The Erlitou Culture is a kind of archaeological cultural relics represented by Erlitou ruins excavated from the first to the fourth phases in the Luoyang basins in Henan province. More than 500 sites of various types of Erlitou Culture have been found so far, mainly distributed in the central and western Henan around Mount Song region. In its heyday, it spread as far as to the central Shanxi in the north, Shangzhou in eastern Shaanxi and the upper reaches of the Dan River in the west, northern Hubei in the south, and eastern Henan in the east, while its influence radiating to even greater areas. In the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, the Erlitou Relic was roughly dated to be between 1800 and 1500s BC by a series of high precision carbon fourteen dating and corrections (Compilation of Experts Group of Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project 2001). The Erlitou Culture is important for several reasons. Firstly, it rose and flourished in the heart of the traditional Central Plains. Secondly, it was later in time than the Longshan Culture in Henan Province and earlier than the Erligang Culture of the Shang dynasty represented by the Shangcheng in Zhengzhou. Thirdly, the Erlitou Relic itself was the only super-large central settlement in the core area of the Central Plains before Shangcheng in Zhengzhou, spanning the Bronze Age with rich and splendid connotations and nature of a capital city. In addition to the key points in space and time, the Erlitou Culture and the Erlitou Relic are indeed unusual from the archaeological culture perspective alone, and have many different characteristics from the previous and contemporaneous archaeological cultures, including the representative cultures and sites of the highlands of civilizations around the Longshan period.
First of all, the Erlitou Culture is a new culture integrating elements from several different cultures. Many predecessor scholars have analyzed its origins in terms of typological and cultural factors. With the development of archaeological discoveries and knowledge, most scholars agreed that in terms of the pottery collections for daily use, the most accurate marker of archaeological culture, the Erlitou Culture was mainly based on the fusion of the Meishan type, south of the Longshan Culture in Henan province and the Wangwan type north of Mount Song region. It absorbed a lot of factors such as the Zaolvtai Culture in eastern Henan and the Hougang Culture II in northern Henan, and developed rapidly during the short Xinzhai period. Apparently before and after it, the pottery cultural factors from Shandong, Anhui and even the northwest also poured into the region (Wang 2020; Wei 2021a, b). In fact, all aspects of the Erlitou Culture clearly showed this extensive absorption integration and innovation of cultural factors around the neighborhood. Unlike previous archaeological cultures, which were often transformed by the natural evolution of an early culture or by external influences, the Erlitou Culture selectively and even actively integrated brilliant elements of the surrounding neighborhoods, including distant archaeological cultures, such as the processing and application of cast bronze, jade artifacts and turquoise in the Erlitou Culture, as well as white pottery, hard pottery, seashells and other fresh factors, most of which were borrowed extensively, adapted, upgraded and given new connotations before being used. Among the economic basis of the whole society and the material forms of the archaeological culture, the five grains and six animals in traditional China, except for the horse, were then in place (it should be added that rutting traces were found in Erlitou) (Yuan 2016). The compound agricultural economy was taking shape. Meanwhile, there were highly developed and specialized handicraft industries and workshops for stone making, copper casting, jade making and bone making. The most impressive was the mastery of the superb technology of manufacturing bronze containers with composite fan and using them as monopoly ritual vessels. It is clear that the Erlitou Culture is the true beginning of China’s Bronze Age, as opposed to the various small pieces of bronze that were found sporadically in many places before but did not play an important role in production and life.
Second, the Erlitou Culture has distinctive and transcendent characters among many regional cultural interactions of the time. In the forming process, it absorbed a wide range of cultural factors from all over the world, then integrated and upgraded them, which not only exceeded the original cultures or cultural types, but also exerted its cultural influence on the surrounding areas to a great extent. In the case of the vertical timeline and the Central Plains, the emergence of the Erlitou Culture was another large-scale unification and re-emergence after the peak, differentiation of regional integration and the relative silence of the region in the Yangshao period. Like the peak period of Yangshao, it also had a wide influence on the neighboring cultures. If its radiation area was measured by the distribution of Erlitou-style Yazhang (Deng and Wang 2015), Jiyi (Zhang 2018), and other characteristic symbolic objects and factors, the scope was much larger than that of the Miaodigou type at the peak of the Yangshao Culture. The difference is that the appearance of the Erlitou Culture led to a downturn of the surrounding archaeological cultures of the same period, such as the Yueshi Culture in the east, the Xiaqiyuan Culture in the north, the Maqiao Culture in the southeast, as well as the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. Not only was there a lack of high-quality products like the Erlitou Culture, but the previously developed handicraft industries such as pottery also showed a trend of vulgarization. It is clearly the result of the deliberate abandonment of ideological goods by the upper echelons of these cultures after they were subjected to repressive political and ideological influences.
Those two points set the Erlitou Culture apart from any other earlier and contemporaneous archaeological cultures in the circle of early cultural interactions in the neighborhood and even in East Asia at the time, or among the scattered high points of civilizations around the region, such as Hongshan, Haidai, Liangzhu, Shijiahe, and even Shimao and Taosi. Its emergence has a distinctive transcendence, which can be seen, in a way, as a symbol of the formation of the Hua-Xia tradition or the core of civilization in Central Plains. In The Earliest China, Xu graphically summarized this phenomenon as the development of the civilization pattern from a sky full of stars to a moon with few stars (Xu 2009).
During this process, the area around Mount Song region, namely the intersection of the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River and the southeast edge of the Loess Plateau, formed a special cultural geographical zone because of geographical and climatic factors. In the pre-Yangshao period, the two agricultural cultures, southern rice and northern grain, had already met here, providing a composite agricultural economic base and a starting point for the formation and expansion of the Yangshao Culture, which was coupled with the great warm period and the loess belt. In the regional traditional competition in the post-Yangshao era, this area became the focus of cultural factors and forces in all directions. After the overlapping and integration of different ethnic groups and cultures, it eventually became the ideal place for the emergence of the most comprehensive Erlitou Culture. Thus, it was considered as a key geographical hub for the entire East Asian history and culture, and regarded by the Hua-Xia cosmology as the center of the human world.
At the peak of regional integration which took the agricultural tribes as its carrier, the archaeological cultures in various regions generally developed into cluster-like defensive hierarchical societies characterized by internal differentiation and large-scale central settlements. They built central settlements, even ring-trench settlements and settlements with city walls. Such settlements were several times more defensible than ordinary ones, thus they could better protect the security of ethnic groups in the face of ethnic conflict or external marauders. The Erlitou Culture created a new model of coordinated regional defense, with a number of high-defensive sub-center settlements such as Shaochai in Gongyi, Dashigu and Dongzhao in Zhengzhou, Wangjing Tower in Xinzheng, Puchengdian in Pingdingshan, and Yusi in Mengzhou (Wen and Chen 2014), forming an arch guard form against the Dayi, while Erlitou itself only built palaces and walls in the administrative center for limited differentiation and defense (Yuan and Zhu 2014). Erlitou and the location of these sub-centers constituted the center of the culture, and the important locations beyond the cultural center, such as major transportation routes or origins of key resources, were placed under the jurisdiction of the most defensive central forts, including Dongxiafeng in Xia County, Gucheng in Yuanqu County, and the Mount Donglong in Shangluo, which may have been such peripheral strongholds. This new model of space defense and management was inherited entirely and expanded by the Erligang Culture. Archaeological discoveries have showed that relics such as Dashigu in Zhengzhou, Xishi Village in Xingyang, Wangjing Tower in Xinzheng, Gucheng in Yuanqu County, and Mount Donglong in Shangluo were all rebuilt or reconstructed at the Erligang stage after the Erlitou Culture died out, working as a regional central settlement and forming a co-prosperity relationship with Shangcheng in Zhengzhou. Erlitou continued to develop itself, but was gradually crushed and replaced by another nearby Erligang Culture, Shangcheng in Yanshi. Obviously, these phenomena can be regarded as archaeological manifestations of the formation and alternation of the state form or state tradition.
For a mainstream cultural tradition to form, it needs to transcend various regional cultural traditions and be recognized and contested by different ethnic groups. A mainstream cultural tradition also features not least the transcendence and breakthrough of consanguineous organizational relationship, while earning broad recognition as an ideology. Throughout the history, many cases across the world have shown that state is the only organizational form that can achieve this (Herzo 1998). The Erlitou Culture can be seen or roughly seen as a political tradition or longevity of the dynasty as it can integrate various traditions, including larger cultural traditions that are represented by the archaeological culture. They went beyond traditions in regions while incorporating these traditions themselves. Of course, the evolution of regional traditions was naturally accompanied by social differentiation, the division of the ruling and ruled classes, and the corresponding interpretation system of ideology. Yet, ruling and ruled classes were poles apart within and among ethnic groups, because the latter required systematic integration of different ethnic groups, classes as well as various cultural factors. Therefore, although some areas in the early interaction circle of China had developed into a complex primary civilization, they never crossed the threshold of national civilization. On the contrary, the pattern of Erlitou Culture was a case in point where a major breakthrough was secured. In the promotion, exchange, embracing, integration, transformation and radiation of the above elements among different ethnic groups, the Erlitou Culture created a new model of social governance that transcended inequality within region and even inter-regional mutual aggression and plunder. It probably reached a new common ideological understanding featuring transcendence. More importantly, this mainstream cultural tradition, or the great tradition, which transcended various traditions, was followed by the Erligang Culture. Obviously, it was the mainstream Hua-Xia tradition that transcended ethnic cultural traditions, with state political tradition as its core. It was carried forward by the people of the Qin dynasty and Zhou dynasty since then, and evolved from the dynasty in its early days into the Chinese Empire, centering on the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River over time.
The mainstream cultural tradition that underpinned the state tradition, i.e., palace buildings, sacrificial relics, funeral and musical articles and other institutional cultural relics related to the world view, ideological system, sacrificial system and ritual system, developed rapidly in Erlitou relics and was kept alive by future generations. Archaeological discoveries were mainly about the production techniques and organizational form of high-grade artifacts, the most important of which were the bronze ritual vessels and the etiquette culture represented by them. To date, more than 200 pieces of bronze ware have been found in Erlitou Relics, including vessels, weapons, musical instruments, ceremonial ornaments and tools, covering almost all kinds of bronze wares in East Asia. Bronze vessels were unique in the Erlitou Culture as they were created as a result of drawing on bronze smelting, pottery-making techniques and concepts from all over the world. The vessels, including bronze-Jue, bronze-Jia, bronze-He and bronze-Ding discovered constituted the earliest group of bronze ritual ware in China. Some of the pottery models for casting bronze ware found in the Erlitou bronze foundry were exquisitely patterned, with round vessels up to 30 cm or more in diameter. Close to the south of the palace complex and surrounded by enclosing walls, the bronze foundry site covered an area of about 10,000 square meters. It had been used from the early to the very late stages of the Erlitou Culture, and it is not only the earliest bronze foundry in China, we can also be certain that the production is operated by the imperial court (Zhao and Xu 2019).
The turquoise and other jade objects found in the Erlitou Relics are also very distinctive, as evidenced by the fundamental differences in production and use-pattern between them and a wealth of decorative jade and witchcraft jade discovered in the eastern Haidai, Hongshan, Liangzhu and other sites, as well as other jades, such as Jade ware symbolizing wealth, precious jade found in the sites of western Qijia site, Shimao site and Qingliangsi Temple. Jade Yue, Jade Knife, Jade Zhang, Jade Gui, which were ritual or sacrificial utensils in ancient China, are cases in point. Although most of them was modeled after the shape of jade objects in Haidai and other relics, they had nothing to do with their original usage and way of mounting the handle. Rather, they were used in a variety of occasions to show the authority of the aristocracy. As a ceremonial decoration, turquoise was often inlaid on a plate. Mr. Xu Hong, one of the excavators, speculated that many jade artifacts in the Erlitou period might have been used as “Jade Gui” or “Jade Hu” to show the relationship between the monarch and officials at court. Therefore, we have good reason to believe that the Erlitou period had formed the true ritual jade culture by transcending the original jade culture in the context of funeral and witchcraft (Chang 2017); and in the process, the forms and meanings of many early jades had been arranged and reconstructed. After that, it developed into a more refined and profoundly influential Chinese traditional ritual jade system through further drawing on and integrating the rich cultural connotation of witchcraft jade in various places, especially in the eastern region. The white pottery, indented hard pottery and primitive porcelain found at the Erlitou were in all likelihoods the early relics of the same type from the southeastern region. These complex devices and the new ideology behind them had obviously formed a new system of knowledge, meaning and etiquette which were different from the past but may correspond to the mainstream state tradition.
Thus, it can be seen that the Erlitou Culture has achieved a leap-forward integration and breakthrough in the broader scope of the Central Plains. Its cultural factors, settlement structure and values have all reflected the cross-regional cultural patterns of super-ethnic groups. The reasons are as follows. First, there were interactions between the ethnic groups and cultures in the Central Plains. Second, since the late Yangshao period, it had been strongly influenced by various cultures from around the central plains that had successively entered the peak of regional integration period, especially by the continuous flow of people and fresh cultural factors from the northwest region. By the late Longshan period, due to the evolution of the culture itself and the changes of the environment, the interaction and even collision among the archaeological cultures of different places had been unprecedentedly intensified. Because of the relatively low tide and hollowing-out after the Yangshao period, as well as the relatively suitable and stable geographical environment, perhaps coupled with the new livable space created by the alluvial acceleration of the Yellow River under the background of the new climate environment, the Central Plains had become a place for all forces to compete, for people from all directions to settle and new cultural factors to gathered sharply. At the same time, due to the introduction of new cultural factors such as sheep, wheat and bronze smelting, coupled with continued high-intensity development and environmental changes, the population of the northern region increased substantially about 4300 years ago. Culture began to transform, and the competition between each other intensified unprecedentedly. At this stage, very dense stone-city settlements (Shicheng) sprang up along today’s Great Wall region, as well as giant central military settlements such as stone mounds (Shimao), which may also be brutal conquest predators in a vast territory, forcing large-scale population concentration in the basin of southern Shanxi (Jinnan) and rapid movement towards complex societies. Against this background, Taosi once tried to integrate various forces and cultural factors, and may have initially crossed the threshold of becoming “a country”, but the attempt was immediately overturned and collapsed under the huge tension of time and space. The movements of Shimao and Taosi were bound to have a certain impact on the ethnic groups in the hinterland of the Central Plains around Mount Song region. These ethnic groups were the common subjects in the flourishing period of Yangshao, who had completed their regional integration within a short period of time and took the initiative to attack other places, focusing especially on the northwest, directly placing Jinnan under their jurisdiction as a resource and strategic buffer zone, in order to seek advanced cultural resources and comparative advantages in the increasingly complex pattern of interaction.
This wave of great changes was summed up by Zhao as the third wave of social complexity or the formation of Chinese civilization in the Age of the Ancient Country (Zhao 2020). But apart from the similarities and differences in time and space, its mode and significance were completely different from the first two waves. The first wave towards the complex stratification of the primary civilization society was spontaneous, which was the situation when the agricultural cultural tradition successively entered the climax of regional integration. The Yangshao Culture took the lead, while Dawenkou-Longshan in the East, Hongshan in the Northeast, Songze-Liangzhu in the Southeast and Qujialing-Shijiahe in the South all had their own splendid chapters, and even came from behind to quickly enter the high-level Chiefdom society. Among them, the exquisite cultural factors of Dawenkou, Qujialing and other societies that were richly endowed with abundant environment and goods even marched into the Central Plains on a large scale. It is estimated that there would be many migrants at the same time to fill the relative gap here in the late period of Yangshao (Du 1992; Sun 2000). However, with the second wave surging from the transitional period in the north, various highly variant and novel cultural factors along the north of the Great Wall had been traveling southwards one after another from the second phase of Miaodigou. Its domino effect swept across the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and even further south in East Asia, making the cultural pattern of the Longshan Period change dramatically. The competition among regional traditions entered a white-hot stage. Even the giant central settlements, like Liangzhu and Shijiahe, collapsed (Zhao 2020). The third wave, with the Erlitou Culture as its protagonist, truly integrated the achievements of civilization in all directions, casting the mainstream tradition and cultural consciousness of Hua-Xia civilization with the state as the carrier.
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