The Curious History of Taosi, the Longshan and the Xia
Many in the west have never heard of the Longshan Culture, the Xia Dynasty, Taosi, Erlitou or Yu the Great and would certainly be hard pressed to differentiate between Shanxi and Shaanxi. At best they could identify the Yellow River or Huang He as Chinese but would then promptly confuse it with the Chang Jiang, a name unknown to them as they would know it only as the Yangtze, not even the Yangzi! If Chinese history and geography are impenetrable enough then Chinese pre-history is even tougher! I can state this with some certainty for, before residing in China and beginning to learn about some of these mysteries, I was as ignorant myself.
Researching Taosi, a major Neolithic settlement in Shanxi, northern China, was an opportunity for me to learn more about Chinese pre-history and I hope, with this short article, for me to share this knowledge and my thoughts with you.
If you enjoy this article you may well enjoy The Curious History of the Hakka and the Tulou.
This piece is based upon several weeks of book and Internet research, followed by a personal visit to Taosi and to the Shanxi Museum in Taiyuan. However I have now been a student of China’s past, albeit a primitive one, for the last eight years. My interest in this period and particularly Taosi is that the time and place form the setting for the second of my trilogy of novels. What follows is not however fictional, I have pieced together the ideas and research from several academics and attempted to make it more accessible to the general public. None of this is original research, I am not an archaeologist and at best could only be described as an amateur historian, but I would hope there are possibly some original thoughts.
Whilst they are referenced in the bibliography I would especially like to thank two people I have never met or communicated with, Professor Li Liu, whose “The Chinese Neolithic – Trajectories to Early States” helped me considerably and Professor He Nu, who has been director of the Taosi archaeological site from 2001, a position I believe he still holds, and whose work has contributed to many other academics thinking on both the site and the period.
I do hope that my use (and abuse) of Professors He and Liu’s work does not offend or breach copyright, the same applies to my other sources, all of whom are referenced in the bibliography at the end of this piece but are not cited throughout as this is not technically an academic or a commercial article.
The Neolithic in China’s Yellow River basin comes to an end with the Longshan culture and, like all endings, it suggests a decline. In fact determining the boundary between this and the advent of the mysterious Xia Dynasty is virtually impossible and, whilst the culture was being replaced or reformed, it is likely that the people were not; the Longshan farmer became the Xia farmer. There is also a question as to whether the Longshan rulers became the Xia rulers and, if so, did they actually establish real dynastic succession as an organic process or, if not, was dynastic leadership superimposed by immigrants?
It is also disingenuous to describe the Longshan as Neolithic. Bronze was coming into use throughout the period and although the Shang Dynasty ware is regarded as the highpoint of the early Bronze Age in China, they were simply successful in taking it to a form of high art (see left). Stone tools are still used in China today, which is most patently not “Stone Age”, and were the norm under the Shang; it’s as if the Shang dynasty determined that bronze was for warriors and the elite only, leaving the working man with lesser materials. This process probably commenced in the later years of the Longshan culture; to begin with bronze was worked, but for basic use, as time went by it became a metal of the elite. Who is to say whether there may not have been a purge, where work implements were rounded up to be recycled into decorative pieces and expensive weapons?
A key settlement in this issue is Taosi in Shanxi, occupied for several hundred years, until around the start of the second millennium BC, by the Longshan, and another is Erlitou, which was reoccupied from around 1900BC, by a people who may have been the Xia. As archaeologists are unsure they tend to reference the Erlitou culture rather than the Xia, although most Chinese scholars seem to accept they are one and the same.
The Chinese have a fundamental problem with the period of history represented by Taosi, a major settlement, which dates from around 2500-1900BC. Erlitou, in Henan, which is almost accepted as being the first “Chinese” capital city, has a clearer pedigree, but even this is still hotly disputed. There is evidence that Erlitou was occupied in the third, second and first millennium B.C., but the period in which it attained its greatest size and dominated the Yellow River catchment was 1900-1600BC; prior to that it had been unoccupied for 600 years. These 300 years at the start of the second millennium B.C. fit neatly with some proposed dates for the Xia Dynasty, however arguments abound as to whether Erlitou was a Xia or Shang settlement. The Shang were supposedly China’s second dynasty, and they really did exist, as opposed to the Xia, the first dynasty, who existence is speculative!
The Shang are very clearly a Bronze Age, hierarchical civilisation, who were competent builders of cities; they were also literate. They were overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty in 1046 BC (at last...an accurate date!). Writings by Zhou Dynasty scholars identify the Xia Dynasty, but there is a suggestion that tales of the first dynasty were works of fiction that helped the Zhou justify the overthrowing of the Shang. It is the Zhou who introduced the concept of the mandate of heaven and this has two key aspects to it; firstly that there can only be one emperor at a time and second that abuse of the power inherent in that mandate can justify the overturning of the emperor and his dynasty. It is almost certain that the mandate of heaven did not apply in Xia times but by applying it retrospectively the Zhou give themselves a precedent and justification for overthrowing the Shang. Oddly the Zhou struggled on, in one form or another, having not only abused their mandate considerably but also been superseded in all but name by other regional dynasties.
One problem for historians lies with the dating of the Xia Dynasty as beginning in 1989BC, according to the Bamboo Annals, and as early as 2205BC according to Sima Qian. These are two conflicting secondary historical sources, one written some 1500 years after the event and the other some 2000 years after, so they’re hardly red hot leads. A third date for the commencement of the Xia Dynasty can be thrown into the mix, that of 2070BC, which seems to have been dreamt up by a modern day committee. Personally I like the committees’ date the most as it provides an interestingly fit with the Taosi timeline, which was struck by internal strife and abandonment around that time, and with that of Erlitou, which was resettled shortly after.