Toogle Nav Toogle Nav
Chinese History Digest

Chinese History Digest - the best-illustrated website about the history of China Bringing you the summarized story of China's past Plan your trip to see China's historic sights Subscribe to our Facebook page for more content
Presenting a concise illustrated History of the Middle Kingdom

Paleolithic Period

Several places of early hominid habitation (inhabited by Homo erectus, the predecessor of modern humans) have been discovered in China so far, some of which have achieved a certain fame.

The oldest paleolithic site on Chinese territory that is known today was discovered at the Xihoudu Site (near Xihoudu Village in Ruicheng County, Shanxi Province) and is estimated to be 1.8 million years old. It is also the site where evidence was found for the earliest recorded use of fire by Homo erectus (dated 1.27 million years ago). The remains of the Yuanmou Man that were found near Danawu Village in Yuanmou County (Yunnan province) were dated as 1.7 million years old. Stone tools that were discovered at the Xiaochangliang site (in the Nihewan Basin in Yangyuan County, Hebei province) have been dated as 1.36 million years old. Further hominid remains (530.000 to 1 million years old) of the Lantian Man were found at the Chenjiawo and Gongwangling sites in Lantian County (Shaanxi province, approximately 50 km southeast of the city of Xi'an).

replica of the Peking Man Skull
replica of the Peking Man Skull

The remains of Peking Man (680.000 - 780.000 years old) that were found in a cave near Zhoukoudian (near Beijing) are however by far the most famous hominid remains ever found in China. These hominid ancestors who were physically distinguished by a heavy brow ridge and large teeth already used fire and stone tools and had an erect posture. Many other questions (were they cannibals?) remain unanswered until this day, also due to the fact that the original remains were mysteriously lost in 1941 during World War II and may never be rediscovered. Destined for safekeeping in the United States, the fossils are presumed to have vanished en route to the port city of Qinhuangdao.

Bust of Peking Man outside the Peking Man Site in Zhoukoudian

Peking Man Site

The Peking Man Site and its attached Peking Man Museum is located at Zhoukoudian about 42 km southwest of Beijing. Ancient humanoids named 'Peking Man' lived at this site about 500,000 years ago.

Click here to learn more!

Based on fairly recent findings, Homo sapiens appeared on the scene of what is now China about 100.000 years ago. A series of primitive hunting and gathering civilizations appeared all across this part of Asia that began to use more and more sophisticated stone tools.

Neolithic Period

About 12,000 years ago, during a period that we now call the Neolithic transition, the domestication of grain (and particularly rice) established village cultures and therefore created a settled agricultural society (whereas previously people were hunters and gatherers). Early societies appeared all over the territory that is now China during the neolithic period. What distinguishes the neolithic from the paleolithic period is the beginning of plant cultivation, animal husbandry and pottery making.

One of these early societies has left its mark in a fairly remote area that is now the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region where 3172 cliff carvings, featuring 8453 individual figures (e.g. sun, moon, stars, gods, scenes of hunting or grazing) were discovered in the late 1980's near the small village of Damaidi (Zhongwei County).

Damaidi rock carvings
Damaidi rock carvings

Some of the engraved pictographs bear a strong resemblance to the ancient forms of written Chinese characters. The carvings are estimated to be between 7.000 to 8.000 years old but that is disputed. If proven correct, they might represent the origins of the Chinese writing system.

Another culture that has left its mark in early Chinese history is the Peiligang culture. The Peiligang people may have been the first ones that lived in constructed buildings instead of caves. They cultivated millet and raised pigs, cattle and poultry while continuing to hunt and to fish.

Neolithic stone sickle,Peiligang Culture
Neolithic stone sickle, Peiligang Culture, National Museum of China, Beijing.

It is hotly debated when rice was first domesticized (some scientists even believe that millet was cultivated first), estimates seem to range from about 11.000 BC to 4.000 BC. What is clear though is that the emergence of rice farming played a major role in the transformation from a nomadic hunting and gathering culture to a culture of more and more permanent settlements/villages.

Many early civilizations in the area that is now China settled in the Yellow River Valley but neolithic cultures appeared elsewhere too. These early civilizations can be distinguished through the pottery that they made. The 4 possibly most significant (based on archeological discoveries until now) cultures that appeared in China about 6,000 or 7,000 years ago were the Yangshao culture, the Longshan culture, the Liangzhu culture and the Daxi culture.

Painted earthenwear basin with fish design, Yangshao Culture, Excavated at Banpo site in Xi'an
Painted earthenwear basin with fish design, Yangshao Culture (excavated at Banpo site in Xi'an)

The Yangshao people settled in villages near the northward bend of the Yellow River. Their huts were surrounded by defensive trenches and mostly consisted of 2 levels, one at or slightly below soil level and another one above that. The Banpo Museum in Xi'an is a highly recommended place to see how the Yangshao people had lived. The Yangshao culture pottery is usually elaborately decorated with geometric designs as well as images of animals (especially fish). Despite this elaborate design, it is usually quite heavy and colored a pale yellow-brown.

Entrance of the Banpo Museum in Xi'an

Banpo Museum

The Banpo Museum is located in Xi'an (Shaanxi Province) right next to the excavated Banpo village, a neolithic village that was inhabited by people of the Yangshao Culture about 6,000 years ago.

Click here to learn more!

Its burial sites show some interesting characteristics. We know from excavations that some of their people were buried in possibly ritually significant postures alongside higher quality grave objects, whereas other (presumably common) people just appear to have been randomly buried in the ground. That is a significant hint that some sort of hierarchy among the people began to develop during the Yangshao culture period. Interestingly, most of the individuals who seem to have been accorded a higher status burial were women, suggesting that women provided some sort of leadership functions (as shamans?) during that time. The possible conclusion that the Yangshao culture was a matriarchal society (just like the present day Mosuo people in southern Yunnan) is contested by many scholars though.

Black Pottery Goblet, Shandong Longshan Culture, Late Neolithic Period
Black Pottery Goblet, Shandong Longshan Culture, Late Neolithic Period (ca. 2,500-2,000 BC)

At the lower end of the Yellow River, another significant culture, named Longshan (Dragon mountain) culture, emerged at approximately the same time. Their pottery was black, undecorated and the thin walls of their pots suggest a more highly developed production method.

The pots that we associate with the Longshan culture began to appear in areas that were previously a center of the Yangshao culture and eventually spread all over North China. This suggests that somewhere between 4000 and 6000 years ago, the Longshan culture began to take control of the entire North China Plain.

Liangzhu Jade Cong
Liangzhu Jade Cong (a piece of square jade with a round hole)

The 3rd significant culture that developed in this early period was the Liangzhu culture, which developed near the mouth of the Yangtze River, not too far from the present metropolis of Shanghai. Their pottery was also quite elaborately produced and it had marks on their pots and other objects that many scholars consider to be an ancestral system to the Chinese written script.

They also engraved symbols onto their master pieces of jade, which are perhaps even more renowned than their pottery. These little symbols and markings on the Liangzhu jades and pottery are assumed to be identifiers of either the craftsman, owner, clan or tribal group associated with this object. This graphic identification system of just 1 or 2 characters or symbols per object reappears in later inscriptions and therefore might be considered the earliest form of writing (if the Damaidi rock carvings were only pictures after all).

Painted earthenwear cylindrical vase (ping), Daxi culture, Excavated from Daxi in Wushan county, Sichuan province. National Museum of China, Beijing
Painted earthenwear cylindrical vase (ping), Daxi culture, Excavated from Daxi in Wushan county, Sichuan province, National Museum of China, Beijing

The Daxi culture that emerged in the valleys of Sichuan is less well known than the previously mentioned cultures but some promising discoveries were made in recent times. The culture got its name from the fact that its main archeological site was found on the territory of Daxi Village.

The Daxi people are presumed to have lived in matriarchal clan communes, largely based on the discovery that statistically more funerary objects were found in women’s tombs than in men’s.

Some large settlements in the area have been recently excavated revealing yet another different form, design and decoration of pottery. The most common designs of Daxi Culture pottery are characterized by their decoration with black lines on the red clay, feather and net designs, rope impressions or horizontal V designs.

Chinese History Digest's summary of China's history continues with the story of the Xia dynasty in the next section. Long thought to be mere myth, there are more and more signs that seem to prove the existence of this mysterious dynasty of which not much is known so far.