Hey guys, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things. Tonight we’re going to begin a new series that I’m really excited about: we’re going to discuss the ancient origins of Chinese civilization.
In this series we’re going to go way back in time to the very earliest cultures that could be considered ancestral to what we call “China”, and look at some of the cultural elements that continue to be with us even to this day.
Something my Chinese friends like to say is “China has five thousand years of history”. Even the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, recently made an address to the UK parliament wherein he claimed the figure to be “over” five thousand. The “5k figure”, as I call it, is usually used as an assertion of Chinese national pride. To question the figure is tantamount to belittling the Chinese nation, so in my experience when someone makes this claim the best thing to do is nod and go along with it—internal cringing aside.
The 5k figure is inaccurate. For one thing, “history”, strictly speaking, means that contemporary written sources are available from this time. They weren’t. The very oldest undisputed Chinese written documents date from the 13th century BC, maybe a little older. Sorry, Xi. Saying “China has over five thousand years of history” isn’t wrong in the “2+2=5” sense, but it is a gross oversimplification. I think it would be more accurate to say this:
China has almost 3500 years of written history, four thousand years of civilization, and at least seven thousand years of continuous cultural development. That is to say, the Yellow River basin seven thousand years ago was home to cultures directly ancestral to the Chinese culture of today.
That’s a period of existence older than any other society today. Egypt and Mesopotamia became Arabic-speaking Islamic societies. Byzantium, the continuation of ancient Greco-Roman culture, fell to the Ottomans. But China is still here, and arguably has been for seven thousand years.
To an American—especially one from Colorado, a history-starved pocket of a history-starved nation—these numbers boggle the mind. It’s almost unfathomable, but there it is.
So, let’s get started by going back to five thousand BC in the Yellow River basin of central China. This is the middle of what’s called the neolithic, or new stone age. Agriculture is hardly a new thing, but we’re still thousands of years off from what we would call civilization, or even the use of metal. Basically we’re looking at a continuum of culturally related farming villages (1).
The apparent continuity between these cultures suggests some degree of language contact. Even if these communities were not linguistically related, the people belonging to them were at least bro enough to learn each other’s languages. There might even have been what linguists call a sprachbund—that is, languages that influence each other, but are not necessarily related themselves. A good example is the linguistic exchange between Sumerian and Akkadian in ancient Mesopotamia. While of course we can’t prove whether language contact did in fact occur, I like to think of the words of the immortal Dr. Seuss:
“If such a thing could be, it certainly would be.”
--Dr. Seuss, McElligott’s Pool
--Dr. Seuss, McElligott’s Pool
...or at least, so I like to think.
Gradually, between the seventh and fourth millennia BC, a unifying set of ideas spread throughout the Yellow River basin. Among these were, for example, a belief in a circular sky and square earth, with totem items to represent them (2) and the association of dragons with storms and water (3). It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that these concepts were spread by people speaking a language ancestral, or at least related, to modern Chinese, given that some of the words for these concepts may be found in reconstructed Proto-Sino-Tibetan. A good example is PST /*m-bruk/(4), which referred to a heavenly dragon associated with storms and weather. This concept was probably held by the PST speakers of eight thousand years ago, and remains prominent in Chinese culture today. We even still have the same word in modern Standard Chinese, written like this:
That is, bing4 “sound of thunder”. It was ideas like these that spread across the Yellow River basin of seven thousand years ago—perhaps spread, as I say, by a language ancestral to today’s Chinese.
These prehistoric farming communities gradually coalesced into what is known to archaeologists as the Yangshao culture, which flourished between the seventh and fifth milennia BC and developed out of the earlier Penligang, Dadiwan and Cishan cultures(4). The Yangshao people have given us some of the very earliest distinctively “Chinese” cultural elements. For example, present in the Yangshao culture was the ding, or ceremonial cauldron(5), which really began with the even earlier Cishan culture (6). To this day dings are highly prestigious symbols in China. Here’s a look at a Cishan and Yangshao ding:
Cishan ding (8-7kya)(5)
Yangshao ding (7-5kya)(6)
To the north of the Yangshao was the culturally similar Hongshan culture. From the Hongshan people, too, we find some of the first recognizable elements of what we would call Chinese culture. For instance, the Hongshan people used shapes and figures at ceremonial sites that imply, incredibly, the earliest example of what we know today as Feng Shui(7). Another great Hongshan find is this beautiful jade dragon:
Hongshan Jade Dragon (7-5 kya)(8)
I love to look at the dings and the dragon, and think about how I am now living in what could be called a direct continuation of these seven thousand year old cultures. Pretty amazing, and that’s why I love China.
So that’s part I of our series on the origins of Chinese civilization. Up next: Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part II: Big Men and Kings. See you next time!