The Legacy Of Asia's First Civilizations
Author: Stearns, Peter N.
Date: 1992

Analysis And Conclusion

Analysis: The Legacy Of Asia's First Civilizations

In their size, complexity, and longevity, the first civilizations to
develop in South Asia and China match and in some respects surpass the
earliest civilizations that arose in Mesopotamia and Egypt. But the long-term
impact of the Harappan civilization of the Indus basin and the Shang-Zhou
civilization in north China was strikingly different. The loess zone and north
China plain where the Shang and Zhou empires took hold became the center of a
continuous civilization that was to last into the 20th century A.D., and, many
historians would argue, to the present day. Though regions farther south, such
as the Yangtze basin, would in some time periods enjoy political, economic,
and cultural predominance within China, the capital and center of Chinese
civilization repeatedly returned to the Yellow River area and the north China
plain. The Indus valley proved capable of nurturing a civilization that
endured for over a thousand years. But when Harappa collapsed, the plains of
the Indus were bypassed in favor of the far more lush and extensive lands in
the basin of the Ganges River network to the east. Though the Indus would
later serve, for much shorter time spans, as the seat of empires, the core
areas of successive Indian civilization were far to the east and south.

The contrast between the fate of the original geographical centers of
Indian and Chinese civilizations is paralleled by the legacy of the
civilizations themselves. Harappa was destroyed and it disappeared from
history for thousands of years. Though the peoples who built the Indus complex
left their mark on subsequent Indian culture, they did not pass on the
fundamental patterns of civilized life that had evolved. Their mother goddess
and the dancing god of fertility endured, and some of their symbols, such as
the swastika and lingam (usually stone, phallic images), were prominent in
later artistic and religious traditions. Harappan tanks or public bathing
ponds remain a centralefeature of Indian cities, particularly in the south.
Their techniques of growing rice and cotton were preserved by cultivating
peoples fleeing nomadic invaders, and were later taken up by the newly arrived
Indo-Aryan tribes.

Virtually everything else was lost. In contrast to the civilizations of
Mesopotamia, which fell but were replaced by new civilizations that preserved
and built on the achievements of their predecessors, much of what the Harappan
peoples had accomplished had to be redone by later civilized peoples. The
cities of the Indus civilization were destroyed and comparable urban centers
did not reappear in South Asia for hundreds or, by some scholars' reckoning,
thousands of years. Their remarkably advanced standards for the measurement of
distance and weight ceased to be used. Their system of writing was forgotten,
and when rediscovered, it was celebrated as an intriguing but very dead
language from the past. Harappan skills in community planning, sewage control,
and engineering were meaningless to the nomadic peoples who took control of
their homelands. The Harappan penchant for standardization, discipline, and
state control was profoundly challenged by the brawling, independent-minded
warriors who supplanted them as masters of the Indian subcontinent.

In contrast to the civilization of the Indus valley, the original
civilization of China has survived nomadic incursions and natural catastrophes
and profoundly influenced the course of all Chinese history. Shang irrigation
and dike systems and millet and wheat cultivation provided the basis upon
which subsequent dynasties innovated and expanded. Shang and Zhou walled towns
and villages surrounded with stamped earth have persisted as the predominant
patterns of settlement throughout Chinese history. The founders of the Shang
and Zhou dynasty have been revered by scholar and peasant alike as
philosopher-kings who ought to be emulated by leaders at all levels. The Shang
and Zhou worship of Heaven and their ancestral veneration have remained
central to Chinese religious belief and practice for thousands of years. The
concept of the Mandate of Heaven has been pivotal in Chinese political
thinking and organization.

Above all, the system of writing that developed in connection with Shang
oracles developed into the key means of communication between the elites of
the many peoples who lived in the core regions of Chinese civilization. The
scholar-bureaucrats who both developed this written language and profited the
most from it soon emerged as the dominant force in Chinese culture and
society. Chinese characters provided the basis for the educational system and
bureaucracy that were to hold Chinese civilization together through thousands
of years of invasions and political crises. In contrast to India, many of the
key ingredients of China's early civilizations have remained central
throughout Chinese history. This persistence has made for a continuity of
identity that is unique to the Chinese people.

It has also meant that China, like the early civilizations of
Mesopotamia, was one of the great sources of civilizing influences in human
history as a whole. Though the area affected by ideas and institutions
developed in China was less extensive than that to which the peoples of
Mesopotamia bequeathed writing, law, and their other great achievements,
contacts with the Chinese led to the spread of civilization to Japan, Korea,
and Vietnam. Writing and political organization were two areas in which the
earliest formulations of Chinese civilization vitally affected other peoples.
In later periods Chinese thought and other modes of cultural expression such
as art, architecture, and etiquette also strongly influenced the growth of
civilized life.

China's technological innovation was to have an impact on civilized
development on a global scale comparable to that of early Mesopotamia.
Beginning with the increasingly sophisticated irrigation systems, the Chinese
have devised a remarkable share of humankind's basic machines and engineering
principles. In the Shang-Zhou era they also pioneered key manufacturing
processes such as sericulture - the manufacture of silk cloth through the
domestication of silkworms.

The reasons for the differing legacies of India and China are numerous
and complex. But critical to the disappearance of the first and the resilience
of the second were different patterns of interaction between the sedentary
peoples who built the early civilizations and the nomadic herders who
challenged them. In the Indian case, the nomadic threat was remote, perhaps
nonexistent for centuries. The Harappan peoples were deficient in military
technology and organization. When combined with natural calamities, the waves
of warlike nomads migrating into the Indus region proved too much for the
Harappan peoples to resist or absorb. The gap between the nomads' herding
culture and the urban, agriculture-based Harappan civilization was too great
to be bridged. Conflict between them may well have proven fatal to a
civilization long in decline.

The loess regions of northern China were open to invasions or migrations
on the part of the nomadic herding peoples who lived to the north and west.
Peoples from these areas were moving almost continuously into the core zones
of Chinese civilization. The constant threat the nomads posed forced the
peoples of the north China plain to develop the defenses and military
technology essential to defending against nomadic raids or bids for lasting
conquest. Contrasting cultures and ways of life enhanced the sense of identity
of the cultivating peoples. The obvious nomadic presence prodded these same
peoples to unite under strong rulers against the outsiders who did not share
Chinese culture. Constant interaction with the nomads led the Shang peoples to
develop a culture that was malleable and receptive to outside influences,
social structures, and political systems. Nomadic energies reinvigorated and
enriched the kingdom of the Shang and Zhou, in contrast to India where they
proved catastrophic for the relatively isolated and unprepared peoples of


Beginnings And Transitions

The spread of the Aryan pastoralists into the hills and plains of
northern and eastern India between 1500 and 500 B.C. and the establishment and
decline of the Zhou kingdom in the latter half of the same time span marked
key transition phases in the development of civilization in India and China.
But in each case a very different sort of transition occurred. Like
Mesopotamia, the well-watered Indus valley had given rise to one of
humankind's earliest civilizations. In contrast to the succession of more
limited civilized centers that arose in Mesopotamia, Harappa extended over the
largest territory of any of the first civilizations, and it existed without
interruption for over a millennium. Its longevity invites comparison with
Egypt. But Egypt proved more able than either Harappa or individual
Mesopotamian civilizations to absorb massive invasions of nomadic peoples.

Faced with major climatic shifts, the Harappans proved unable to also
withstand the steady and prolonged pressure of the Aryan incursions. Thus, the
dominance of these invaders in the Harappan core regions and much of the rest
of northern India by 1000 B.C. meant the end of India's first civilization.

The Zhou conquest and later the slow disintegration of the Zhou dynasty
represented a continuation rather than a break in the development of
civilization in China. Though civilization arose later in China than in the
other three original centers in the Eastern Hemisphere, like the others it
emerged independently and resulted in a distinctive pattern of development. In
its capacity to endure, China resembled Egypt more than Mesopotamia or

Perhaps as a result, the Chinese proved the most adept at absorbing and
assimilating outside invaders while preserving their own sense of identity and
their basic beliefs and institutions. The Chinese both originated and
perpetuated these key ingredients for thousands of years. The conquering Zhou
did not destroy Chinese society and culture; they were assimilated by them so
thoroughly that they became Chinese. Thus, though the Zhou period brought
major changes in the nature and direction of civilized development in China,
fundamental themes and patterns persisted from the Shang era, and the Zhou
rulers strove to conserve and build upon the achievements of their

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