- Special Report
- On the Chronology of the Three Dynasties
by LIU Li
- The current discussions on EAAN (an email list for early East Asian
archaeology and history) on the Three Dynasties Chronology in China
were triggered by two reports published in The New York Times (In China,
Ancient History Kindles Modern Doubts, November 10, 2000, by Erik Eckholm
and Far Eastern Economic Review (China: Nationalism Digging into the
Future, July 20, 2000, by Bruce Gilley
These reports represent suspicions held by many Western scholars
regarding a controversial project launched by the Chinese government
a few years ago. The EAAN discussions have been primarily focused on
some important issues concerning the study of Chinese civilization and
the influence of modern ideology, especially nationalism, in archaeology.
Although no scientist in the world could be value free from his or her
social environment, wrong judgement about the nature of a particular
civilization may be made simply because of insufficient knowledge about
- It is commonly held by Chinese scholars that
the Erlitou culture is equivalent to the Xia dynasty, and that the Xia
and Shang were state-level societies which constituted large centralized
political systems throughout their reigns. In contrast, many western
scholars have been sceptical about the reality of the Xia, and believe
that a pristine state did not develop until the late Shang. The reason
that the interpretations of the political organization in early Chinese
civilization were so contradictory may relate to the data used in these
studies. Most of the discussions by Western scholars are based on old
archaeological information and on ancient texts including oracle-bone
inscriptions. Oracle-bone inscriptions provide invaluable data on the
late Shang, but little information on earlier periods. Most texts were
written hundreds, if not thousands, of years after the Erlitou and early
Shang periods. These interpretations, therefore, were inevitably modified
by oral transmission and the court historians who made the records.
- It is clear that up-dated archaeological information
with a refined chronological scale is crucial to the study of processes
of early state formation in China. The discussion below is derived from
recent research on this subject conducted by Xingcan Chen and myself,
which will be published in the near future. I post some relevant discussions
and the abstracts of these two papers here in order to promote more
dialogues among scholars on these issues.
- Question: Was Erlitou a
- The earliest unbanization in Bronze Age China
emerged during the Erlitou culture, centered at the type-site Erlitou
in the Yi-Luo River basin, western Henan. Some 38 calibrated radiocarbon
dates derived from Erlitou sites in Henan (Institute of Archaeology
1991) indicate that this culture may have flourished during a period
between 1900 and 1550 BC (Figure 1). Erlitou (400 ha in area) is the
largest among all its contemporary sites in China, and sites containing
the Erlitou material assemblages have been found over a very broad region
mainly including Henan, southern Shanxi, Eastern Shaanxi, and Hubei
(Figures 2, 12). Because of its spatial and temporal correlation with
the Xia dynasty, which is traditional believed to be the first dynasty
in Chinese history, most Chinese archaeologists and historians now agree
that the Erlitou culture represents the material remains of the Xia
dynasty, and that the Erlitou site may have been a capital city of the
late Xia (e.g., Chang 1986: 307-16; Du et al. 1999; Zhao 1987; Zou 1990).1
This argument is adopted in the present paper.
- Several marked changes in settlement pattern
and material culture took place when the Longshan culture in the late
Neolithic period developed into the Erlitou culture, as follows:
- (1) Settlement hierarchy in western and
central Henan changed from two- or three-tiered systems in the late
Longshan to a four-tier system in the Erlitou culture (Figure 3)
and rank-size curves changed from convex to strong primate (Figure
4). All these measurements point to the development of centralized
political and economic control.
- (2) The site number decreased dramatically,
dropping from some 700 Longshan sites to less than 200 Erlitou sites
in an area including southern Shanxi and Henan; in the same period,
settlement nucleation took place, as the largest site size increased
from 75 ha to 400 ha. These changes may suggest nucleation of population
accompanying with urbanism, rather than simply population decline.
- (3) The political structure changed from
the coexistence of multiple competing polities to one in which a
single large center dominated smaller centers and villages over
a very broad region.
- (4) Ceramic styles changed from diversity
(six variants of the Longshan culture) to relatively uniformity
(two variants of the Erlitou culture: Erlitou and Dongxiafeng).
This may suggest an increase in craft specialisation and standardisation
of production relating to the development of political centralization
(cf. Longacre 1999; Rice 1981; Rice 1996).
- (5) In addition to jade objects, which were
the traditional means for representing high social ranking in the
Neolithic, bronze objects, mainly weapons and ritual vessels, became
status symbols for the first time. Bronze production, which was
largely based in capital cities, may have become a state-controlled
industry, ensuring a state monopoly of bronze products for military
and ritual use (Liu 1996, in press).
- (6) Long-distance exchange of precious goods
developed to a new level - cowrie shells (Monetaian moneta or Monetaria
annulus) with possible origins from the Indian Ocean region (Peng
and Zhu 1999) were added to the inventory of grave goods in elite
burials. Some artifacts and decorative motifs with characteristics
of Central Asian cultures also appeared at Erlitou (Fitzgerald-Huber
- These changes unquestionably signify the emergence
of a state-level social organization characterized by a centralized
political and economic control in its core area, as well as expanded
cultural contacts and influence over a broad region.
- 1 There are divided opinions
among scholars on the nature of the Erlitou culture. The majority of
archaeologists in China agree that the Erlitou culture represents a
state-level society, and that the Erlitou site represents a capital
city of the Xia or Shang dynasties, although they disagree about to
which capital city named in textual record the Erlitou site corresponds.
- Definition of a state
- Much of the disagreement on this Erlitou-state
issue may be affected by employment of different definitions of state/civilization.
I list three definitions here. The first one by V. Gordon Childe published
in the 1950s was influential for decades, but has been questioned by
many archaeologists. This checking list is simply not applicable to
all civilizations as a universal law. I prefer the two definitions given
by Wright and Marcus and Feinman.
- Gordon Childe: a list of primary and secondary
characteristics. The primary characteristics include: 1) cities
- dense, nucleated demographic concentrations; 2) full-time labor
specialization; 3) state organization, based on territorial residence
rather than kin connections; 4) class stratification - the presence
of a privileged ruling stratum; and 5) the concentration of surplus.
The secondary characteristics are: 1) monumental public works; 2)
long-distance exchange; 3) writing; 4) arithmetic, geometry, and
astronomy; and 5) highly developed, standardized artwork.
- Henry Wright (Recent research on the origin
of the state. Ann. Rev. Anthropol. 1977:383): 'a state can
be recognized as a cultural development with a centralized decision-making
process which is both externally specialized with regard to the
local processes which it regulates, and internally specialized in
that the central process is divisible into separate activities which
can be performed in different places at different times. States,
like chiefdoms, usually exist in networks. Among simple states these
networks seem to be regulated by competition and alliance, as was
briefly noted for chiefdoms. A difference is that developing state
networks are periodically centralized into a single political unit
incorporating most previously existing polities.
- Joyce Marcus and Gary Feinman (in Archaic
States 1998: 4) 'archaic states were societies with (minimally)
two class-endogamous strata (a professional ruling class and a commoner
class) and a government that was both highly centralized and internally
- It is true that Chinese archaeologists have
not found a writing system at Erlitou. But the question is how decisive
writing is to define a state? It is the function of writing that matters.
Writing would be important if it is related to power acquisition in
religious or economic domains. If we could learn the sociopolitical
system of Erlitou based on other archaeological data, the presence/absence
of writing would not be a crucial factor. Furthermore, the Erlitou people
may have indeed had writing, but written on perishable materials, which
have not been preserved in the archaeological record.
- The Erlitou culture (at least a part of it)
represents the first social entity that meets the two criteria given
by Marcus and Feinman. Erlitou was characterized by a centralized and
internally specialized government, indicated by a great concentration
of palatial foundations and various craft production workshops in an
urban center (Erlitou), and rapid cultural expansion over a large region.
The second criterion, marked social stratification, is indicated by
- Some people may argue that some of these characteristics
can be observed in the Longshan culture. But they did not occur altogether.
Erlitou manifested a qualitative social change from the Longshan culture,
while the Erligang represented a quantitative change from the Erlitou.
- If we use different criteria to examine the
political organization of the Erlitou polity, it is likely that we should
agree to disagree on this issue.
- Question: Was Erlitou related to the
- The glory of this first Chinese city came to
an end in the Erlitou Phase IV, when a walled enclosure (80 ha.; known
as the Yanshi small city, xiaocheng) was constructed 6 km. northeast
of Erlitou. This change is generally believed to relate to the political
transition from the Xia to the Shang dynasty, and the enclosure at Yanshi
may have been the earliest Shang capital built after the conquest (Du
et. al 1999; (Gao et al. 1998); (Zhao 1989), or a special garrison established
by the Shang for preventing a rebirth of the Erlitou state.
- According to the traditional chronology, it
has been believed that the Xia dynasty existed in a period between 2100
and 1600 BC, which would have included a part of the late Longshan and
most of the Erlitou culture (Phases I-III). Based on archaeological
information, however, the Longshan culture may be characterized as a
chiefdom-level social organization, with many small competing polities
coexisting in the Yellow River valley. It was not until Phase II of
the Erlitou culture (c. 1800 BC) that a state-level society emerged
(Liu 1996). The rise of the early state seems to have been a relatively
rapid event, with many changes in social organization taking place during
a short period around the Erlitou Phase II. This interpretation of Erlitou
state formation does not match the traditionally believed image of Chinese
early history, in which the Xia was a great dynastic power from the
outset. The Xia dynasty, if it existed, may have started as a chiefdom
society during its early period, and then developed into a territorial
state only during the late part of its duration.
- Chang, Kwang-chih 1986 Archaeology of Ancient
China. Yale University Press, New Haven.
- Du, Jinpeng, Xuerong Wang, and Liangren Zhang
1999 Shilun Yanshi Shangcheng xiaocheng de jige wenti (On several issues
related to the small city inside the Yanshi Shang city). Kaogu
- Fitzgerald-Huber, Louisa 1995 Qijia and Erlitou:
The question of contacts with distant cultures. Early China 20:17-68.
- Gao, Wei, Xizhang Yang, Wei Wang, and Jinpeng
Du 1998 Yanshi Shangcheng yu Xia Shang wenhua fenjie (The Yanshi Shang
city and the demarcation between the Xia and Shang cultures). Kaogu
10:66-79. Institute of Archaeology, CASS
- 1991 Zhongguo kaoguxue zhong tan shisi niandai
shujuji. Wenwu Press, Beijing.
- Liu, Li 1996 Settlement patterns, chiefdom variability,
and the development of early states in north China. Journal of Anthropological
- Liu, Li (in press) The development and decline
of social complexity in China: Some
- social and environmental factors. The Indo-Pacific
Prehistory: The Melaka Papers. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory
Association 19 3.
- Longacre, W. A. 1999 Standardization and specialization:
What's the link. In Pottery and people: A dynamic interaction,
edited by J. Skibo and G. Feinman, pp. 44-58. The University of Utah
Press, Salt Lake City.
- Marcus, Joyce & Gary Feinman 1998 Introduction.
In Archaic states, Gary Feinman and Joyce Marcus, eds. pp.1-13.
Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
- Peng, Ke, and Yanshi Zhu 1999 Zhongguo gudai
suoyong haibei laiyuan xintan (New inquiry in the sources of cowries
in ancient China). Kaoguxue jikan 12:119-147.
- Zhao, Zhiquan 1987 Lun Erlitou yizhi wei Xiadai
wanqi duyi (On the Erlitou site as a capital of the late-Xia). Huaxia
Kaogu 2:196-204, 217.
- Zhao, Zhiquan 1989 Erlitou wenhua yu Erligang
wenhua (The Erlitou culture and Erligang culture). In Qingzhu Subingqi
kaogu wushiwu nian lunwenji, edited by The Editorial Group for Qingzhu
Subingqi kaogu wushiwu nian lunwenji, pp. 273-279. Wenwu Press., Beijing.
- Zou, Heng 1990 Xia wenhua yantao de huigu yu
zhanwang (The study of the Xia culture in retrospect and prospect).
Zhongyuan Wenwu 2:1-12.
- Archaeology and Nationalism in China
- Li Liu and Xingcan Cheng
- (from the article contributed to Encyclopedia of the History of
Archaeology, ed. Tim Murray. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001)
- The development of Chinese archaeology has been intertwined with the
ever-changing political environment during the twentieth century. Archaeologists
have worked extremely hard to overcome all kinds of economic, social,
and political difficulties during turbulent eras, and have made extraordinary
contributions to the field. Our understanding of ancient China has been
markedly improved because of these archaeological achievements. In many
cases archaeology has been driven by the changing concept of nationalism
and used as an instrument to support, rather than to evaluate, particular
theoretical themes or political agenda. In other situations, it has
provided independent data for creating new paradigms, which changed
traditional perspectives of Chinese national history. State promoted
nationalism has indeed played an important role in shaping the discipline.
- Many individual archaeologists, however, have spontaneously exercised
nationalist ideology in their research. For them, the building of national
history implies dignity and pride as human beings. China is certainly
not the only nation in which archaeology is relevant and meaningful
primarily in the context of the connection between modern cultural and
national identities and ancient indigenous traditions (e.g., Kohl &
Fawcett 1995). Therefore, in spite of growing influences from Western
ideology and technology during the past seventy years, which in many
cases are positive, the general objective for the mainstream of Chinese
archaeology seems not to have changed - the discipline has been committed
to the reconstruction of national history. This mission will probably
continue to be carried out for many years to come. It is possible, however,
that more various research approaches will emerge in future. While some
archaeologists are continuously pursuing regional historical issues,
others may become engaged in theory building and cross-cultural comparative
studies, which will develop the discipline with a more international
- Kohl, Philip and Clare Fawcett (eds.) 1995 Nationalism, politics,
and the practice of archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University
- State Formation in Early China
- LIU Li ( La Trobe University, Melbourne,
- CHEN Xingcan (Institute of Archaeology,
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, PRC)
- This paper investigates the political organization
of the earliest state-level societies in northern China, the Erlitou
and Erligang cultures, from the perspectives of settlement pattern and
political economy. While a number of small political entities coexisted
after the Longshan period, only the Erlitou developed into the first
centralized territorial state in the Central Plains. Its expansion to
the surrounding regions was motivated by the procurement of key resources,
especially metal and salt. The political-economic organization remained
largely unchanged in the Erligang culture (the early Shang), as the
state further expanded its territory to all directions where rich natural
resources were available. The core-peripheral interactions may be characterized
as the tributary relationships.
- On the one hand, the regional centers in the
peripheries were established to obtain key resources, and to transport
them as tribute to the capitals. On the other hand, the capitals monopolized
the production of bronze ritual vessels, which were used as ritual paraphernalia
and status symbols. These bronze ritual objects, in turn, may have been
redistributed as gifts by the royal court to regional elites to establish
their local sociopolitical hierarchies. This centralized system, however,
appears to have been broken down during the middle Shang period when
multiple large urban centers emerged simultaneously in different regions,
suggesting the collapse of the territorial state. This process may have
led to the new development of regional bronze cultures beyond the core
area during the late Shang period.
- Cities and Towns: the Control of
Natural Resources in Early States, China
- Paper contributed to Population and Preindustrial
Cities: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.
Ed. Glenn Storey. University of Alabama Press, 2001
- LIU Li ( La Trobe University, Melbourne,
- CHEN Xingcan (Institute of Archaeology,
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, PRC)
- This paper examines the developmental processes
and functions of five of the earliest cities and towns dating to the
Erlitou and Erligang periods: Erlitou and Yanshi Shangcheng in the core
area, and Dongxiafeng, Yuanqu Shangcheng, and Panlongcheng in the peripheries.
Regional settlement patterns, demographic variations, locations of copper
and salt resources in the peripheries, the internal structure of the
cities, as well as artefacts from some of these urban sites are analysed.
It is argued that the development and decline of some early "urban centers"
were closely related to changing strategies of early state rulers in
procurement of vital natural resources. The effort made by elites to
control and transport these resources may have generated major affects
toward shaping unique patterns of urban expansion in early Chinese civilisation.
- Cities and Towns: the Control of
Natural Resources in the Xia and Shang periods
- Cheng: Xia Shang shiqi dui ziran ziyuan
de kongzhi wenti
- Li Liu and Xingcan Chen, Dongnan
wenhua (Southeastern Culture) 2000. 3:45-60.
- This is a preliminary research on the procurement
of vital resources by the early states (Erlitou and Erligang) published
in Chinese. This article presents our initial hypotheses relating to
the processes of state formation in China from a perspective of political
economy. In order to test these hypotheses we conducted investigations
at several sites in southern Shanxi in Sept. 1999, including Dongxiafeng,
Yuanqu Shang town, an ancient copper mine, and the Hedong salt lake.
As a result, we have gained more confidence on our approaches. We have
also changed some of the opinions presented in this paper, particularly
on the two types of pottery jars found in Dongxiafeng. We originally
hypothesized that they were used for transporting salt, but based on
our recent research this conclusion is problematic. The results of this
fieldwork and further research will be published in Population and Preindustrial
Cities: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Glenn Storey. University of
Alabama Press. 2001.
- The Chinese text of this paper is available
in pdf form (which requires Acrobat Reader 4.0) at:
- The file is 5.4 megabytes in size.
- LIU Li, Dr
- La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia)
- 20 November 2000
- Please note that my surname in Chinese is Liu.
In some of the publications listed above my names have been reversed
according to American usage.