Pre- Shang China, Beyond the Recorded Dynasties 二里头文化

Before History: dated from 1900-1600 B.C. Very rare bejeweled fox totem made of turquoise inlaid bronze. The plaque was unearthed from a tomb from the Erlitou culture on the southern banks of the Yellow River. It should be pointed out both the age of the object as well as its location overlaps that of the mythical Xia dynasty of China. 

China is older. A vague, generalized statement, but a crucial point that should be remembered. In a lot of discussion regarding China's history, many attribute the "beginning" of Chinese history to around the time of the Shang dynasty. It make sense academically, for the Shang were indeed the earliest dynasty that we have indisputable proof of having existed, on the account of the writings that they themselves left behind. But it is wrong to regard the Shang as the beginning- in fact if anything jumping to the history of Shang might as well be (to use a term burrowed from dramas) in media res


Another elaborate plaque/ totem of an animal undeathed from the Erlitou site bearing the same striking stylized aesthetic. They eyes were made of finely polished turquoise while the body is composed of turquoise mosaics 

Even before the Shang, there were already several sophisticated civilizations that have long existed in the region. The mythological history of China recounts the Xia dynasty that preceded it, and lists several of its king's names. However there is not enough evidence to conclusively proof that such a people indeed called themselves "Xia"- or that the fabled line of kings attributed to this dynasty really existed since such a civilization have not yet have invented writing. However, though the Xia could not "speak" or write to us across the gulf of time, we do know that there was a dead ringer civilization that did exist at near the preise time and location- where the Xia was supposed to have existed- and that culture was already highly civilized. 


The dead ringer culture that is situated at exactly where the Xia dynasty was supposed to be and during the exact time it was supposed to have lived cannot tell us its name. But modern archaeologists called it Erlitou Culture (pronounced "Rrr Lee Toe")- named after the site discovered at the rural village of Erlitou in Yanshi, Henan. The culture was widely spread throughout Henan and Shanxi and later appeared in Shaanxi and Hubei. Chinese archaeologists generally identify the Erlitou culture as the site of the Xia dynasty, but because there is no firm evidence such as writing- it is still difficult to substantiate a direct linkage.

Water and Earth. Geography shaped the soul of China's first peoples. The first people who thrived in the region greatly utilized the bounty provided by the river and developed advanced agriculture which sustained a large population. The cultivation of millet, barley, wheat, and soybeans near the flat flood plains of the Yellow River was arduous and required intense and constant supervision. When combined with catastrophic floodings and constant invasion by outside tribes- these first cultures chose very centralized leaders responsible for overseeing the food production process and addressing outside threats. Because of the flat lands surrounding them, in order to survive they became masters of both war and diplomacy. 

War and Peace: Cultural heroes such as the mythical Yellow Emperor and Yu the Great probably both existed but over the eons their exploit and characters were greatly mythologized. The Yellow Emperor who lived long before the Erlitou civilization was probably as a great war chief who consolidated many of the tribes of the Yellow River in a great coalition and fought off several of the greatest invaders against the plain dwellers of the Yellow River. Yu was  regarded as great because he fixed the flooding of the Yellow River. Yu's achievement as a unifier was emphasized because the river's wild floodings hurts all of the tribes in the region regardless of their standings with Yu's tribe. During his long efforts in fighting off the floods he fixed the common curse plaguing all of the neighboring powers- be they friends  or foe. As such he too was favored as a cultural hero. 


Erlitou culture existed in the Yellow River valley from approximately 1900 to 1500 BC. (A 2007 study of radiocarbon dating has proposed a narrower date range of 1750 to 1530 BC.) Both its location- near the vicinity of Luoyang and the time it existed overlapped those attributed to the Xia. It was also the master of its domains. 

Cultures around the Yellow River Basin, for thousands of years the Yellow River basin have long been settled by various cultures- with one of the most influential ones- the Longshan 龙山文化- Longshan- based on Mount Long is literally translated as the "Dragon Mountain" culture already extending across the span of the upper, middle, and lower portion of the Yellow River. As such, most of the cultures in Central China- including that of Erlitou shared many cultural norms.

It was sophisticated civilization that played by its own rules- for the world of ancient Henan was very strange to the modern imagination. Not only was the main river that all rely on entirely yellow from one horizon to another, but the land was filled with mighty beasts like great rhinos and Chinese elephants. In this world, the Erlitou culture cleverly planted multiple assortment of crops and developed advanced irrigation that enabled it to expand its population. During its early phases, many large settlements soon cropped up around the region, including cities with rammed earth- palaces.


Societally, the Erlitou civilization also possessed great distinctions as well. Based from both the formalized sizes of the dwellings and palaces it was reasonable to believe that the Erlitou culture possessed very defined hierarchy within its social structure. Great kingly chiefs would preside over the affair of the great local settlements while smaller chiefs administered the country side. The greatness of the power of these nobles were exemplified by the elaborate and ornate bronze and turquoise animist totems unearthed from Erlitou culture tombs. 

Shang dynasty bronze of an elephant. Elephants once roamed central China. 
Throughout history elephants were considered powerful creatures by
the dwellers of the Central Plains. The poetic name of Henan 豫- "Yu"
distinctively has the character of 象 elephant in it. 

Western Han bronze caste of a rhino. (Above) During the Zhou dynasty, the extremely dangerous sport of rhino hunting was practiced by the Zhou nobility. Armors of rhino hide were made and greatly favored by the soldiers. Several suits of hide armor dating from the Zhou dynasty have been discovered in the 20th century. 


A social map of duty 畿服: (Above) graph depicting the Zhou conceptualization of a 帝都
"Soverign's Capital," or "Royal Capital," which shows a centralized precinct surrounded by
radiating kinsmen of privilidge and retainers with specialize duties. It is a metaphorical map of duty where specific services are accorded distance to the sovereign. This kind of system arranges the relationship between the center and the surrounding area according to the geographical distance, and also stipulates the obligations of the surrounding center. Clothing and ritual norms are marked as well- showing a very formal and rigid mapping of society. The conception predates th Zhou- and was to have existed since the Shang dynasty. At Erlitou the layout of key buildings already displayed this relation. (Below) Enclosure of Power: the great palace at Erlitou. There were 8 large enclosed palaces in the city in close proximity to each other. Most of them already possessed the key features of traditional Chinese architecture. A grid lay out and a courtyard, a largely centered great hall and radiating lodges for attendants.

Erlitou is ideally cited: the city is situated on the southern bank of the Yellow River and right to the south of the Luo River. It is well protected, not only is it located between two very fertile rivers but the fertile river valley is surrounded by a ring of mountains on four sides. The Erlitou settlers were not the only ones to notice the strategic advantage this site possessed. The Shang also built their cities in the vicinity to the east of here, and the Han- Wei dynasty Luoyang (named after the Luo River) is sited right on the western outskirts of Erlitou. 

At Erlitou, remains of palatial buildings, royal tombs, and paved roads have been uncovered, leading to hypotheses that the site represents the legendary Xia capital. Erlitou has eight identified palaces -- large-scale buildings with elite architecture and artifacts--three of which have been fully excavated, the most recent in 2003. Excavations indicate that the city was planned with specialized buildings, a ceremonial area, attached workshops, and a central palatial complex enclosing two rammed-earth foundation palaces. Elite burials were placed within the courtyards of these palaces accompanied by grave goods such as bronzes, jades, turquoise, and lacquer wares. 

Erlitou sites possessed the earliest examples of bronze artifacts from ancient China. The crafting of bronze would be perfected by the Shang centuries later. The first bronze vessels were made expressly for the ritual consumption of wine, which was probably based on rice or wild grape. The earliest known bronzes in China were cast in Erlitou and its complexity argues that it had a state level of organization. 

If the dead could speak: Tao Wen 陶文- or Pottery glyphs, were found on some of the expensive Erlitou pottery, leading some archaeologists to believe that the Erlitou in fact did have primitive means of inscribing meaning into glyphs. 

The plaque was cast with four small loop holes on each of the four corners. The slightly convex plaque is of waisted, oblong form, and inlaid with rectangular turquoise of varying sizes, with the exposed areas forming a monster mask. 

Erlitou also had a planned grid of roads. An intact section of parallel wagon tracks, 1 meter wide and 5 meters long, is the earliest known evidence of a wagon in China. Other parts of the city contain the remains of smaller dwellings, craft workshops, pottery kilns, and tombs. Important craft areas include a bronze casting foundry and a turquoise workshop.


The ancient Chinese social network: the graph details the webs of relations in traditional Chinese communities. The Jiuzu Wufu 九族 五服- or "Nine clans and Five Dresses" map details how an individual fits within his or her community. At the center of the map is Ziji 自己, or the self- the individual, but he is not an island. 

With each individual comes those of his parents- the people who had put him in this world. Extending form the parents we see the extension of the relations and obligations to the clan of the individual's parents as well. The highest level of respect and obedience is accorded to the parents- especially the father, and from there, to one's kins siblings, then extending out, to uncles and cousins successively according to closeness to the blood of the parent and seniority. Finally it extends out beyond the blood clan and at the furthest reaches to those of in-laws and their families. This concept is also used during mourning rituals. With the gravest period of mourning reserved for once's parents. These bonds of familiar served as the basis for China's ancestral traditions.

There seemed to be a great consolidation of power under the Erlitou rulers, which fits the later narrative in regards to the Xia by Sima Qian. As the centuries progressed and the settlement's sizes ballooned, howeve the society's power became more and more stratified. For those who are familiar with history, it is probably not too surprising, after all, the core elements of a civilization usually involves distinct classes forming as a result of their job specializations. With the abundance of food provided by agriculture, finally there was a surplus of people who were not needed to spend their entire days producing food (in contrast to the hunter- gatherer societies.) However with the formation of those new specializations the worth of an individual became more pronounced compared to his fellow dwellers.

Very rare bejeweled dragon totem made of turquoise inlaid bronze. The plaque was unearthed from a tomb from the Erlitou culture on the southern banks of the Yellow River. 

With growth comes great powers. At first, the Erlitou civilization reached its zenith with the construction of a series of elaborate palaces. The palatial complex possessed an courtyard and was surrounded by a two-meter-thick rammed-earth wall- its halls were ringed with columns, the largest, had an area of 9,600 m2 (103,000 sq ft). However with these high marks, the Erlitou culture's fortunes soon began to decline. A period of stagnation would follow as growth slows.

The first signs of these changes derived from the stoppage of the various city's expansions during this period. Soon enough populations at these cities began to shrink- including those from the capital at the Erlitou site. In the ensuing centuries the construction of palaces stopped as well, leading to the eventual dramatic reduction of population sizes across various cities. Though scholars continue to debate over the cause of the Erlitou civilization's downfall, the indisputable proof of its decline was marked by the previously listed physical degradation.


Jie with a halberd, representing oppression, and sitting on two ministers, 
symbolizing his abuse of power. 

Despite the lack of proof in the archaeological world in regard to the fall of the Erlitou civilization, a possible narrative could be found in the fall of the mythical Xia dynasy. According to Zhou records which spoke of the rise of the Shang dynasty, the last Xia ruler Jie, was a deeply corrupt and cruel ruler. Jie's tyrannical rule was made much worse by the face that he was possibly psychotic and infatuated with an evil woman. Traditional narratives- including those later cited by Sima Qian described Jie as extremely arbitrary and hated all who remotely questioned his decisions, he killed many ministers, including loyal and competent senior retainers on random whims. In one incident Jie was riding the back of a top chancellor like a horse. After a while the chancellor was tired to the point that he could no longer crawl or move. He asked King Jie to spare him. Jie immediately dragged him out to be executed.

At the same time he spent all of his time indulged in wine, orgies, and sadistic slaughter. Eventually he fell in love with a perverse concubine called Mo Xi who was beautiful but bankrupt of morals. She liked to drink alcohol, enjoyed music, and also had a penchant for jugglers and sing-song girls. Apparently, she had Jie order a lake of wine made. They both sailed about in the alcohol lake in an orgy of drunken naked men and women bathing and drinking. She then commanded 3,000 men to drink the lake dry, only to laugh when they all drowned. This event was also recorded in the Han Ying’s book Han shi waizhuan. 

However what Jie did not realize was that while his state of Xia stagnated, another state that had been vassalized by the Xia- the Shang, to the north east of the Xia had greatly risen in power. In the 31st year of Jie's reign, the later King Tang of Shang destroyed Jie's army at Battle of Mingtiao and exiling the mad king. The Xia royal clan was uprooted and the Shang lord ascended as King Tang of the newly inaugurated Shang dynasty.


The tale is dramatic and flavorful, with reprehensible villains much like Caligula from Tinto Brass's orgiastic movie, and the Mad King Aerys II from "A Song of Ice and Fire." However it is most likely that this tale was spun by Zhou propagandists after they had vanquished the Shang dynasty. For there are so much precise similarities between the life of King Jie and the last king of Shang, (confusingly named) Zhou of Shang that the major moments of these 2- ruinous scions of their own clans sounded almost exactly alike. King Zhou of Shang was a notorious drinker, an idle ruler who despised governing, who arbitrarily tortured his ministers (including the ancestors of the Zhou). 

Like many of the late dysfunctional Chinese dynasties, disastrous floods and famines
were ascribed to the last days of the Xia dynasty.

Like the proverbial Jie of Xia, King Zhou also lived a paranoid existence where ordered many sadistic executions for his enjoyment. What's more telling was when he also fell in love with an extremely beautiful but also perversely sadistic woman named Daji (remember Mo Xi?) King Zhou fell in love with Daji and soon the evil duo became even more violent and sadistic- including (unironically) constructing a lake of wine so large that they could sail on it and enjoying torturing and executing people together while both watched in glee. 

Though there likely was a "King Jie" before the formation of the Shang state, his biography was largely purposely distorted to fit in with Zhou propaganda. Episodes where he fell in love with a dynasty toppling femme fatale and also building a lake of wine and having ministers brutally killed on his whims were clearly scenes from the cruel King Zhou of Shang's life that were re-inserted into the biography of Jie in order to fit them in the mold of mad terminal kings who forced the realm to rebel against their "evil" rules- in turn justifying their displacement and having the Mandate of Heaven blessed upon the usurping dynasty.

Like an echoe from another time, in time King Zhou was so corrupt that the fief of Zhou rebelled against Shang rule and toppled the Shang dynasty. King Zhou eventually locked himself in his own palace with his treasures and burned it all down including himself and Daji was beheaded by the Zhou lords. When taking account of how the Shang fell, it easy to see how the description of King Jie of Xia's reign was purposely tailored to look exactly like a photo-copy to that of King Zhou's rule. There likely was a powerful Xia monarch named Jie who was eventually toppled, but the episodes of his sadism were likely invented and inserted so as to make the fall of Shang fit the pattern of mad evil kings. Jie was used to cyclically paint an example of a terminally bad dynasty and a fresh virtuous one arriving to depose them and restore greatness in the guise of the Mandate of Heaven. It was for these reasons that Sima Qian's "Record of the Grand Historian" did not mention either Mo Xi or the lake of alcohol while describing the life of King Jie. 

So where does that leave us? Considering that even traditional narratives in regard to the Xia have been tampered with? Well, still quite a lot to go on. From what was discovered from the site at Erlitou, we see elements that are quintessentially Chinese and adopted by later dynasties such as the Shang and the Zhou. The traditional social structure of kinship and hierarchies of power are present. The aesthetics of the bronze works and the way in which the architecture and city plans are laid out fits precisely to those of the early Shang. The palaces at later Shang Capital of Yang and the Shang bronze vessels and ewers bears a strong resemblance to those at Erlitou. If anything Erlitou- Shang- and later the Zhou were part of the Yellow River Plain cultures that greatly influence each other and continued under each other. 

China is older. The opening statement of this article should be recalled, before the 1920s, most academicians in the west have regarded the Shang as a mythical dynasty and the Zhou was seen as the oldest of the Chinese dynasties. The traditional accounts of Shang were seen as legends and parables. That is until the discovery of the Shang capital at Yin in modern Anyang and many more Shang sites afterwards which gave concrete proof of their existence. 

11 pottery glyphs that predates the Erlitou culture, from pottery shards discovered 
at a Longshan culture site from 3rd millinium BC in Shandong

Same goes for how the Qin was seen before the discovery of the famous Terracotta in Xian. Before the Qin, the frame of reference for ancient Chinese soldiers are largely derived from primitive looking Han tomb figurines. However the discovery of the Qin terracotta Warriors in 1974  utterly changed the perception of ancient China and its capabilities. Not only were the Qin terracotta more intricate and more professionally done aesthetically, but they were created in monumental numbers that gave a raw impression on what the Qin dynasty was capable of. 

Thus, in looking at the example of these revolutionary 20th century findings which challenged our perception of ancient China, it maybe prudent to count on this sentiment: China is older, China is deeper- and with patience we may yet see more of it, unveiled and unearthed like an epiphany before us. With patience, we may very likely to see more the pieces that tells a more complete story in the coming days. 


Also, as a quick aside. Chinese history extends further back, since most of the Yellow River region was continuously inhabited since the neolithic age- pottery was found in the region from as early as 7500BC. Here are some cultures that existed across China in the Stone age leading up to the Erlitou culture. If you are interested, the list of these ancient cultures could be found here.

Have patience. China is older still.


Thank you to my Patrons who has contributed $10 and above: You made this happen!

➢ ☯ Vincent Ho (FerrumFlos1st)
➢ ☯ BurenErdene Altankhuyag
➢ ☯ Stephen D Rynerson
➢ ☯ Michael Lam
➢ ☯ Peter Hellman


Unknown said…
very good , bro
Der said…
Excellent article as always. And orthodox in your interpretation of the current evidence.

1. The fox totem made of turquoise is very reminiscent of Mayan and Olmec art objects.

2. Erlitou is obviously Xia ... the Shang Dynasty is too advanced to be the first civilization in China, their writing system had to have earlier antecedents, what's found on the Oracle bones is way too abstract and developed to be the first writing in China. Why are there scholars who doubt this? Most of them are Western and have an agenda no doubt. With more proof that Chinese civilization goes back beyond Shang, beyond Xia, proving that Chinese civilization is older than Egyptian and Sumerian civilization, then the absurd notion that Chinese civilization is somehow inspired from the West is null and void. I hope the heads of these Western scholars explode!!

3. Was the title of the Xia and Shang kings the Chinese character = 王 ?? Or did they use another title? I always thought Wang was invented by the Zhou.
Dragon's Armory said…
2. Oh the Shang was definitely not the first one, as I have already shown that the Longshan culture had existed in the region since the 3000s BC~ age of the mythical Yellow Emperor. and many- many- many cultures preceding the Longshan Culture also in the region. Even by itself Erlitou culture is quite significant, with their own bronze forge and gridded roads and palace complexes.

Remember- when people talk about Japan most leap to periods like the Jomon or the Yayoi, totally beyond history and totally beyond the procession of sovereigns. The very notion that Chinese history starts at Shang is absurd and definitely should not be continued.
Der said…
And yet we don't have evidence of Chinese writing before the Shang, which I find very strange. Shang oracle bone writing is obviously too advanced, but where is the missing link??? where are the precursors to Shang writing? I've read that both Longshan and Erlitou show no signs of being literate civilizations ... despite monumental architecture and evidence of stratified social structures, like the Aztecs and Inca. Without that clear link between Shang and those earlier cultures, it's difficult to identify Erlitou / Longshan with Xia and earlier. It's very frustrating.
Dragon's Armory said…
These pottery scripts were discovered at a Longshan site in Shandong province to the east of Henan (btw it also predates the Erlitou culture.) as you can see they are quite complex and I am betting that they are writing. They already look very abstract
Joshua said…
How about the Liangzhu ancient city?

I think it is very advanced for its period and it is as large as the Mohenjo Daro in India, making both cities larger than anything of the same period found in Middle East and Europe.
Joshua said…
How about Liangzhu ancient city?

Dragon's Armory said…
You know I am actually going to do one on the Liangzhu city, but I am still in the research process. Mainly because I am not very familiar with the culture that built this city.

The Erlitou was easier for me to research because I am familiar with the Yellow River culture, and long suspected that the Shang were merely continuing after a previously established culture that was already very sophisticated. Also because the Erlitou culuture was very likely a direct ancestor to most of the later Chinese dynasties.

But Yes, Liangzhu city is interesting, both for it's age, its distinct culture, and its achievements. In the future I would like to cover Sanxingdui culture as well. So stay tuned!
Joshua said…
Thank you for your reply.

I found these picture in Historum, it is supposedly warrior statuettes from Shu Kingdom in 12th-11th century BC in Sanxingdui.

This is the infantry

This is the cavalry.

Some of the forummer think this is fake, but I think it is the style of Sanxingdui art.

I traced those pictures to here.

If those are truly authentic, then cavalry in China is very old and might break the theory that cavalry only rose in area with flat, open ground.

There is even this Shu jade depiction of cavalry with couched lance done without stirrup in 12th-11th century BC.

Joshua said…
Liangzhu City from what I remember have 2 layers of wall and waterways inside the city which are used as roads. The inner city have defense mechanism against flood and there are several dams built outside the city to control flood as well, all in 3000 BC.
Dragon's Armory said…
Well even though the area of the Sichuan Basin is largely mountainous, it should be remembered that the area is still bordering regions like Tibet where is has always been a strong horse herding and Yak herding culture there. An example that I will give is the Yunnan Kingdom of Dian. Dian had cavalry, it is likely that the tradition was imported from the west.

Btw: This link is definitely full of forgeries.

At first I was half way convinced, in that I think some of the well polished ones were merely faithful modern recreations that at least maintained the original designs, but as I scrolled down I am seeing blantant Frankensteins.

This is a modern Frankenstein that attempts to combine a Central Plains Ding- likely those from a Shang dynasty vessal design and graft parts of the Shu motifs on it.

Another modern design, that cobbled together the steering wheel holy symbol and just plaster it randomly on a jade disk

And wtf are those, they are definitely modern, totally a hodgepodge of terrible designs

And don't even try to get me started on this thing, just an immidation modern knock off of a Zhou bronze bell with the tacked on wheel motif.

Imagine an "authentic" Japanese relic that was brimming with protruding katanas and hentai sex dolls. Geezus Christ, or Islamic artifacts studded with stereotypes and onion domes.

Popular Posts