Erlitou: China’s First Great City and Beginning of the Xia Dynasty?
The Erlitou culture dates to the early Bronze Age and existed in the Yellow River valley region of ancient China. The culture was named after a village site that was discovered in the central Chinese province of Henan in 1959. In addition to the site of Erlitou, other sites belonging to this culture have been found in Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Hubei. The Erlitou culture has been equated by Chinese archaeologists with the Xia dynasty, China’s legendary first imperial dynasty. The association between the two, however, has not been established beyond a doubt. And for this reason, some still believe the Xia dynasty is only a myth but it’s complicated.
The area of Erlitou culture in northern China where the legendary Xia dynasty also ruled from. (Kanguole / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Erlitou Site Is Named After an Existing Chinese Village
The site of Erlitou is situated in Yanshi District in Henan province, central China. The site, only discovered in 1959, acquired its name from the nearby modern village. In general, Chinese scholars are of the opinion that Erlitou is the location of Zhenxun, the last capital of the Xia dynasty. By extension, Chinese scholars also believe that the Erlitou culture and the Xia dynasty are the same thing. Other scholars, however, have questioned this connection, maintaining that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the Erlitou culture and the Xia dynasty were one and the same.
According to Chinese legend, the Xia dynasty was China’s first imperial dynasty. This dynasty is believed to have existed from around 2070 to 1600 BC. According to historical documents that were written in later times about the dynasty, the Xia established their kingdom along the banks of the Yellow River. Additionally, there were 11 major clans that paid tribute and pledged their loyalty to the Xia.
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The founder of the Xia dynasty is a legendary figure known as Yu the Great, who supposedly lived between the 22nd and 21st centuries BC. The most famous legend about Yu is the one in which he controls a devastating flood known as the Great Flood. The story, however, does not begin with Yu himself, but with his father, Gun.
According to the legend, the Great Flood occurred during the reign of Emperor Yao, one of the mythical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. The Great Flood affected both the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys, causing much suffering to the people.
Upon the advice of the Four Mountains, a group of advisers to Yao, the emperor gave the task of controlling the Great Flood to Gun. In order to stop the flood from wreaking further havoc, Gun decided to build dikes. Gun managed to steal some magic clay from heaven. This clay was able to grow continuously, and could never be used up, thereby providing Gun with an inexhaustible source of raw material for the construction of his dikes.
According to one version of the legend, the theft of the magic clay angered Shangdi, the supreme deity of the Chinese pantheon, who ordered Gun’s execution. The legend goes on to claim that three years after Gun’s death, his body was found to be miraculously preserved. When it was split open, his son, Yu, was brought forth.
Another version of the legend states that Gun battled the Great Flood for nine long years, during which a great quantity of resources and labor were consumed. In spite of his best efforts, Gun was unable to control the Great Flood, which continued to devastate the land. By this time, Yao had been replaced by Shun as emperor, who ordered Gun’s execution as punishment for his failure to control the Great Flood. An alternate version of the legend has Gun assassinated by one of his enemies.
A Song dynasty depiction of Yu the Great, a legendary king in ancient China who is said to be the founder of the Xia dynasty, which inaugurated dynastic rule in China and may be an extension of Erlitou culture. (Ma Lin / Public domain)
Yu the Great Uses A Different Flood Strategy and Succeeds
After Gun’s death, his son Yu was given the task of controlling the Great Flood. Unlike his father, Yu employed a different strategy to combat the flood. Rather than trying to build dikes to stop the flood waters from overflowing, Yu provided outlets for the water to flow to the sea. This was achieved through dredging the river ways. Yu is said to have had the help of dragons in accomplishing this work. In any case, Yu finally managed to control the Great Flood after 13 years of endless struggle.
Yu’s success in controlling the Great Flood earned him the love and respect of the people. Apart from that, Yu is said to have travelled around China, recording what he observed and heard. The ancient text Classic of Mountains and Seas has been attributed to Yu. Moreover, there are stories about Yu fighting monsters and saving peoples’ lives. It is not surprising then, that before Shun’s death, Yu was appointed as his successor.
When Yu became the new king, he founded the Xia dynasty. Yu established a dynasty as he replaced the “Abdication System,” which had been practiced by the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, with a hereditary monarchy. The Xia dynasty is recorded to have lasted for more than 400 years and was ruled over by about 17 kings. Following its fall, the Xia dynasty was replaced by the Shang dynasty.
Yu the Great, founder of the Xia dynasty, and his fellow kings of the water immortals in a shrine at the Anping Tianhou Temple in Tainan on Taiwan. (Pbdragonwang / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Xia Dynasty: China’s First State-level Society?
The Xia dynasty is believed to have been the first state-level society in China. Nevertheless, there are scholars who doubt its existence. It has, for instance, been pointed out that the earliest mentions of the Xia dynasty appear in the records of the Zhou dynasty, which existed about a millennium after the Xia. Subsequently, the Xia dynasty was mentioned in various Chinese records. Sima Qian, the renowned historian of the Han dynasty, for instance, even provides a list of Xia rulers in his work.
Nevertheless, the Xia is not mentioned on the oracle bones, China’s oldest surviving written records, thereby casting doubt on the dynasty’s existence. By contrast, the Shang dynasty, the Xia’s immediate successors, is mentioned on these bones.
Those who doubt the existence of the Xia dynasty have speculated that this dynasty was an invention by the Zhou dynasty. The Zhou came to power by overthrowing their predecessors, the Shang. It is argued, therefore, that the Zhou needed a precedent for their actions, and therefore invented the Xia.
According to tradition, the last Xia ruler, Jie, was a corrupt tyrant. Consequently, he was overthrown by Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty. Thus, the overthrow of Zhou, the last ruler of the Shang dynasty, by Wu, the founder of the Zhou dynasty, is thought to parallel the overthrow of Jie by Tang.
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The Erlitou site is considered a significant discovery as it provided archaeological evidence of the Xia dynasty. The site was discovered in 1959 by the Chinese archaeologist Xu Xusheng. Excavations have been carried out at the site over the decades, the most recent being in 2003. Apart from the site of Erlitou, other sites associated with the Erlitou culture have been unearthed following its discovery. These sites are located along the Yellow River, which tallies with the traditional area of the Xia dynasty.
The archaeological site of the capital of the Xia Dynasty (circa 21st century-16th century BC) in Erlitou in Henan Province in central China. (Government World)
Evidence Shows Erlitou Was Occupied 6,000 Years Ago!
Based on the archaeological evidence, the site of Erlitou was occupied as early as the 4th millennium BC. This period corresponds with the Neolithic Yangshao culture. Evidence of site occupation continued into the following millennium, during which the Yangshao culture was replaced by the Longshan culture.
After the two periods of occupation however, it seems that the site was abandoned for the next 600 years. Around 1900 BC, the site was settled once again, this time by the Erlitou culture. The site rose rapidly in importance, and by the following century, it was one of the major urban centers in the area.
By the Erligang period, which lasted from around 1600 to 1250 BC, the site’s importance declined, and it was ultimately abandoned.
The archaeological evidence obtained from the site, in particular from the Erlitou period, suggests that there was a state during that time. Therefore, Erlitou was soon equated with the Xia dynasty. Such pieces of evidence include the remains of a ceremonial area, workshops, palaces, elite burials, and a planned grid of roads. All these point towards the site being part of a state, as their existence is made possible only though state control and organization.
At Erlitou site a total of eight palaces have been identified so far. These are not only defined by their huge size, but also by their elite architecture, and the luxury goods unearthed from them. The palaces have a foundation made of rammed earth, and two were found enclosed within a central palatial complex. The two palaces were once thought to be the earliest palatial structures in China. Based on their findings, the archaeologists concluded that the earliest Chinese palaces were simple, having only a single gate and a single courtyard.
Erlitou culture bronze jue wine vessel. (Editor at Large / CC BY-SA 2.5)
Erlitou Culture also Specialized in Various Crafts
Apart from these two palaces, only one other palace at the site has been fully excavated. The excavation of this third palace was carried out by Chinese archaeologists as recently as 2003. It was found that the palace was 150 meters (492 feet) in length and comprised of at least three courtyards. Additionally, the remains of this palace were discovered beneath the remains of the second palace, indicating that it is the older of the two. These new findings show that the early Chinese palaces were in fact more complex than previously thought and prompted archaeologists to re-evaluate their previous conclusions. As five more palaces have yet to be fully excavated, there is certainly still more work to be done at the site.
Apart from palaces, workshops are also a notable feature of the site of Erlitou. These indicate that craft specialization had occurred in this early Chinese society. The products of these workshops have been found in elite Erlitou culture burials. These include pottery, jade artefacts, lacquer wares, turquoise pieces, and bronzes. The elite burials may also be differentiated from those of the non-elites by their respective locations. The archaeological excavations revealed that the elites were buried in the courtyards of the palaces. On the other hand, non-elite burials were scattered across the site, without any centralized burial location. The existence of two different types of burials suggests that the society of Erlitou was socially stratified, which would have occurred with the rise of the state.
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Pottery kilns, craft workshops, and a turquoise workshop have all been unearthed at the site. The variety of objects produced by these workshops indicate the level of craftsmanship achieved by the Erlitou culture. The pottery, for example, included not only plain vessels, but also animals made in molds, glazed pottery, and crockery engraved with the dragon-snake, tortoise, and human motifs. Apart from that, a variety of jade artefacts have also been unearthed. These include a “cong” (an octagonal jade badge), a “gui” (an elongated pointed jade tablet), and a “zhang” (a jade tablet).
Whilst the various objects produced at these workshops is already impressive, the site of Erlitou is most notable for its bronze artefacts. Large workshops to produce bronzes were unearthed at the site. It was here at Erlitou that the earliest known Chinese bronzes were made. These bronze artefacts include knives, bells, and drinking vessels. The last of these are of a type known as “jue,” as shown in the above image. These are vessels with three legs and a loop handle and were used exclusively for the ritual consumption of wine. Another notable bronze artefact is a bronze plate in the shape of a beast’s head embedded with turquoise stones. This is said to be an example of the mastery of the enchasing technique by the craftsmen of Erlitou.
The Erlitou Site May One Day Reveal More
To conclude, the site of Erlitou is remarkable for a variety of reasons. The archaeological work there has not only unearthed a variety of exquisite artefacts, but more importantly, evidence that points towards the existence of a state.
These include social stratification whereby the society is divided into elites and non-elites, as well as the craft specialization. Due to this, the Erlitou culture has been equated by Chinese archaeologists with the Xia dynasty, China’s legendary first imperial dynasty. Nevertheless, as written evidence to corroborate this equation, others are more hesitant to agree with this identification.
Although archaeologists have been working at the site of Erlitou for decades, it has not been fully excavated. Perhaps in time, the evidence needed to prove or disprove the hypothesis that the Erlitou culture and the Xia dynasty are one and the same will come to light.
Top image: Yu the Great, in red, the founder of the Xia Dynasty that was an extension of the Erlitou culture, fighting the flood waters with his fellow fighters. Source: The Chairman's Bao
By Wu Mingren
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