The Formation and Development of a Shang City

settlement-Weidong Hou

A Review of Becoming a Capital: Formation and Development of Zhengzhou Shang City 鄭州商代都邑地位的形成與發展, by Weidong Hou 侯衛東

In this inspiring dissertation, Weidong Hou reconstructs the developmental trajectory of the Zhengzhou Shang City 鄭州商城, one of the most important cities of ancient China, located beneath the modern Zhengzhou City, Henan 河南 Province, China. This famous site was discovered in 1956, and many archaeologists and historians believe that it is the capital of the Early Shang 商 Dynasty. Since the modern Zhengzhou urbanized rapidly from a small town to a large city during the second half of twentieth century, however, surveys and excavations of this ancient site have been sporadic and unsystematic. Although Zhengzhou is a significant site for exploring the formation of early complex polities in ancient China, its formation process and urban planning remain unclear. Based on a sophisticated reexamination of fragmentary archaeological evidence, especially focusing on the analysis of ceramic typology and settlement patterns, Hou not only clearly elaborates Zhengzhou’s process of rise, development, and decline, but also insightfully provides a more plausible illustration for rethinking the formation mechanism, distinctive nature, and ruling strategy of early complex polities in ancient China.

In Chapter 1, Hou introduces the research background of his dissertation. First, he defines the spatial-temporal scope: the Zhengzhou Shang City and its surrounding area, which Hou calls “the vicinity of capital,” from Erlitou 二里頭 phase III to Baijiazhuang 白家莊 phase (ca. 1630-1250 BC). Hou then summarizes the previous research on Zhengzhou, including the studies of pottery seriation of its major archaeological culture, Erligang 二里崗, the discussions related to chronology, layout, and nature of this significant site, and debates on the developmental process of Zhengzhou Shang City. Moreover, Hou also briefly mentions the research of other important sites situated in the vicinity of capital, such as Xiaoshuangqiao 小雙橋, the site that replaced Zhengzhou Shang City as the new capital. Based on the methods of ceramic typology and settlement pattern analysis, in his dissertation Hou attempts to deal with several interrelated research questions, including the origin of the Erligang culture, the developmental trajectory of Zhengzhou Shang City, the diachronic change of settlement patterns in the vicinity of the capital, and the interrelationship between Zhengzhou Shang City and Xiaoshuangqiao site.

To properly reconstruct the developmental process of Zhengzhou Shang City, in Chapter 2, Hou starts to reexamine and analyze the artifact typology in the vicinity of objects found at capital in the layers preceding the emergence of this ancient city site to the layers contemporaneous with its decline. Hou divides the chronological sequence into four consecutive phases: (1) Erlitou phase III, (2) transitional phase (Erlitou phase IV / Nanguanwai 南關外 phase / lower Erligang phase I), (3) typical Erligang phase (lower Erligang phase II and upper Erligang phase I), and (4) Baijiazhuang phase (upper Erligang phase II). Based on the results of typological analyses of material remains, especially pottery, Hou concludes that, first of all, before the emergence of Zhengzhou Shang City, namely during Erlitou phase III, the local Erlitou culture was the major archaeological culture, but some traces of Huiwei 輝衛 type from the north also can be found in this region. However, in the transitional phase, besides the Erlitou culture, not only culture elements of the Zhanghe 漳河 type from the north and Yueshi 岳石 from the east but also a large number of “hybrid ceramics” appeared in this region, reflecting dramatic socio-political changes that occurred during the transitional phase. In the typical Erligang phase, the so called “Erligang style” which can be observed on typical pottery and bronze assemblages and some other special material remains, such as pottery vessels with animal masks, pottery turtles, stamped ornamentation pottery, and proto-porcelain from the southeast coastal region, were also unearthed from several large sites in the vicinity of the capital. During the Baijiazhuang phase, a new style with distinctive standardized features emerged; the material remains of various settlements of varying sizes and socio-political importance throughout the region also revealed a high homogeneity.

Based on this sophisticated analysis of pottery seriation of Zhengzhou Shang City and its surrounding area, in Chapter 3, Hou reconstructs the diachronic changes of this large city site through published yet fragmentary archaeological evidence. In the Erlitou Phase III, a huge settlement measuring around 0.6 km2 was located beneath the Zhengzhou Shang City; it thus dates to the time before the construction of the city. Early in the transitional phase, the palaces of Zhengzhou Shang City were built, the inner city following later in the phase; in other words, the residential area of the ruling elites was completed at this stage. In the early period of the typical Erligang phase, the outer city and many archaeological features, such as residential areas inhabited by commoners, pottery workshop, bronze workshop, bone workshop, sacrificial remains, and tombs located between inner and outer city walls, were constructed, rearranging the layout of the inner city. It is worth mentioning that large tombs with ritual bronze-vessel assemblages were discovered near the palace within the inner city, which implies that the occupants of these large tombs were probably members of the royal family. In the late period of the typical Erligang phase, the layout of the palace area was rearranged and one new bronze workshop, some tombs with ritual bronze-vessel assemblages, and sacrificial remains emerged.

In Chapter 4, Hou further discusses the developmental process of Zhengzhou Shang City, but in this chapter he focuses on the interrelationship between Zhengzhou Shang City and Xiaoshuangqiao site during the Baijiazhuang phase. At this stage, the decline of Zhengzhou Shang City and the rise of Xiaoshuangqiao site took place simultaneously. Nevertheless, this development does not simply reflect the capital’s move from Zhengzhou Shang City to Xiaoshuangqiao; Hou points out that in the Baijiazhuang phase Zhengzhou Shang City was still the “sacred homeland.” First of all, the manufacture of ritual bronze vessels in the bronze workshop and the discoveries of some tombs with ritual bronze-vessel assemblages imply that some elites still lived in Zhengzhou Shang City. In addition, three bronze hoards with many vast and solemn ritual bronze vessels and weapons are found near the outside of inner city walls. Hou believes that these hoards are sacrificial remains: the Shang Kings living at Xiaoshuangqiao still went to Zhengzhou Shang City to worship their ancestors. Furthermore, in spite of the decline of Zhengzhou Shang City, the discovery of many residential areas shows that many people still lived there. Finally, Zhengzhou Shang City provides the best model to construct a new capital, Xiaoshuangqiao, since it is a prime example for the appropriate selection of building locations for the capital and designs of urban planning.

After reconstructing the developmental process of Zhengzhou Shang City and exploring its relationship with Xiaoshuangqiao site, in Chapter 5, Hou analyzes the diachronic change of settlement patterns in the vicinity of Zhengzhou Shang City from Erlitou Phase III to Baijiazhuang Phase within 4 sections. In each section, Hou first introduces the features of representative sites and then discusses the distribution of these sites in the vicinity of Zhengzhou Shang City in different periods. In addition, he also provides a detailed list of archaeological sites in this region for each period, including name, location, type, size, and reference. The results of his research can be summarized as follows. During Erlitou phase III, the area around Zhengzhou is the eastern territory of the Erlitou State, and a two-tiered settlement hierarchy, including several first-tiered settlements, such as Wangjinglou 望京樓 and Dashigu 大師姑, and mas small villages, was distributed all throughout the region. During the transitional phase, the decline of the Erlitou site in the west and the rise of Zhengzhou Shang City in the east took place simultaneously; eventually, Zhengzhou Shang City became the only large settlement in not only this region but also the entirety of ancient China. In addition, two crucial regional centers, Wangjinglou and Dashigu, located on the outskirts of Zhengzhou Shang City, were rebuilt. It is clear that Zhengzhou Shang City became the new political center. During the typical Erligang phase, the royal family controlled the vicinity of Zhengzhou Shang City with a firm grip by the ruling strategy of a three-tiered settlement hierarchy; the number and dimension of settlements of various levels greatly increased due to the integration of human and natural resources in this region. In the Baijiazhuang phase, the political center was moved from Zhengzhou Shang City to Xiaoshuangqiao. Interestingly, the number of the second-ranked settlements increased, but the number of third-ranked settlements was reduced significantly in the vicinity of Zhengzhou Shang City because of the integration of human and natural resources in the new capital and the emergence of several settlements built by high-ranking members of the elite. Obviously, the diachronic change of settlement patterns in the vicinity of Zhengzhou Shang City clearly reflects the developmental process of this early complex polity.

In Chapter 6, based on the proceeding discussions on the developmental trajectory of Zhengzhou Shang City and the change of settlement patterns in its vicinity, Hou explores a crucial issue: the socio-political circumstances of early state formation in ancient China around the capital of Zhengzhou Shang City. To address this issue, Hou extends the spatial scale of his discussion to encompass the entire Central Plains, namely, the middle and lower Yellow River Basin. During Erlitou phase III, the most powerful complex polity was the Erlitou culture (by some also referred to as the Xia Dynasty) in western Henan, and some other important polities such as the Huiwei type and Zhanghe type sites in northern Henan and the Yueshi culture in Shandong 山東, were located in the north and east of the Erlitou culture. Hou asserts that the political situation reflects two major military alliances: the Erlitou-Huiwei league and the Zhanghe-Yueshi league, pitted against each other in relative peace. In the transitional phase, the socio-political circumstance of ancient China changed dramatically. First of all, the Zhanghe type expanded southward in the east of Henan; then the Zhanghe type moved westward in the Zhengzhou region in which it built Zhengzhou Shang City; moreover, the Zhanghe type moved westward again, entered into Louyang Basin, built Yanshi 偃師 Shang City, and eventually conquered Ethe rlitou site. In other words, this is the process of how Zhengzhou Shang City replaced the Erlitou site and became the political center of ancient China. During the typical Erligang phase, this new complex polity established a new political order with a four-tiered settlement hierarchy: (1) Zhengzhou Shang City as the new capital; (2) the area around this new capital, the auxiliary capital Yanshi Shang City, and some settlements directly controlled by the central government; (3) the regions which had been controlled by the Zhanghe type groups, the Erlitou culture, the Yueshi culture and the Huiwei type groups; (4) the southern and south-eastern regions of ancient China. Hou believes that this new complex polity can be seen as a “kingdom” with certain characteristics of an “empire.” During the Baijiazhuang phase, the decline of Zhengzhou Shang City and the rise of Xiaoshuangqiao site indicate the reorganization of this complex polity. To increase its prestige, the central government offered sacrifices to both heaven and ancestors in the old and in the new capital. Moreover, in the outskirts of the capital and some remote areas, the central government established many new settlements controlled by elite lineages. However, after this rapid expansion, Xiaoshuangqiao declined dramatically. This situation reflects the inappropriate ruling strategies of this ancient Chinese state.

In Chapter 7, Hou summarizes the results of his dissertation, including a detailed reexamination of the context and distribution of pottery seriation, the reconstruction of the developmental process of Zhengzhou Shang City and its relationship with Xiaoshuangqiao site, the diachronic change of settlement patterns in the vicinity of the capital, and the socio-political circumstance and distinctive nature of this early Chinese state with the capital of Zhengzhou Shang City. Hou also points out various relevant issues to be discussed further, such as the interrelationship of the cultural traditions between the vicinity of the capital and its surrounding regions during the Early Shang period, the necessity of more research to deepen the understanding of the urban planning and developmental process of Zhengzhou Shang City and the Xiaoshuangqiao site, research on settlement archaeology and palaeoenvironmental developments around Zhengzhou Shang City, and the discussion of formation and development of early complex polities in ancient China with various theoretical frameworks.

As one of the largest city sites of ancient China, Zhengzhou Shang City is the key to important insights into early Chinese complex polities. However, since the archaeological evidence related to Zhengzhou Shang City is too fragmentary, it is difficult to comprehend the developmental trajectory of this ancient city. Evidently, the reconstruction of processes of formation and development of Zhengzhou Shang City is the major contribution of this dissertation. Moreover, after the discoveries of sites of the Erligang Culture and Zhengzhou Shang City in the 1950s, there emerged an abundance of studies concentratin on this site as well as its material culture. The concise summary of previous studies in this dissertation provides a very clear guide through this maze of previous discussions. In addition, although the methodology of settlement archaeology was introduced into China in the 1980s, systematic survey project and research was seldom carried out. Hou’s dissertation is the first and foremost research to systematically analyze the settlement patterns in this area from the perspective of settlement archaeology. Beyond this, the dissertation also provides some crucial insights into formation mechanism, distinctive nature, and ruling strategies of Zhengzhou Shang City, one of the most representative capitals of early states in ancient China.

Hsiu-ping Lee 李修平
Cotsen Institute of Archaeology
University of California, Los Angeles
leehsiuping@ucla.edu

Primary Sources
Henan Sheng Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo ed. Zhengzhou Shangcheng: 1953-1985 nian kaogu fajue baogao 鄭州商城──1953-1985年考古發掘報告 (The Site of Shang Dynasty City in Zhengzhou: A Report on the 1953-1985 Excavations). Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe 文物出版社, 2001.
Henan Sheng Wenwu Yanjiusuo ed. Zhengzhou Shangcheng Kaogu Xinfaxian Yu Yanjiu 1985-1992 鄭州商城考古新發現與研究 1985-1992 (New Archaeological Discoveries and Researches on the Shang City Site in Zhengzhou 1985-1992). Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou Guji Chubanshe 中州古籍出版社, 1993.
Henan Sheng Wenhuaju Wenwu Gongzuodui ed. Zhengzhou Erligang 鄭州二里崗 (Erligang Site in Zhengzhou). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe 科學出版社, 1959.
Zhonnguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo ed. Yanshi Shangcheng (Di Yi Juan) 偃師商城 (第一卷) (Shang City Site in Yanshi Volume 1). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 2013.
Henan Sheng Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo ed. Zhengzhou Xiaoshuangqiao – 1990 ~ 2000 nian kaogu fajue baogao 鄭州小雙橋──1990~2000年考古發掘報告 (Xiaoshuangqiao Site in Zhengzhou: Excavations in 1990-2000). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 2012.

Dissertation Information
Peking University 北京大學. 2014. 235 pp. Primary Advisor: Sun Hua 孫華

Image: Typical Erligang Phase settlements in vicinity of Zhengzhou Shang City. Image by Author.

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