Lecture One

Geography and Archaeology

Scope: This lecture will set the stage for the developments to follow. We will begin with a consideration of the physical environment of East Asia and the specific sites in which Chinese civilization emerged: the mountains, coastline, and river valleys that defined the heartland of Chinese culture and remain the core of China today. We will also examine the prehistoric background of Chinese culture as it took form through the Neolithic era, with particular emphasis on the rise of settled agricultural societies and the multiple regional cultures that converged into the mainstream of China’s historical identity.


I. Before beginning to deal with the course of China’s history, I want to take a few moments to suggest some general themes and concepts that will be part of this course and that will help us bring some coherence to the vast domain of China’s past.

A. We will be concerned with how the Chinese have organized their society and government.

1. How have social elites developed and evolved over time?

2. What have been the bases for power, and for the legitimation of power, through different periods?

3. How have the Chinese thought about their own society, and how have they seen the world around them?

B. We will consider the relationship between China and the outside world.

1. First of all, this is a matter of Chinese civilization and the peoples living around China, often seen by the Chinese as “barbarians.”

2. We will also consider how China has been involved in larger regional and global systems of trade and communication.

3. In later lectures, we will look at how influences from outside China have reshaped both the realities of life for modern Chinese and the ways in which China sees itself.

C. We will explore the connections between economic and social life and the worlds of art, literature, and philosophy.

1. Cultural life and political life have always been closely linked in China, and we will see how these linkages have changed over time.

2. We will investigate the question of whether developments in China parallel those in other parts of the world, and if so, how and why that may be.

D. China is, on the one hand, a unique civilization that sometimes seems to have taken a developmental path quite distinct from the West, yet in other ways, the Chinese experience can be seen as a set of alternative responses to common challenges and problems faced by people everywhere.

II. In embarking on our exploration of Chinese history, let’s begin by establishing just where and what China was and is.

A. China is located in East Asia and is defined by several significant geographic features.

B. On the east is the Pacific Ocean.

C. To the south lie the tropical lands of Southeast Asia.

D. The heartland of China is bounded on the west by mountains, from the border with Burma to the Tibetan plateau, and by the Gobi Desert.

E. To the north lie the grasslands of Mongolia and the rugged forests and mountains of Manchuria and Siberia.

III. The core region of Chinese civilization is called China proper.

A. Four important areas can be defined within China proper.

1. In the north is the North China Plain.

2. In the south is a region of low hills and wet valleys.

3. In the southwest is the Sichuan Basin, ringed by mountains and accessible mainly via the gorges of the Yangzi River.

4. In the northwest is a dry plateau.

B. Two major rivers flow from west to east.

1. The Yellow River rises in Tibet and forms a long loop called the Ordos before flowing across the North China Plain to the sea by the Shandong peninsula.

2. The Yangzi River also originates in Tibet, flows through Sichuan and across central China, to reach the Pacific near modern-day Shanghai.

IV. As China has expanded historically, peripheral areas have become part of its territory.

A. Chinese farmers have moved south and southwest into the highlands of what is now Guizhou and Yunnan.

B. Tibet has been linked to China since at least the 7th century.

C. Chinese power has extended into Central Asia along the overland trade route known as the Silk Road.

D. The Mongolian steppe has been a frontier zone that has sometimes been incorporated into the empire.

E. The woodlands of Manchuria, in the northeast of modern China, have become part of the country only in the last four centuries.

V. China’s population has evolved in complex ways.

A. The earliest people to call themselves Chinese lived on the North China Plain.

1. The earliest “states” included numerous tribal groups who defined themselves in contrast to the surrounding “barbarians.”

2. One key element in this self-definition was the possession of a system of writing.

B. As Chinese civilization expanded, neighboring peoples were either displaced or assimilated.

1. Chinese farmers moving south drove indigenous peoples out of the region or forced them to move from fertile river valleys to more marginal highlands.

2. Some non-Chinese peoples continued to live in proximity to the much larger Chinese population, retaining distinctive cultures.

C. Today, the main ethnic group is called the Han and accounts for 95 percent of China’s population.

1. The name derives from the Han dynasty, which we will learn about later.

2. The other 5 percent of China’s population is composed of 54 “national minorities.”

VI. Let’s return to the origins of Chinese civilization.

A. The archaeological record tells us a good deal about the ancestors of modern man in China.

1. The earliest human ancestors included Peking Man, whose fossil remains are dated to around 500,000 B.C.E.

2. Other hominid fossils have been found in southwest China and in the Yellow River valley in the northwest.

3. Modern homo sapiens remains appear in China about 40,000 years ago.

4. A series of cultures developed increasingly more sophisticated stone tools.

5. The key to the rise of more complex cultures, leading to historical Chinese civilization, was the domestication of rice around 10,000 B. C.E. in what is now Jiangxi province.

6. By about 6,000-7,000 years ago, larger regional cultures began to emerge, setting the stage for the growth of true Chinese civilization.

7. The Neolithic, or New Stone Age, was a period of rapid development for regional cultures in China.

B. Neolithic cultures were characterized by the use of pottery and the creation of settled farming communities.

1. Between 7,000 and 6,000 years ago, the Yangshao and Longshan cultures grew in northern China, distinguished by their particular forms of pottery.

2. Other pottery styles marked the Liangzhu culture, which flourished further south, in the eastern Yangzi valley.

3. The expansion of agricultural production yielded increasing surpluses, which allowed for the development of new social elites, often associated with shamanic cults.

4. Somewhere around 5,000 years ago, people in both north China and in Sichuan began to mine and smelt copper, tin, and other metals and to cast bronze objects.

5. The first evidence of territorially extensive, politically complex society is associated with what the Chinese traditionally believed to be the Xia dynasty, centered near the confluence of the Yellow and Wei Rivers, a little more than 4,000 years ago.

6. We will follow the development of the Xia, and the emergence of historical Chinese civilization, in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds., The Cambridge History of Ancient China, 30-73.

Supplemental Reading:

Kwang-chih Chang, The Archaeology’ of Ancient China.

Questions to Consider:

1. How can we understand the relationship between the prehistoric populations of what is now China and the present-day Chinese people?

2. Why was the domestication of rice significant to the emergence of true Chinese civilization?

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