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Questions relating to state emergence in China are often intertwined with the origins of early dynasties. This subject involves many disciplines , including archaeology, history, and anthropology, and scholars from these fields often employ different definitions for states/ civilization, use various approaches, and address diverse issues. This article intends to provide an overview of major archaeological findings, approaches, interpretations, and debates on certain issues. Controversial questions include whether some of late Neolithic polities can be considered early states, and whether ancient textual accounts can be used to guide archaeological interpretations. It may not be possible in the near future to alter the historiographically determined approach, which pervades Chinese archaeology, but social-archaeology methods for investigating the political-economic system on regional and interregional scales have proven productive.
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ANRV388-AN38-14 ARI 14 August 2009 19:11
State Emergence
in Early China
Li Liu
Archaeology Program, School of Historical and European Studies, La Trobe University,
Melbourne VIC 3086, Australia; email:
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2009. 38:217–32
First published online as a Review in Advance on
June 19, 2009
The Annual Review of Anthropology is online at
This article’s doi:
2009 by Annual Reviews.
All rights reserved
Key Words
Chinese civilization, Longshan culture, Xia dynasty, Erlitou
Questions relating to state emergence in China are often intertwined
with the origins of early dynasties. This subject involves many disci-
plines, including archaeology, history, and anthropology, and schol-
ars from these fields often employ different definitions for states/
civilization, use various approaches, and address diverse issues. This
article intends to provide an overview of major archaeological findings,
approaches, interpretations, and debates on certain issues. Controver-
sial questions include whether some of late Neolithic polities can be
considered early states, and whether ancient textual accounts can be
used to guide archaeological interpretations. It may not be possible in
the near future to alter the historiographically determined approach,
which pervades Chinese archaeology, but social-archaeology methods
for investigating the political-economic system on regional and inter-
regional scales have proven productive.
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2009.38:217-232. Downloaded from
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ANRV388-AN38-14 ARI 14 August 2009 19:11
China is one of the oldest civilizations in the
world and also has a long historical record,
which provides rich information concerning
China’s cultural origins. Questions relating to
state emergence are often intertwined with the
development of early dynasties. This subject in-
volves many disciplines, including archaeology,
history, and anthropology, and scholars from
these fields often employ different approaches
and address different issues. This article pro-
vides an overview of major archaeological find-
ings, different approaches, diverse interpreta-
tions, and debates on certain issues. Because
this review is written for English readers, I use
primarily English sources when available. The
chronology and location of major archaeologi-
cal cultures and sites relevant to this study are
shown in Table 1 and Figure 1.
Modern archaeology conducted by Chinese ar-
chaeologists began in the 1920s and was the
result of interplay among the Chinese tradi-
tions of historiography, the introduction of
Western scientific methodology, and rising na-
tionalism. The primary objective was to re-
construct national history, particularly to re-
veal the origins of early dynasties: the Xia,
Shang, and Zhou, which emerged in the Cen-
tral Plains of the Middle Yellow River valley
(Falkenhausen 1993, Liu & Chen 2001a). The
Table 1 Chronology of archaeological cultures concerned
Time (B.C.) Liao River
Middle Yellow
Lower Yellow
Middle Yangzi River Lower Yangzi River
4000–3000 Hongshan Yangshao Dawenkou Qujialing Hemudu-Majiabang
Xiaoheyan Early Longshan Liangzhu
? Late Longshan Longshan Shijiahe
Lower Xiajiadian Erlitou Yueshi Lower Zaoshi Maqiao
1600–1400 ? Erligang Yueshi-Erligang Panlongcheng-Baota
1400–1300 Middle Shang Yueshi-Shang
1300–1026 Late Shang Hushu
first site excavated by a Chinese-led archaeol-
ogy team was Yinxu (the ruins of Yin/Shang) in
Anyang, Henan, which has been confirmed as
a capital of the late Shang dynasty (Li 1977).
This project was the first time that archaeolo-
gists proved legends to be real history, i.e., ver-
ifiable by material evidence. The success of the
Anyang excavations heightened archaeologists’
confidence that more remains of early dynas-
ties, especially the Xia and early Shang, could
also be found.
Archaeological investigations of the pre-
historic period have been significantly influ-
enced by legendary accounts in ancient texts,
an approach resulting from the strong histori-
ographical tradition (Falkenhausen 1993) cou-
pled with a research tendency toward the recon-
struction of national history (Liu & Xu 2007).
In addition, theoretical orientations employed
in Chinese archaeology during the second half
of the twentieth century were defined primarily
by classical evolutionary models derived from
Morgan (1963 [1877]), Engels (1972 [1884]),
and Childe (1950), which regard social change
as a unilineal process (Tong 1995). Such a com-
plex of native and imported intellectual influ-
ences has helped to shape the research questions
and interpretations relating to the trajectories
of early states (Liu 2004, pp. 1–10).
Chinese archaeology has been a fast-
developing field in recent decades owing to the
rapid economic growth in the country. Sev-
eral large urban sites, such as Erlitou, Yanshi,
218 Liu
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Figure 1
Distribution of cultures and sites mentioned in the text. Cultures: I, Hongshan; II, Dawenkou-Shandong
Longshan; III, Yangshao-Longshan; IV, Qujialing; V, Liangzhu. Sites: 1, Liangchengzhen; 2, Yaowangcheng;
3, Anyang/Yinxuj; 4, Zhengzhou; 5, Wangchenggang; 6, Nanwa; 7, Huizui; 8, Erlitou, Yanshi; 9, Taosi;
10, Dongxiafeng; 11, Donglongshan; 12, Laoniupo; 13, Panlongcheng; 14, Mojiaoshan.
Zhengzhou, and Anyang, have been found in
the Central Plains where the Xia and Shang
dynasties are believed to have emerged. Exca-
vations at these sites have indeed testified to
the development of early states there. Many as-
tonishing discoveries have also been made in
regions outside the Central Plains, revealing
some highly developed Neolithic and Bronze
Age cultures with local characteristics. These
new findings in the latter category have chal-
lenged the traditional view that the most ad-
vanced civilization centers first emerged in the
Central Plains and then diffused to the sur-
rounding regions. As a result, Chang (1986) and
Su (Su & Yin 1981, Wang 1997) developed new
interpretations, emphasizing the importance of
regional interactions prior to the rise of early
Su’s quxi leixing (regional systems and local
cultural series) model describes regional varia-
tions of archaeological culture and diverse tra-
jectories toward civilization in different parts of
China (Su 1999, Su & Yin 1981, Wang 1997).
This model is then coupled with Su’s three-
part evolutionary hierarchy: guguo—fangguo—
diguo (archaic state—regional state—empire),
which outlines the sociopolitical transforma-
tion from the Neolithic to the dynastic peri-
ods (Su 1999, pp. 129–67). Despite some strong
criticism on the vagueness of these generaliza-
tions (An 1993), Su’s two models together have
become an influential methodological frame-
work in China, encouraging many archaeolo-
gists to pursue regional developmental trajecto-
ries and to classify their findings into seemingly
appropriate evolutionary stages.
State Emergence in Early China 219
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Since the 1990s, an increasing number of
Sino-foreign collaborative projects have been
carried out in China, many focusing on regional
settlement patterns in relation to the process
of social change and state formation. These
projects have covered many regions, including
southeast Shandong (Underhill et al. 1998,
2002, 2008), the Huan River valley in northern
Henan (Sino-Am. Huan 1998), the Yiluo River
in western Henan (Liu & Chen 2007, Liu
et al. 2002–2004), and the Liao River in the
Northeast (Linduff et al. 2002–2004, Chifeng
2003). These projects have employed more
up-to-date methods and theory from Western
anthropological archaeology traditions aiming
to provide systematic data for the study of
social evolution in China. Based on the data
generated from these projects, fluctuations
in three variables of settlement pattern—site
number, size of the largest site, and settlement
hierarchy—that are indicative of the degree of
social complexity are present in all regions, but
each appears to have its unique cycles of social
development and decline. The most striking
difference among these regions occurred dur-
ing the first half of the second millennium b.c.
when the Central Plains experienced political
solidarity and integration, as indicated by the
emergence of a large urbanized and state-level
political center at Erlitou in the Yiluo basin.
In contrast, all other regions witnessed either
a perceivable reduction in population density
with no observable settlement hierarchy
(southeast Shandong and the Huan River re-
gion) or decentralized intergroup conflict (the
Liao River valley) (Liu & Chen 2001c). These
investigations have made significant contribu-
tions to our understanding of social change
from a cross-regional comparative perspective.
There is a lack of consensus about where,
when, and how the first state emerged in China.
Two problems are primarily responsible for
causing confusion. First, the term “state” has
been used interchangeably with the word “civ-
ilization” in Chinese archaeology literature;
“civilization” occurs more frequently than
“state.” Because civilization is often used in
a more general way than state, and different
scholars usually employ different definitions for
these two concepts, many interpretations are
ambiguous. Nevertheless, two recent studies
have attempted to clarify the relationship be-
tween these concepts. Allan (2007) argues that
a common elite culture, which was associated
with a particular set of religious practices, was
first crystallized in the region centered at Erl-
itou. Erlitou thus represents the highest form
of political organization (a state) at the early
part of the second millennum b.c., whereas the
common elite culture associated with Erlitou
may be called a civilization. A similar treatment
to the two concepts is also given by Yoffee & Li
(2009), who suggest that early states as the gov-
ernmental center of a society were created in
cities, whereas a set of cultural values as a civi-
lization was shared by several early microstates.
Although the terminology remains a problem,
in this review article I do not impose a rigid dis-
tinction between the two terms when they were
used interchangeably in the original literature.
Second, diverse scholarly traditions exist re-
garding the relationships between archaeolog-
ical site/culture and early dynasties mentioned
in textual records. This situation also leads to
disputes over the nature of early states.
Definitions and Approaches
Investigators use three general approaches to
study state formation, which may be traced back
to different preferences toward defining the
state, as held by particular scholarly traditions.
Xia Nai’s approach. The interchangeable us-
age of civilization/state was first explicitly em-
ployed by Xia Nai (1985, p. 81), who wrote that
“civilization refers to a society in which the clan
system has disintegrated and a state organiza-
tion with class differentiation has formed.” In-
fluenced by Gordon Childe’s concept of urban
revolution, Xia identified four essential and ar-
chaeologically detectable criteria for defining
civilization/state: (a) state-level political orga-
nization (characterized by class differentiation),
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(b) urban center of political, economic, and cul-
tural/religious activity, (c) writing, and (d ) met-
allurgy. He further suggested that civilization
in China had emerged in the Erlitou culture
(1900/1800–1500 b.c.) in Henan, at least in its
late phase (Xia 1985, pp. 79–106).
Xia (1985, p. 96) regarded himself as a con-
servative archaeologist. When Xia published
his article on the origins of Chinese civiliza-
tion in the 1980s, Erlitou was the only site
revealing archaeological evidence that met his
criteria for a state. The current archaeologi-
cal record shows that the level of social com-
plexity observable at Erlitou has not been sur-
passed by any archaeological cultures prior to
or contemporary with it (more discussion be-
low). This approach, which emphasizes hard
archaeological evidence with less concern for
textual information, has not been very pop-
ular in China. Most publications relating to
the Erlitou culture attempt to provide it with
dynastic affiliations (see Du & Xu 2006, Inst.
Archaeol. 2003). However, some new research
has shown that Xia’s principle needs to be
reconsidered; archaeological information and
historical records relating to prehistoric soci-
eties should be dealt with independently be-
fore they can be considered together (Liu 2004,
pp. 9–10; Liu & Chen 2003; Liu & Xu 2007).
Su Bingqi’s approach. Su Bingqi (1999) took
a more radical approach than Xia Nai, using
the term civilization loosely and without a clear
definition. He traced the early development
of some cultural traits to the Neolithic pe-
riod more than 5000 years ago and described
these traits as signifying the dawn of civiliza-
tion, manifest in archaic states. These charac-
teristics include walled settlements, jade objects
with dragon designs, large public architecture,
and burial differentiation. Because such traits
could be found in many regions, Su (1999) de-
scribed this situation as mantian xingdou (“the
sky full of stars”) at the dawn of civilization. He
further suggested that there were many regional
trajectories toward civilization and that such
processes started more than 5000 years ago. He
also proposed three pathways to early states in
different regions: fission, clash, and amalgama-
tion (pp. 119–27). The examples he used high-
light changes in artifactual styles and archaeo-
logical features found in different sites over sev-
eral thousand years; therefore, Su’s models seem
to be related more to general cultural evolution
than to the process of state formation.
Su’s view has been shared by many archaeol-
ogists and historians in China, who believe that
the origins of civilization/state should be traced
back to Neolithic times (e.g., Li 1997, Yan
2000, Zhang 2000). Examples of these early civ-
ilizations include many archaeological cultures,
such as Late Yangshao, Hongshan, Dawenkou,
Qujialing, Liangzhu, and Longshan, dating to
the fifth through third millennia b.c. (Zhang
2000). In these studies, the presence of hierar-
chical society and construction of public build-
ings and settlement fortifications are most fre-
quently cited as marking the emergence of early
states (e.g., Li 1997, pp. 7–10). Although oppos-
ing views have appeared (e.g., An 1993, Chen
1987), this approach seems to have gained more
momentum in recent years, as new discover-
ies from several late Neolithic cultures have
shown construction of large-scale public archi-
tecture, such as rammed-earth enclosure, and
evolution of rather advanced social organiza-
tion during the third millennium b.c. These
discoveries of complex Neolithic societies are
particularly exemplified by Taosi in southern
Shanxi, Wangchenggang in central Henan, and
the Liangzhu site cluster in Yuhang, Zhejiang.
They all show large rammed-earth enclosures
(more discussion below).
Social archaeological approach. Two Sino-
foreign collaborative and interdisciplinary
projects in southeast Shandong and the Yiluo
basin (Henan) are also concerned with issues
of state formation. These projects, involving
full-coverage regional survey and excava-
tion, employ the methodology of settlement
archaeology to study social change from a
regional perspective (e.g., Adams & Jones
1981, Feinman 1995, Fish & Kowalewski
1990, Kowalewski 1989, Wilson 1988, Wright
1984). For this approach, a state is defined as
State Emergence in Early China 221
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a society with a minimum of two social strata:
a professional ruling class and a commoner
class. The ruling class is characterized by a
centralized decision-making process, which is
both externally specialized, with regard to the
local processes it regulates, and internally spe-
cialized in that the central process is divisible
into separate activities, which can be performed
in different places at different times (Marcus
& Feinman 1998, p. 4; Wright 1977, p. 383).
Furthermore, a state-level social organization
often develops at minimum a four-tiered
regional settlement hierarchy, equivalent to
three or more levels of political hierarchy
(Earle 1991, p. 3; Flannery 1998, pp. 16–21;
Wright 1977, p. 389; Wright & Johnson 1975).
In southeastern Shandong, settlement
patterns show a long period of population
development and decline from the Neolithic to
the Han dynasty (3000 b.c.a.d. 200). During
the late Neolithic Longshan culture (2600–
2000 b.c.) the research region (1120 km
witnessed the rise of two very large centers at
Liangchengzhen (272.5 ha) and Yaowangcheng
(367.5 ha), each dominating a settlement
system with three tiers of political hierarchy
(Underhill et al. 2008). Extensive excavations
at Liangchengzhen show that this settlement
was densely populated, was enclosed by ditches
(Sino-Am. Collab. 2004), and functioned as
a center of craft production for making stone
tools (Bennett 2008, Cunnar 2007) and possibly
jade objects (Liu 1988). All these findings seem
to suggest a state-level social organization,
although the project team hesitates to claim
that these developments amount to state
formation before investigators can carry out
further excavations (Underhill et al. 2008).
In the Yiluo region, settlement patterns
show a rapid process of population nucleation
during the Erlitou period, when a large urban
center developed at the Erlitou site (300 ha)
and the settlement system in the survey region
(860 km
) shows three tiers of political hierar-
chy (Erlitou 2005, Liu et al. 2002–2004). On
the basis of archaeological information from
regional surveys and excavations performed at
Erlitou and other sites within and beyond the
Yiluo basin, there is little doubt that Erlitou de-
veloped into a state-level society (Lee 2004, Liu
2006, Liu et al. 2007, Liu & Chen 2003) (more
discussion below).
Archaeology versus Textual Record
China’s long historical record provides rich
information concerning its cultural origins,
which often refer to the Three Sovereigns,
Five Emperors, and Three Dynasties (Xia,
Shang and Zhou; 2100–200 b.c.). In archae-
ology, although the discovery of Yinxu was
an encouraging success, it has proven difficult
and controversial to match archaeological sites
with prehistoric cities or places mentioned
in historical accounts, which may be treated
as legends and oral history (Liu & Xu 2007).
Nevertheless, many Chinese archaeologists are
determined to search for the cultural remains
of early dynasties, particularly the Xia, and the
final goal is to reconstruct a dynastic history
by integrating archaeological data with the
received historical record, including legendary
traditions (Inst. Archaeol. 2003, pp. 21–23).
This approach has been heightened by several
state-organized projects, namely the Xia-
Shang-Zhou Chronology Project in the 1990s
and the subsequently developed Searching for
the Origins of Chinese Civilization Project.
Both projects have employed interdisciplinary
approaches. The former aimed to provide the
traditional historiographic accounts a firmer
chronological base (Lee 2002), whereas the lat-
ter attempts to determine dynastic origins and
the earliest civilizations in the Neolithic times
and early Bronze Age (Yuan & Campbell 2008).
During recent decades several ancient ur-
ban sites have been unearthed in the Cen-
tral Plains, and some of them indeed roughly
coincide in time and space with early dynas-
tic capitals recorded in ancient texts. Much of
the discussion has been focused on the site of
Erlitou, but judgments about it are controver-
sial. Many archaeologists have been concerned
primarily with the correlation between this site
and early dynasties, either Xia or Shang (see
summary in Liu & Xu 2007), and the majority
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of them believe that Erlitou represents the ma-
terial remains of a capital city of the late Xia dy-
nasty (e.g., Chang 1999, Childs-Johnson 1995,
Du 1991, Gao et al. 1998, Li 1997, Zou 1980).
Furthermore, the efforts to identify the Xia dy-
nasty have been extended to the Late Neolithic
period in recent years, as some large Neolithic
sites enclosed with walls or ditches have been
found at Wangchenggang and Xinzhai, both in
central Henan (Cent. Stud. Anc. Civiliz. 2004,
Sch. Archaeol. Museol. Peking Univ. 2007).
However, not all researchers in China agree
to connect archaeological sites with prehistoric
polities mentioned in ancient textual accounts
(e.g., Wang 2006), and some are reluctant to
affirm a direct link between Erlitou and early
dynasties, owing to insufficient evidence (Liu &
Chen 2003, Liu & Xu 2007, Xia 1985). Many
sinologists in the West are particularly skeptical
about the reliability of textual information—
and thus about the claimed historical con-
nection between Erlitou and Xia (e.g., Allan
1991; Bagley 1999, pp. 130–31; Keightley 1983;
Linduff 1998, p. 629; Thorp 1991, 2006). These
debates are likely to continue for some time, but
it should be noted that increasing numbers of
sinologists have recently begun to accept that
Erlitou shows a high degree of cultural-political
sophistication, which can be seen as indicating
a civilization or state-level society (e.g., Allan
Nature and Form of Early States
Another research topic concerning early states
analyzes their general nature and form, viewed
from a cross-cultural comparative perspective.
Several models have been employed to describe
early states in China. During the late twentieth
century, discussions focused mainly on the late
Shang dynasty, and the conclusions were con-
troversial. The late Shang was described as city-
states (Lin 1998, Yates 1997), segmentary states
(Keightley 2000; Southall 1993, p. 33), terri-
torial states (Trigger 1999), and village states
(Maisels 1990, pp. 12–13, 254–61). These four
models can be grouped into two types: city-
states and segmentary state, on the one hand,
and territorial state and village-state, on the
other. Major disputes between the two camps
concern the political structure and the territo-
rial size of early states (see summary in Liu &
Chen 2003). However, because scholars usu-
ally have different understandings of political
territory and use different criteria to measure
it, their conclusions regarding the same polit-
ical entity often vary considerably. In regards
to the late Shang dynasty centered in Anyang,
for example, some scholars argue for a very
large territorial state (Trigger 1999), whereas
others suggest a rather small city-state or seg-
mentary state (Keightley 2000, Lin 1998, Yates
1997). Chinese archaeologists often determine
the Shang political boundaries using the dis-
tribution of the ceramic and bronze styles and
tend to claim a relatively large territory, includ-
ing the entire middle and lower Yellow River
and to the north of the Yangzi River (Song
1991, p. 201). In contrast, some sinologists re-
gard only the Shang core area as its territory,
covering a small region on the middle Yellow
River (Wheatley 1971, p. 97). Crucial to the
resolution of this dispute is some agreed under-
standing of the relationship between the distri-
bution of a material culture and the adminis-
trative territory of a polity. Recent studies have
suggested that regions characterized by Shang
cultural remains were by no means all under
direct political control of the Shang court (Liu
2009, Xu 1998), and the late Shang territory ap-
pears to have been considerably smaller than the
early Shang (Tang 2001). Notably, Xu (1998) ar-
gues that there was a cultural sphere of bronze
ritual objects in the Shang period, which was
much greater in area than the Shang political
boundry. This observation echoes Allan’s (2007)
and Yoffee & Li’s (2009) concept of civilization
as a set of common cultural values.
In the past decade, as more archaeological
data became available, researchers shifted to the
Erlitou and Erligang cultures for understand-
ing the emergence of early states. As both the
Erlitou and Erligang cultures show evidence of
territorial expansion, and the relationship be-
tween core and periphery was characterized by
control of vital resources, these two polities
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have been interpreted as territorial states (Liu
& Chen 2003).
General cross-cultural comparative research
is a useful approach for understanding both the
level of social complexity and the nature of po-
litical organization involved in state formation.
But we should not become too obsessed with
classification of state types. Two recent studies
by Campbell (2007) and Li (2008) attempted al-
ternative approaches. They employed Baines &
Yoffee’s (1998) notion of civilization as a shared
cultural order in which early states were embed-
ded and further explored multifaceted interre-
lationships between the Shang and its neigh-
boring polities. Campbell (2007) criticizes pre-
vious interpretations of early states in China as
functionalist and typological and shows that the
Late Shang political landscape is a picture of
overlapping material, practical, and discursive
networks forming concentric but distinctive
spheres of authority. Likewise, Li (2008) inves-
tigates the interaction between humans and an-
imals, using the faunal remains from a regional
center, at Daxinzhuang in Shandong, which re-
flects the process of “becoming Shang.” This
process is conceptualized as reconciling on-
going tensions between the state’s claim to
supremacy and diverse local circumstances.
Although some archaeologists believe that early
states emerged in many parts of China more
than 5000 years ago, current archaeological
data suggest that some late Neolithic cultures
of the third millennium b.c. and the Erlitou
culture are the best candidates for recogni-
tion as pristine states, with Erlitou showing the
strongest evidence.
State Emergence in the Late
Neolithic Cultures
Three Neolithic cultures/variants often as-
signed to the category of early states are Taosi,
Wangchenggang, and Liangzhu.
Taosi (2600–2000 b.c.) was a regional cen-
ter in the Linfen basin, southern Shanxi. No
full-coverage regional survey has been con-
ducted there, but nonsystematic surveys have
identified some 50 late Longshan sites, form-
ing a three-tiered site hierarchy in the basin (Liu
2004, pp. 170–76). During its heyday, Taosi was
encircled by large rammed-earth walls (280 ha),
its elite residences appear to have been sepa-
rated from commoners by walled enclosures,
and social hierarchy was clearly expressed in
mortuary practice. The site was also a craft
production center for stone artifacts and pot-
tery vessels. A large, semicircular rammed-
earth structure (1 ha) has been identified as
an astronomical observatory (Liu 2004; Shanxi
Team IACASS et al. 2003, pp. 109–13; 2005;
2007). Taosi apparently was a major political,
economic, and ritual center in the region. As
seasonal changes were crucial moments for Ne-
olithic farming societies, by which to schedule
their agricultural activities, the Taosi elite may
have held great ritual power by possessing as-
tronomical knowledge needed to determine the
calendar. In addition, two glyphs painted in red
pigment were found on a pottery vessel. They
have been identified as characters for “wen yi,”
which are believed to have referred to a capital
of the Xia dynasty (Feng 2008). This site has
been interpreted not only as an early state, but
also as a political center affiliated with either
the Xia dynasty or predynastic kings, such as
Yao and Shun; all were active in south Shanxi,
according to ancient texts (Xie 2006). Never-
theless, owing to a lack of full-coverage regional
survey, we are not clear about the Taosi polity’s
level of social complexity, considered from a re-
gional perspective.
Wangchenggang in Dengfeng is located on
a terraced area in the alluvial region of cen-
tral Henan. During the late Longshan pe-
riod, this region was characterized by a mul-
ticentered competitive settlement system, in
which some centers were enclosed by rammed-
earth fortifications (Liu 2004, pp. 182–85).
Wangchenggang (2200–1835 b.c.) was such
an enclosed site and served as the settlement
center for 22 unwalled sites distributed in the
upper Ying River valley. At Wangchenggang,
two connected small rammed-earth enclosures
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(1 ha each) were built around 2200 b.c., and
a large enclosure (35 ha) was constructed by
2100–2050 b.c. Many ash pits were unearthed
at the site, some containing human sacrifices.
This site was also a craft-production center,
judging from stone drills and blanks, uncov-
ered there, for making spades, axes, knives, and
sickles (Henan Inst. Cult. Relics 1992, Sch.
Archaeol. Museol. Peking Univ. 2007).
Wangchenggang’s status as a state has to
do with its location, which coincides with
Yangcheng, the capital city said to have been
established by Yu the Great, who founded the
Xia dynasty according to textual accounts. Since
the discovery, in 1977, of small internal en-
closures, suggesting a segregated ruling elite,
Wangchenggang has often been regarded as
the ancestral place of the Xia dynasty (Henan
1992). The recent discovery of the large ur-
ban enclosure has promoted a new interpre-
tation, that the small enclosures were built by
Guan, the legendary father of Yu the Great,
and the large town walls by Yu himself (Sch.
Archaeol. Museol. Peking Univ. 2007). Never-
theless, such an attribution fails to explain a gap
of some 100 years between the two construc-
tions at Wangchenggang.
The Liangzhu site cluster in Yuhang. The
Liangzhu culture (3100–2200 b.c.) is dis-
tributed in the Lower Yangzi River region.
The site density is particularly high in the
Yuhang district, Zhejiang. A group of 135
sites/locales have been identified in an area
of 33.8 km
there. The central place is lo-
cated at Mojiaoshan, which is a man-made ter-
race, about 10 m high and 30 ha in area. Sev-
eral rammed-earth architectural foundations,
up to 3 ha in size, were situated on top of this
large terrace. Mojiaoshan, together with sev-
eral smaller sites, was surrounded by a large
rammed-earth enclosure (290 ha), which was
built during the late Liangzhu period. Liangzhu
sites can be categorized into several functional
types: the large ritual center at Mojiaoshan,
sacrificial altars, burial sites, residential sites,
and jade and pottery workshops. In addition,
a rammed-earth wall, 5-km long and 20–50-m
wide, was built parallel to the Tianmu moun-
tain range in the north of the site cluster; it may
have been constructed for flood control (Zhe-
jiang 2005, 2008). The Liangzhu culture is well
known for its large numbers of elaborate jade
items unearthed from burial sites (Huang 1992,
Mou & Yun 1992). Many jade forms appear
to have embodied complex symbolic meanings
(Chang 1989), and some bear pictographic sym-
bols (Keightley 2006, Yang 2000). Some elite
individuals may have been involved in manufac-
turing these prestige items, and Liangzhu jade,
together with its symbolic meanings, had great
influence on many Neolithic cultures in other
regions (Liu 2003).
Different from its Central Plains’ counter-
parts, the Liangzhu culture left no trace in an-
cient texts, so interpretations of its material re-
mains rely completely on archaeology. Given
that enormous amounts of construction and
jade working were carried out by the Liangzhu
people, and social hierarchy was clearly ex-
pressed in their mortuary practice, it is possi-
ble that a state-like social organization emerged
These Neolithic societies appear to have de-
clined after their heydays. While the Liangzhu
culture and Taosi site disappeared from the
archaeological record, Wangchenggang be-
came an ordinary village during the succeed-
ing Erlitou period. The causes for such declines
are still matters of ongoing investigations and
are probably attributable to both environmen-
tal and social factors (Liu 2000, 2004; Stanley
et al. 1999).
State Emergence in the Bronze Age
During the second millennium b.c., the Central
Plains witnessed the rise of the Erlitou and then
Erligang cultures, centered in the Yiluo basin
and Zhengzhou area, respectively. They repre-
sent the earliest Bronze Age civilization/states
in China.
The Erlitou state. Settlement patterns in the
Yiluo basin show a clear trend of increas-
ing site hierarchy and nucleated population
State Emergence in Early China 225
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through time. A mono-centered and highly
integrated political entity emerged around
1900–1800 b.c., with Erlitou serving as the
dominant central place and 190 smaller sites
forming a four-tiered settlement hierarchy
(Erlitou Work. Team IACASS 2005, Liu et al.
2002–2004, Qiao 2007).
The Erlitou urban center expanded rapidly
from 100 ha to 300 ha within 100 years. The
palatial complex, within a rammed-earth enclo-
sure (12 ha), was located almost in the center of
the site, forming a clear residential segregation
between the high elite and the rest of the pop-
ulation. Enclosed bronze and turquoise work-
shops were situated immediately south of the
palatial complex, suggesting a close control of
the production of these prestige goods by the
high elite, and the craftsmen may have been
attached specialists. The bronze and turquoise
artifacts have been found mainly in high elite
burials, suggesting that these prestige items
were distributed to form elite networks (Inst.
Archaeol. CASS 1999, Liu 2006, Liu & Xu
2007). About a dozen types of pottery marks
have been found, but they cannot be identified
as a writing system (Qiu 1988).
Elite burials at Erlitou were normally asso-
ciated with bronzes, jades, turquoise objects,
and white pottery vessels. One of the high-
ranking burials contained a dragon-shaped ar-
tifact, which was made of 2000 pieces of
turquoise and jade and placed on top of the
skeleton (Liu & Xu 2007). Because the dragon
has traditionally been regarded as a mythical
animal with enormous supernatural powers, its
association with a high-ranking burial seems to
suggest that the Erlitou elite assumed great rit-
ual power.
Some secondary centers in the Erlitou hin-
terland became specialized in manufacturing
craft products. Huizui in Yanshi, for example,
was a locale of stone tool production, partic-
ularly quarrying locally available dolomite for
making spades (Ford 2007, Webb et al. 2007).
Nanwa in Dengfeng may have been one of the
sites that produced prestige white pottery with
kaolinic clay (Li et al. 2008). These products ap-
pear to have been distributed to many sites in
the Yiluo basin, including Erlitou. But there is
no evidence that Erlitou controlled the circula-
tion of these goods. These phenomena suggest
multifaceted interactions between Erlitou and
its hinterland. Whereas Erlitou elites may have
assumed positions of highest political and reli-
gious authority in the region, minor elite indi-
viduals in local centers also constructed their
own power networks by exchanging various
utilitarian and ritual items. All these relation-
ships formed a complex political-economic sys-
tem in the core area of the state (Liu et al. 2007).
Erlitou also expanded its power to more
distant areas, where important resources were
found in abundance, such as salt, copper, and
precious stones. Outposts may have been set
up in these regions to procure and transport
various local resources; such places include
Dongxiafeng near the Zhongtiao Mountains,
Donglongshan in the Qinling Mountains, and
Panlongcheng in the middle Yangzi River (Liu
& Chen 2001b, 2003). It is by no means to sug-
gest that the Erlitou political territory is equiv-
alent to the enormous region encircling these
outposts, but Erlitou’s regional expansion was
unprecedented and is particularly attributable
to the rulers’ hunger for bronze alloys, which
were used to cast weapons for warfare and cere-
monial vessels for ancestor-worship ritual, both
activities being intended to ensure the political
legitimacy of the ruling class (Chang 1983).
It is particularly notable that the Erlitou
state developed during a period of climatic de-
terioration. In the Yiluo basin, emerging dry
and cold conditions led to severe stream inci-
sion, narrowed floodplains, and reduced wet-
land (Rosen 2007, 2008). In the meantime,
however, population size exceeded the opti-
mum carrying capacity (Qiao 2007), and a mul-
ticropping agricultural system was established,
incorporating both local domesticates (millet,
rice, and possibly soybean) and newly intro-
duced ones (wheat and barley). Multicropping
would help to increase annual yields and re-
duce risks of crop failure (Lee et al. 2007, Lee
& Bestel 2007). In the face of these environ-
mental challenges, the new subsistence strate-
gies manifested human responses that may have
226 Liu
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contributed to creating and maintaining the
Erlitou state.
Zhengzhou and the Erligang state. The pat-
tern of core-periphery interaction established
by the Erlitou polity appears to have con-
tinued in the succeeding polity centered in
Zhengzhou, often referred to as the Erligang
culture or Early Shang (1600–1400 b.c.), al-
though the relationship between these two poli-
ties is still a matter of debate. Zhengzhou
was enclosed by two concentric rammed-earth
walls, forming an inner city (300 ha) and an
outer city (13 sq. km) (Yuan & Zeng 2004).
The inner city contained royal palaces and tem-
ples, whereas the outer city defined the urban
areas for craft production workshops, ceme-
teries, and residences. These workshops man-
ufactured bronze, ceramic, and bone objects,
used for both prestige and utilitarian purposes
(Henan 2001). Pottery marks and some in-
scriptions on bones have been found, but their
meanings are unclear (Inst. Archaeol. 2003,
pp. 424–25). Like Erlitou, the Erligang state
also established outposts in the periphery to
procure important resources, including salt,
copper, and proto-porcelain. The Erligang ex-
pansion reached even broader regions in all di-
rections. These actions are likely to have been
military in nature, as many of the outposts
became fortified towns (Liu & Chen 2001b,
The interactions between the core and pe-
riphery during the Erlitou and Erligang peri-
ods appear to have involved interdependent re-
lationships, although the outlying populations
were much the weaker partners, politically and
militarily. The regional centers in the periphery
provided raw materials and exotic elite goods as
tribute to the core area to support urban growth
and craft production in the major center and to
contribute to the formation of hierarchical so-
ciopolitical structures. In return, the major cen-
ter may have provided ritual services and redis-
tributed prestige items as rewards to regional
elites (Liu & Chen 2001c, 2003).
It is important to note that Erlitou and
Zhengzhou are the only sites where evidence
for casting ritual vessels has been found dur-
ing each period. Several sites in the periphery
have revealed remains of bronze casting, but
only of tools and weapons (Liu & Chen 2001b,
2003). This observation suggests that the early
states may have monopolized the production
of bronze ritual vessels. This situation did not
change until the Late Shang when the power
structure was altered and some regional polities
(such as Laoniupo near Xi’an) began to produce
their own ritual vessels (Liu 2009). Although
the proposition needs to be tested in the fu-
ture, this scenario is consistent with the general
circumstances that bronze vessels were sacred
items used in ancestral worship ritual, which
was one of the most important state affairs dur-
ing the early Bronze Age (Chang 1983, 1991).
Study of state formation, and of the emergence
of civilization, has come a long way since the be-
ginning of modern archaeology in China, but
many questions remain unsolved. One problem
is whether some of the late Neolithic polities
can be considered early states. If so, then early
states in China would have appeared as peer-
polities, as defined by Renfrew (1982, 1986).
The argument for the formation of early states
in the late Neolithic period has been gaining
momentum recently in China, particularly ow-
ing to the new discovery of large public archi-
tectures at Taosi and Mojiaoshan. Yoffee & Li
(2009) also express that some characteristics of
early states have been noted in the Taosi walled
site. At present, however, we do not have suf-
ficient evidence to determine typologically the
nature of these polities.
Less controversial is the definition of Erlitou
and Erligang as states. Many similarities ex-
ist between the Neolithic polities and these
two Bronze Age states, such as social stratifi-
cation, construction of large public architec-
ture, and production of prestige ritual objects
and utilitarian items in regional centers. Signs
and marks have been found in many late Ne-
olithic sites, as well as in Erlitou and Erligang.
However, it is difficult and controversial to
State Emergence in Early China 227
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assess their phonetic values, which by definition
are required for writing (Boltz 1986, Keightley
2006, Li et al. 2003, Yang 2000). A major differ-
ence between these Neolithic and early Bronze
Age polities is the scale of energy expendi-
ture that the ruling elite was able to manipu-
late for creating and maintaining power. The
production of prestige ritual items provides a
tangible example of this contrast. On the one
hand, Neolithic production of elite-goods, such
as jade and fine pottery, normally involved lo-
cal resources and manufacture, which would
have required relatively low levels of manage-
rial operation and energy expenditure. On the
other hand, bronze production in the Erlitou
and Erligang cultures, including mining, smelt-
ing, and casting, embraced much greater geo-
graphic catchments for transporting raw mate-
rial and required more complex technology and
management for production, as compared with
Neolithic manufacturing (Franklin 1983, Liu
2003). Such extraordinary efforts invested in
production of bronze weapons and ritual vessels
testify to the importance of these products as
sources and instruments of political legitimacy
for the ruling elite. Adopting Baines & Yoffee’s
(1998) and Allan’s (2007) concept of shared elite
cultural value as civilization, it is also clear that
Erlitou is markedly different from these late
Neolithic cultures in terms of its much greater
sphere of a common elite culture.
Based on current archaeological informa-
tion, we are still unable to pinpoint the exact
moment when the first state emerged. It is also
less than productive to match archaeological
remains with legendary places and individuals.
Nevertheless, archaeological data can help us
to understand general trajectories toward state
formation. We need to study not only how these
early states operated in urban centers, the rural
hinterland, and periphery, but also how states
and other polities interacted with each other. It
may not be possible in the near future to alter
the historiographically determined approach,
which pervades Chinese archaeology, but we
can develop new approaches for investigating
the political-economic system on regional
and interregional scales. An anthropological
dimension in the study of state emergence in
China certainly needs to be encouraged.
The author is not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that might
be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.
I am grateful to the constructive comments by Xingcan Chen and an anonymous reviewer. Yu
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Annual Review of
Volume 38, 2009
Prefatory Chapter
Archaeology and Anthropology: A Personal Overview of the Past
Patty Jo Watson pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp1
Identity and Difference: Complicating Gender in Archaeology
Pamela L. Geller pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp65
State Emergence in Early China
Li Liu pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp217
Amazonian Archaeology
Michael Heckenberger and Eduardo G´oes Neves pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp251
The Oldowan: The Tool Making of Early Hominins
and Chimpanzees Compared
Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp289
Biological Anthropology
The Early Development of Gender Differences
Matthew H. McIntyre and Carolyn Pope Edwards ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp83
The Biology of Paternal Care in Human and Nonhuman Primates
Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, Claudia R. Valeggia, and Sally P. Mendoza pppppppppppppp115
Developmental Origins of Adult Function and Health: Evolutionary
Christopher W. Kuzawa and Elizabeth A. Quinn pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp131
Interdisciplinary Translational Research in Anthropology, Nutrition,
and Public Health
Stephen T. McGarvey pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp233
Linguistics and Communicative Practices
New Paths in the Linguistic Anthropology of Oceania
Matt Tomlinson and Miki Makihara pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp17
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Social Reproduction in Classrooms and Schools
James Collins pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp33
Medical Discourse
James M. Wilce ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp199
International Anthropology and Regional Studies
The Ethnography of South Asian Foragers
Jana Fortier ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp
Sociocultural Anthropology
The Commodification of Intimacy: Marriage, Sex,
and Reproductive Labor
Nicole Constable ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp49
Adoption of the Unrelated Child: Some Challenges to the
Anthropological Study of Kinship
Signe Howell pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp149
Anthropology and Global Health
Craig R. Janes and Kitty K. Corbett ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp167
Transitions: Pastoralists Living with Change
Kathleen A. Galvin ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp185
Symptom: Subjectivities, Social Ills, Technologies
Jo˜ao Biehl and Amy Moran-Thomas pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp267
Theme 1: Current Research on Gender
The Commodification of Intimacy: Marriage, Sex,
and Reproductive Labor
Nicole Constable ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp49
Identity and Difference: Complicating Gender in Archaeology
Pamela L. Geller pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp65
The Early Development of Gender Differences
Matthew H. McIntyre and Carolyn Pope Edwards ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp83
The Biology of Paternal Care in Human and Nonhuman Primates
Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, Claudia R. Valeggia, and Sally P. Mendoza pppppppppppppp115
Theme 2: Anthropology and Human Health
Developmental Origins of Adult Function and Health: Evolutionary
Christopher W. Kuzawa and Elizabeth A. Quinn pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp131
Anthropology and Global Health
Craig R. Janes and Kitty K. Corbett ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp167
viii Contents
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Medical Discourse
James M. Wilce ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp199
Interdisciplinary Translational Research in Anthropology, Nutrition,
and Public Health
Stephen T. McGarvey pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp233
Symptom: Subjectivities, Social Ills, Technologies
Jo˜ao Biehl and Amy Moran-Thomas pppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp267
Cumulative Index of Contributing Authors, Volumes 29–38 ppppppppppppppppppppppppppp307
Cumulative Index of Chapter Titles, Volume 29–38 ppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp310
An online log of corrections to Annual Review of Anthropology articles may be found at
Contents ix
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... The archaeological culture of China, one of the four major ancient civilization centers, also experienced profound changes towards the end of the Longshan period (Liu and Chen, 2012;Liu and Feng, 2012;Sun et al., 2019). All Longshan Cultures and the contemporaneous ones were chiefdom-like societies that should have normally evolved into more complex (advanced) societies (Liu and Chen, 2003;Liu, 2004). However, these cultures (except for the Henan Longshan Culture) collapsed or were derailed at ~ 4000 cal. ...
... yr BP could be responsible for the collapse or derailing (Wu and Liu, 2004;An et al., 2005;Liu and Feng, 2012;Dong et al., 2013;Cui et al., 2019;Liu et al., 2019;Xiao et al., 2019). Nevertheless, the Henan Longshan Culture of the Central Plains was an exception and successfully evolved into a more advanced (state-level) society, the Erlitou Culture (Liu and Chen, 2003;Liu, 2004;Allan, 2007;Liu et al., 2019). ...
... In brief, the Central Plains, especially the area around the Songshan Mount, was the fusion and birth place of ancient Chinese civilization (Liu, 2004;Mo et al., 2010) and the "refuge" of the Henan Longshan Culture that successfully evolved into the more advanced Erlitou Culture at ~ 3700 cal. yr BP through the intervening Xinzhai Culture (Liu and Chen, 2003;Gao, 2009;Zhao and Gu, 2016;Liu et al., 2019). ...
The Central Plains of China witnessed a crucial cultural transformation towards the end of the Longshan period from a chiefdom-like society to a state-level society that has been speculated to be associated with regionally favorable environmental conditions. However, this speculation has not yet been substantiated. We first compiled the information on human migrations and extreme floods during the late Longshan period and then compared the relationships of human settlements with hydrogeomorphic settings in the Central Plains between the Longshan and Xinzhai-Erlitou periods. Our comparison shows that the course of the Yellow River was relatively stable during the Longshan period in the eastern Central Plains, where abundant highlands might have existed for human dwellings. However, geologically and archaeologically documented extreme floods that occurred at ~ 4000 cal. yr BP changed hydrogeomorphic settings in key locations along the Yellow River. The northern Henan area and the bordering area of Henan, Shandong and Anhui Provinces were subjected to frequent crevasses from flooding of the Yellow River at ~ 4000 cal. yr BP, which might have forced human migrations. Consequently, the northern Henan area and the bordering area of the three provinces lacked human settlements, whereas the western Central Plains contained concentrated human settlements during the Xinzhai-Erlitou period. We propose that the success of the above-mentioned cultural transformation was likely causally associated with hydrogeomorphic setting changes in the lower Yellow River Basin. Specifically, the frequent crevasses from flooding of the Yellow River at ~ 4000 cal. yr BP in the eastern alluvial plain regions made the western hilly and mountainous regions of present-day Henan Province the “refuge” for eastern immigrants during the late Longshan period. After the floods, human reoccupation and subsequent population increase beyond the local optimum carrying capacity within the Luoyang Basin during the Erlitou period might be a key driver of local social complexity.
... Xu 2012) and, more controversially, China's first state (L. Liu and Chen 2003) and capital of the Xia dynasty (Zou 1980). These claims are not unrelated; they entangle the traditional historiographic narrative of sequential dynastic kingships, the archaeological evidence of an expansive, long-lasting Central Plains Bronze Age metropolitan tradition, and neo-evolutionary arguments about state formation. ...
... L. Liu and Chen (2003) were the first to explicitly model Erlitou's political economy, arguing that Erlitou was a territorial state with four tiers of settlement hierarchy corresponding to three levels of administration and an elite-redistributive tributary economic system. Specifically, Erlitou expanded to acquire resources such as salt and ores, which were processed and shipped through regional centers to Erlitou where prestige goods were produced and then redistributed to loyal regional elites. ...
... Thus, excavation of the small Erlitou site of Huizui shows that it was home to part-time specialists who produced stone spades from local sources for regional exchange (Ford 2004;Webb et al. 2007). The analysis of Huizui production and the realization that it produced stone spades for wide regional distribution before as well as during Erlitou times (Chen 2005) prompted a reconsideration of the monolithic, vertical state redistribution presented in L. Liu and Chen (2003) and the proposal of horizontal production and trade by independent domestic producers (L. ). The site of Nanwa likewise adds another layer of nuance (Zhengzhou Daxue 2014). ...
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In this article we argue that several of the dominant narratives concerning the political economy of the Chinese Bronze Age are in need of major revision, including its chronological divisions and assumptions of unilineal development. Instead, we argue that for many parts of China, the Bronze Age should begin in the third millennium BC and that there was significant political economic heterogeneity both within and between regions. Focusing on the issues of centralization and commercialization, we argue that, in spite of the tendency in the Chinese archaeological literature to equate complexity with centralization and hierarchy and to posit top-down redistributive economic models, there is little evidence of such institutions. To the contrary, our survey of nearly 2000 years of development turns up significant investment in public goods, especially before the Anyang period, as well as ample evidence of horizontal exchange and increasing commercialization.
... The layers of effects of structural geology, topography, climate, vegetation, hydrology on the settlements, economies, ideologies, myths, and cultures of the Aegean Sea and Yellow River regions must be included comprehensively. The Mycenaeans and Shang dealt with rivers, wetlands, dry areas, lack and excess of water, unpredictable rainfall and soil erosion, coastal environments with [8,9] (basemap free source: (access on 10 June 2022)). ...
... Environmental processes test social endurance: drought affects the supply of food, ideological and ritual mechanisms are developed to dampen the impact, and a social memory of disasters is created, which results in questioning the ability of the ruling class to appeal to a deity to mitigate threats from the natural world. The practical problemsolving of the Shang and Mycenaeans demonstrates the empirical approach to effective- [8,9] (basemap free source: (access on 10 June 2022)). ...
Full-text available
Disasters and Society: Comparing the Shang and Mycenaean Response to Natural Phenomena through Text and Archaeology
... Daxinzhuang (30 ha) is the second largest known Anyang period Shang site and was a significant settlement from late Erligang through the end of the Anyang periods (Fang, 2013a, Campbell 2014 (Fig. 4). It is widely believed to have been an outpost of the the expanding Shang kingdom during the Erligang period (Bagley, 1999;Liu and Chen, 2003;Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo, 2003) and the presence of Central Plains metropolitan as well as local material culture, burial traditions and other features supports the idea that Daxinzhuang was a place of contact and cultural negotiation (Li 2008). Whether Daxinzhuang was part of a centralized Shang kingdom that began with Erigang and continued through Anyang times, or part of culturally and politically allied hegemonic networks of polities that shifted in distribution, constituency and nature over the course of the 2nd millennium BC is a matter of debate linked to wider understandings of the political history of the Central Plains Bronze Age. ...
... Shang dynasties in the period in question and relates their history in expansive, centralized terms that made sense to the early imperial historiographers that wrote them. Chinese archaeology has largely accepted this perspective (Li, 1997;Liu and Chen, 2003;Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo, 2003). Critics of this traditional historiographic view argue that contemporaneous inscriptions and archaeological evidence paint a more complex, less centralized picture and suggest direct and indirect zones of authority, networks of alliances and a more fluid political landscape (Keightley 1979-80, Lin 1982, Campbell 2009, 2014, 2018. ...
Work of the last decade has expanded the picture of the Shang economy and challenged the assumption of its elite-distributive nature. Analysis of large-scale bone workshops at Anyang and the distribution of its mass-produced products in the small, remote village of Guandimiao all point to a more integrated economy. This paper explores bone crafting at the secondary center of Daxinzhuang and its relationship to the wider Shang political economy. We present a multi-scalar, holistic approach to bone working in a complex society. Using the large-scale bone working at the capital and the mostly informal bone working at a Shang village as points of comparison, we both characterize Daxinzhuang bone working and explore its larger economic context. We were able to show that although most Daxinzhuang bone working could be considered formal, it was small-scale, generalized, lacked bronze saws, was likely for local consumption and overall the bone industry showed less non-local integration than the village of Guandimiao. Our work shows how a craft production study can be integrated into a larger political economic context, how formality can be useful for distinguishing types of production, while our experimental results and images can form a basis for formal identifications and further research.
... Recent excavation shows that some of them can be dated to as early as the later phases of the Erlitou culture (Cui et al., 2020). In this scenario, the establishment of Panlongcheng on the Yangtze River was a crucial strategy to secure the supply of metal resource from the Yangtze to the Central Plains (Bagley, 1977;Liu and Chen, 2009;Liu et al., 2019). A large number of the historical textual records also described the Yangtze River (i.e. the Chu state in the Eastern Zhou period) as a rich source of metal. ...
Full-text available
The provenance of raw materials and finished objects is one of the most intriguing problems in archaeology. It is significant for the discussion of inter-regional cultural communication. Many of the methods used to determine provenance employed by archaeologists are shared with geologists or geochemists, among which the use of lead isotopes is probably one of the best-known. However, geologists and archaeologists do not always ask the same questions. Because of many and various human choices, it is not always possible to apply geological methods directly to archaeological objects. Specifically, the potential existence of mixing and recycling of metals challenges all the provenance studies of metal objects. In this paper, using Bronze Age China as an example, we suggest that by using geochemical techniques such as lead isotopic analysis and trace-element analysis of bronzes, but by asking slightly different questions, one can throw new light on the way in which important resources were managed by consumers of different social status within early dynastic China.
... Given that population density was likely an essential factor spurring on the emergence of complex societies and early cities in China (Liu and Chen 2003), we argue that the millet-based agricultural strategies at Shimao (Figure 2c) and other Bronze Age (4200-3000 BP) urban centres, such as Lijiaya ( Figure 2d) and Xinzhuang, must have been more productive than small rural settlements during the late Neolithic (5000-4200 BP), like Yangjiesha and Miaoliang (JB) (Figure 2a, b). Moreover, the 4.2 ka event may have placed agricultural production in the desert-loess transition zone around Shimao at greater risk of failure (Zhang, Zhou, and Zhao 2018). ...
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Renewed excavations at Shimao, the largest stone walled urban site in northern China dating to around 4200–3700 BP, have focused on Shimao’s unusual architecture and material culture, but there remains much to be known about the subsistence system and agricultural strategies the inhabitants employed around this site. In this paper we provide new archaeobotanical and isotopic evidence for the agricultural systems and strategies that supported Shimao and nearby sites, from 5000 to 3000 BP. Our data show that the system gradually shifted from one based on common millet as the main staple—requiring a high level of labour-input—to a system dependent on extensive cultivation of foxtail millet, which is better suited to dryland cultivation in colder environments. We argue that this shift in cultivation coincided with regional climate change, and helped sustain early Bronze Age state societies, which fuelled the rapid emergence of social complexity in the semi-arid and arid area of the northern Loess Plateau from 4200 to 3000 BP.
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This article builds on recent archaeological theorizing about early complex societies to analyze the political anthropology of Neolithic and Bronze Age China in a culture-specific trajectory over the longue durée. Synthesizing the latest archaeological discoveries, I show that a series of successive declines, beginning around 2000 BC, took place throughout lowland China. This put an end to the lowland states of the Longshan period (2400–1900 BC) and provided the context for the constitution of the Erlitou secondary state (1900–1500 BC). Following the shift in “archaic states” studies from identifying “what” to investigating “how,” I focus on the strategies, institutions, and relations that undergirded and sustained the Erlitou secondary state. I explore how heterogeneous lowland populations were reorganized after collapse, how a new collective identity was created through ritual and religious performance at the household level at Erlitou, and how Erlitou’s ideologies, political system, and economic network were shaped by the upland polities and societies. Through a series of innovative practices, the Erlitou secondary state did not replicate the preceding Longshan states but instead pioneered a sociopolitical order that was repeatedly reenacted and referred to as a source of legitimacy in successive Bronze Age Central Plains polities.
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Training animals to pull agricultural equipment and wheeled transport significantly shaped and advanced human economic systems. In this context the use of large domestic animals such as cattle was a milestone event in human history, part of what Sherratt memorably termed the Secondary Products Revolution: the use of the products of live animals such as milk, wool and traction power. It is commonly assumed that male cattle were generally preferred for traction because of their greater strength compared with females, and the importance of the latter for breeding and, in some societies, for milk and for dairy products, but surprisingly little is known of this aspect of the Secondary Products Revolution in prehistoric China. Here we apply established morphometric models to 10 assemblages of cattle bones from Chinese Bronze Age (ca. 2000–221 BCE) contexts. Our results indicate a process of intensified cattle labour exploitation at this time and, intriguingly, we also observe the earliest labour employment of female cattle during the Late Shang dynasty (ca. 1300–1046 BCE). It is proposed that female cattle may have been required for traction because of the large numbers of male cattle, especially bulls, that were sent for ritual sacrifice. Such a strategy reveals a sophisticated social management, upon which the Late Shang civilisation eventually developed.
From the beginning, the culture-history of the Chinese archaeological sequence has had its own character. And in a country and a civilization so vast, regional variation can also be on a grand scale. An examination of a late Neolithic culture on the southeastern coast finds jade in early contexts that give a new perspective to the traditional – and later – importance jade bears in the dynastic northern sequence.
Most of what is heard in the West of Chinese archaeology is about the physical stuff — the astonishing string of major finds; some, like soldiers from the Terracotta Army of the First Emperor's tumulus, have been exhibited outside China. All archaeological material is excavated, described and explained by reference to some frame of ideas. This essay on the thinking of a leading Chinese archaeologist of our day, Su Bingqi, is accompanied by an article of his in translation.
This year, as it seems every year, news comes from China of another spectacular archaeological discovery. What is the framework of ideas and research that studies these treasures? And how does the special character of Chinese history, with its long, near-continuous record of dynasties, written sources and encyclopaedic texts, give archaeology a different place, whether higher or lower, among the other historical and social sciences?