the hallmarks of
humankind's most extensive and enduring civilization.
 

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