Social Transformation in Songshan 2500-1600 BCE

A review of Social Transformation from the Longshan Period to the Erlitou Period: Songshan and Beyond 從龍山到二里頭──以嵩山南北為中心, by Li Zhang 張莉.

For many anthropologists and archaeologists, the origin of early states and civilizations is one of the most intriguing topics in both local and global perspectives. In the field of Chinese archaeology, many archaeologists focus on the transition from the late Neolithic Period to the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2,500-1,600 BC), arguing that it was during this period that the state formation process in China began. Being an archaeologist, Li Zhang explores this key issue through an analysis of the archaeological remains of the Songshan 嵩山 area, the core region of ancient China, focusing on the Longshan 龍山 Period (late Neolithic Period) to the Erlitou 二里頭 Period (Early Bronze Age). In her very ambitious dissertation, based on new archaeological evidence, Li Zhang not only develops a new chronological framework for this significant transitional period in the Songshan area, but also addresses the issue of the origin of civilization and early states in ancient China in new ways.

Li Zhang’s dissertation consists of 6 chapters, including an introductory chapter (Chapter 1) and a concluding chapter (Chapter 6). In Chapter 1, the author clearly defines the spatial-temporal scales of her research, i.e., the surrounding plain of Songshan Mountain in ca. 1,800 BC. The author then briefly summarizes the debate on the chronological sequence in this region from the Late Neolithic Period to the Early Bronze Age. Based on the analysis of local pottery seriation, most scholars support the chronological sequence of Longshan Period – Xinzhai 新砦 Phase – Erlitou Period, which shows a continuous developmental process of local archaeological cultures. However, some scholars, including Li Zhang, do not agree with this hypothesis; they suggest that the “Xinzhai Phase” does not exist and point out that a dramatic social transformation occurred between the Longshan Period and the Erlitou Period. The author endeavors to demonstrate this thesis in her dissertation based on new archaeological evidence. Finally, Li Zhang explains her research methods and approaches, which include artifact typology and regional analysis.

In Chapter 2, based on both previous data and new archaeological evidence, Li Zhang reexamines the developmental trajectory of local pottery production in Songshan area, including the three major sites of Huadizui 花地嘴, Xinzhai, and Erlitou. Based on the results of her typological analysis of pottery from these three sites, the author suggests that the archaeological remains of Huadizui, the so-called “Xinzhai Phase,” and Erlitou Phase 1 are contemporaneous, but that each of them has its own characteristics. In other words, the “Xinzhai Phase” does not exist, and the chronological model in the Songshan area should be a sequence of Late Longshan Period – Erlitou Phase 1. Secondly, the author argues, when comparing the archaeological remains of these three sites during Erlitou Phase 1 with the respective local material culture assemblages from the earlier stage (Longshan Period) and the later stage (Erlitou Phase 2), it becomes clear that there is no consecutive development from local Longshan to Erlitou Phase 1; rather, the archaeological remains of Erlitou Phase 2 clearly develop directly from Erlitou Phase 1 in all three sub-areas. Based on the discussion above, Li Zhang proposes the concept of the “Formative Phase of the Erlitou Culture” (pp. 88-91), which occurs between Longshan and Erlitou Phase 2, revealing the complexity of prehistoric cultural developments in the Songshan area.

In Chapter 3, Li Zhang discusses the developmental trajectory of various archaeological cultures located outside the core region of ancient China during the same period, i.e., from the Longshan to Erlitou Periods. These include the cultures in the eastern part of the Wei 渭 River Basin in the west, the western and eastern foothills of the Taihang 太行 Mountains in the north, and the Haidai 海岱 Region in the east. Although these four areas all have their own archaeological cultures going through a separate range of developments, Li Zhang’s research shows that the local archaeological facies is eventually replaced by a typical Erlitou assemblage roughly at the same time when the Longshan-type material in the Songshan area is replaced by Erlitou-type assemblages. This sudden transformation is thus a wide-ranging phenomenon throughout the Central Plains of ancient China and its adjacent regions during the beginning of the second millennium BC.

Based on her evaluation of the relationship between the Longshan and Erlitou Periods in Chapters 2 and 3, the author emphasizes that the Erlitou Period has a character very different from that of earlier periods in ancient China. In order to illustrate the crucial social transformation that took place on the Central Plains, Li Zhang analyzes the various elements constituting the Erlitou Culture and traces their origins through archaeological evidence, especially concentrating on ritual pottery, domestic pottery, and jade objects. The author shows that some cultural elements come from the local Longshan tradition and others are outside influences, mingling together to form something completely new that then spreads like wildfire from the Songshan area throughout the neighboring regions. As Li Zhang points out, this is the very first time in Chinese prehistory that a single archaeological culture disperses throughout such a huge geographic expanse.

To elucidate this dramatic social transformation mentioned above, in addition to the typological analysis of archaeological remains, in Chapter 5 Li Zhang also discusses the process of material culture development, the change of settlement pattern, burial custom, and handcraft, and the geographic spread from the Songshan area to the neighboring areas. She argues that these vital clues imply that during the Erlitou Period a single political center with great power emerged in the Luoyang Basin, the northern part of the Songshan area.

In Chapter 6, the author discusses potential reasons for why this crucial social transformation happened in the Songshan area during the Erlitou Period. Li Zhang proposes a new concept of “Erlitou social reconfiguration” for answering this question: according to her typological analysis of the archaeological evidence, the Erlitou Culture remains contain numerous exotic components, which indicates that many foreign people coming from a diverse range of other regions relocated to the Songshan area. These new immigrants not only influenced the development of a new material culture but also strongly affected the nature of the political system, social structure, ideology, religion, and customs. Finally, the author discusses possible causes of this “Erlitou social reconfiguration” (pp. 180-183). In the past, scholars have usually attempted to explain the rise of the Erlitou Culture as the effect of a single cause, but Li Zhang holds that the emergence of the Erlitou Culture must have had multiple causes, including climate change, flood disasters, and inter- and intra-group conflict.

Through her rigorous study of the archaeological remains unearthed in the Songshan area and its neighboring regions, Li Zhang establishes a new chronological framework for the core area of ancient China ranging from the Longshan to Erlitou Periods. To interpret the dramatic social transformations evident from the archaeological remains, the author suggests some useful new concepts, such as the “Formative Phase of Erlitou Culture” and the “Erlitou social reconfiguration,” which can help us to rethink the developmental trajectory of early states and civilization in ancient China. Although the enigma this represents will require more solid evidence to be thoroughly understood, Li Zhang provides us a new approach to illuminate the long road ahead.

Hsiu-ping Lee 李修平
Cotsen Institute of Archaeology
University of California, Los Angeles

Primary Sources

Zhonnguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo ed. Yanshi Erlitou – 1959 nian ~ 1978 nian kaogu fajue baogao 偃師二里頭──1959年~1978年考古發掘報告 (The Erlitou Site in Yanshi: Excavations in 1959-1978). Beijing: Zhongguo Dabaike Quanshu Chubanshe中國大百科全書出版社, 1999.
Beijing Daxue Zhendan Gudai Wenming Yanjiu Zhongxin北京大學震旦古代文明研究中心, and Zhengzhoushi Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiuyuan 鄭州市文物考古研究院 eds. Xinmi Xinzhai – 1999~2000 nian tianye kaogu fajue baogao 新密新砦──1999~2000年田野考古發掘報告 (Xinzhai Site in Xinmi: Report on Archaeological Excavations in 1999 and 2000). Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe 文物出版社, 2008.
Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 中國社會科學院考古研究所, Zhongguo Lishi Bowuguan 中國歷史博物館, and Shanxisheng Kaogu Yanjiusuo 山西省考古研究所 eds. Xiaxian Dongxiafeng 夏縣東下馮 (The Donxiafeng Site in Xiaxian County). Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe, 1988.
Zhongguo Lishi Bowuguan Kaogubu 中國歷史博物館考古部, Shanxisheng Kaogu Yanjiusuo 山西省考古研究所, and Yuanquxian Bowuguan 垣曲縣博物館 eds. Yuanqu Shangcheng (yi) 1985~1986 niandu kancha baogao 垣曲商城(一)1985~1986年度勘察報告 (The Shang Period Walled Site at Yuanqu, Volume 1, Report of the Survey, 1985-1986). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe 科學出版社, 1996.

Dissertation Information

Peking University 北京大學. 2012. 183 pp. Dissertation originally written in Chinese. Primary Advisor: Xu Liu 劉緒.


Image: Erlitou-period handicraft workshop excavation site, Henan Province (Xinhua News Agency, 9 August 2006).

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