- Period

- Birth Of China

- Chronology

- Glossary

- References

- Poetry

- Maps


Prehistory
(c.3 million years ago - 21st century B.C.)

Various accounts exist among the peoples of the world about the appearance of the sky, the earth and man. In China, myths like Pangu creating the sky and the earth and Nüwa creating man existed long time ago. However, the development of science - especially modern archaeology, palaeoanthropology and geology - has gradually solved the mysteries of how the earth came into being and how human beings evolved. The human fossils found in Africa were believed to be over three million years old and therefore Africa was regarded man's birthplace. In China, the Wushan Man, whose fossil remains unearthed in the Wushan County of Chongqing, revealed a history of at least two million years. The large quantity of fossils of the Yuanmou Man, the Lantian Man, the Peking Man, and the Upper Cave Man (Shandingdong Man), found in widespread sites in China, convinced the Chinese archaeologists that the East-Asian area was also a birthplace of man.

The appearance of man resulted from evolution from more primitive life forms. Archaeological and palaeoanthropological research in past few decades have found that early humans had a close relationship with primates, which renders the idea of evolution from ape to man quite convincing.

Man's appearance is closely related to labour. The earliest tool used by man was chipped stone. In order to distinguish from the ground stone implements that man used later, archaeologists called the period of making and using these chipped stone implements the Old Stone Age (the Paleolithic Period), and the age of making and using ground stone implements the New Stone Age (the Neolithic Period). In order to study the development of these early humans, archaeologists further divided the Old Stone Age into the Early, Middle, and Late Stages. This is identical to the three stages divided according to the physical features of early man: the stage of ape-man, the stage of early intelligent man, and the stage of late intelligent man. In the early Old Stone Age, the stone tools were awkward, simple, and multi-purpose. In the late Old Stone Age, tools became smaller and more diversified. This period also saw the appearance of more complex tools like the bow and the spear, the development of the hole-drilling technique, and the appearance of some ground stone tools. Humans in this period mainly lived by fruit-gathering and hunting. Not being able to build houses, they dwelt in caves and lived in groups. As early as the Old Stone Age, humans began to use fire. At first they collected natural fire. Later they learned to make fire through stone-striking and wood-drilling. The use of fire was of great significance to human evolution since it enabled man to light their caves, defend themselves against attacks by wild animals, ward off the cold, and alter the habit of eating raw food. Because the use of fire allowed man to cook his food and shorten the digestive process, which resulted in the absorption of more nutrients, the chemical composition of human blood changed, helping to increase man's physical strength and brain power. For example, the cranial capacity of Peking Man, who lived 300,000 years ago, averaged 1,059 ml, whereas the cranial capacity of Upper Cave Man, who lived 10,000 years ago, increased to 1,200-1,500 ml, which is similar to that of modern man. The height of these early humans also neared that of the modern northern Chinese. Remains of the Old Stone Age, widely scattered throughout the country, means that ancient humans lived in a large area in China.

Ten thousand years ago, man entered the New Stone Age and the earth became warmer. This allowed man to leave the mountain areas for the plains. To adapt to the new environment, humans chose to settle areas near water. They began to build their own houses and invented pottery. Also in this period, primitive agriculture appeared, making it possible for people to live in permanent settlements. The spreading of such techniques as grinding and hole-drilling enabled humans to make more regular and fixed stone tools so as to meet different needs. Research by Chinese archaeologists has found that remains of the New Stone Age mostly lie along the coastal areas of Eastern China. As far as food structure is concerned, the people in the south grew rice while the northern people grew corn. The fact that the Chinese people began to grow paddy (rice) 9,000 years ago indicates that rice was first grown in China, not in India. Our ancestors 8,000 years ago were able to make objects from jade, use the skills of spinning and weaving, blow melodies in seven musical scales, and carve signs in stone and wood. The canoe and oar, unearthed from 7000-year old remains, show that there were water transportation tools at that time. Also during this time, people began to domesticate cattle. The Yangshao people (named after Yangshao, Henan Province, where remains were first found in 1921), who lived 6,000 years ago, created a splendid painted pottery culture and began to build small fortresses using rammed earth skills. Five thousand years ago, people began to raise silkworms and knit goods with mulberry silk. Also they learned smelting copper to make small tools like bronze knives. Four thousand years ago people began to use written characters. In the Yangtze and the Yellow River valleys, a group of old cities appeared. Legends recorded in ancient documents, like those of the Shennong Family growing crops, the wife of the Yellow Emperor inventing silk, ministers of the Yellow Emperor inventing characters, the boat and the cart, and the Yellow Emperor fighting against the southern tribes, show that they are not just myths because they contain some traces of history. These discoveries reveal the long history of China.

In ancient times, people lived in tribes and groups. From remains recently discovered, one can see villages and well-ordered tombs. In this vast age of development, human population kept increasing, which often resulted in new clans. Connected by blood relations, these clans contributed to larger tribes. By the time of the late primitive period, there were a large number of clans, tribes, and tribal groups living in China. Archaeologists divided them into the Huaxia Group, the Eastern Tribe Group, and the Southern Tribe Group. The Huaxia Group mainly included the Yellow Emperor's Tribe and the Yandi's Tribe. They originated in what is now Shaanxi and later extended to the eastern areas. These two tribes were involved in quite a few wars, with the Eastern Tribe Group marching westward and the Southern Tribe Group marching northward. Legend has it that in the Battle of Zhuolu, the Yellow Emperor and the Yandi allied to defeat the Eastern Tribe Group headed by Chiyou and therefore extended their power to what is present day Shandong. To become head of the Huaxia Group, the Yellow Emperor then fought against the Yandi in Banquan and conquered him. Immediately, the Yellow Emperor marched southward, and, as a result, the power of the Huaxia Group reached the Yangtze River and the Hanshui valleys. In this period, the power of the Huaxia Group reigned supreme. Later peoples, such as those of the Yu, the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou, were all considered descendants of the Yellow Emperor. The Huaxia Group, therefore, established its unique place in history with the Yellow Emperor becoming the common ancestor of the Chinese people.

Because of low productivity in ancient times, people had to depend on their collective power for survival. So each individual tried his best to work together and got the same amount of food. To survive and to develop, they had to elect a fair and capable person as their head to lead them to work and to defend against outside invasion. Stories such as Yao's recommendation of Shun, Shun's recommendation of Yü, Yü's recommendation first of Gaotao and, then, of Yi, after Gaotao's death, to serve as tribal head. This way of choosing a tribal head was called the Abdication System. That age was one of equality and common ownership of wealth, without cheating or robbery. So historians called it a Society of Great Harmony.

Living in an adverse environment, the ancient people had to struggle against various natural disasters. The Great Yü's taming the water is still a popular story today. To save his people from severe floods, the tribal chief Shun entrusted Gun with the task of water control. Gun used the method of building dikes to prevent floods. After working for nine years, it turned out that this method failed. Then Shun entrusted Yü with the same task. Having learned from his father's failure, Yü adopted the method of dredging the waterways. With his eight-year efforts (some believe it was thirteen years), Yü succeeded in controlling the floods.

With the development of production, man entered the age when an individual was able to produce more than he could consume. Thus, captured soldiers were no longer killed; instead, they became slaves. This was the beginning of the private ownership system. Burial articles found in the Longshan Culture remains indicate that in some graves there was a lot of pottery, jade objects, and ivory while in others there were fewer of these articles. Some people were neither buried in graveyards nor had any burial articles, but were just cast into cellars or ditches. This proves that these people held different social positions and wealth. Some of the tribal chiefs used their power and prestige to become rich. The gap between the rich and the poor enabled the rulers of clans and tribes to become the exploiting class. The appearance of different classes within clans and tribes means that primitive society had come to an end. Under these circumstances frequent wars broke out between clans and tribes for the purpose of capturing slaves and seizing wealth. To defend against robbery and aggression, people built high fortifications. To meet the needs of wars, strong emphasis was placed on weapon production. To protect themselves, privileged persons replaced traditional political systems with new laws and regulations. For example, the Abdication System was no longer carried out. After Yü's death in the Xia Dynasty, his son Qi became king by killing Yi, thus creating a new era of hereditary monarchy. The Xia turned out to be the first hereditary dynasty in Chinese history.

(Authored by Professor Yin Weizhang, Archaeological Research Institute of CASS; translated by Xu Fangfu, Associate Professor of English from the Petroleum University)

Main writers of this section:*Zhang Liangren, Professor of Archaeological Research Institute of CASS
*Cao Shuqin, Professor of Archaeological Research Institute of CASS
*Yin Weizhang, Professor of Archaeological Research Institute of CASS
*Tang Xiaofeng, Professor of Beijing University
*Xie Fang, Professor, Chief Editor of Zhonghua Book Company
*Shi Shi, Professor of Chongqin Teachers College