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New model examines China’s origins

Author  :  CHAO FULIN, WANG KUNPENG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-01-18

The Origin of Ancient China and the Formation of Royal Power

Author: Wang Zhenzhong

Publisher: China Social Sciences Press

For thousands of years, the origins of states and the formation of power have been questions that occupied philosophers. With the rise of modern scientific archaeology and anthropology, scholars began to use archaeological and ethnological materials to explain ancient societies, and formed a series of explanatory models. However, although China is one of the six areas with the earliest emergence of a country in the world, it failed to draw Western scholars’ attention for a variety of reasons. Thus, Chinese cases were absent in explaining the complexity of ancient societies. Guo Moruo’s Studies on Ancient Chinese Society published in the late 1920s and Hou Wailu’s Historical Essays on Chinese Classic Society published in the early 1940s can be regarded as representative works in which Chinese scholars strived to fill in the blanks in the research field. Wang Zhenzhong’s The Origin of Ancient China and the Formation of Royal Power is a new academic achievement in the further development of the field. Based on reviews of previous works, Wang proposes a new set of explanatory models for the evolution of ancient Chinese society and creates his own academic system.

The book argues that the ancient Chinese states formed and evolved in the following way: from roughly equal farming settlements to preliminary unequal and socially differentiated central settlements, then to countries with a capital city, following a composite state and finally to a centralized empire. The key to this mode of interpretation is the concept of “central settlement” and the theory of the “compound state structure.” “Central settlement” refers to a settlement with a relatively centralized base of power among related settlements in the late Neolithic age. The settlement was large, with handicraft production, aristocracy and religious buildings, and had jurisdiction over civil or divine issues in the surrounding settlements. The central settlement stage represents the transition from an equal society to a class society and a key step in the formation of ancient China. People who initially were of equal social status began to differ in identity because of differences in kinship as well as political and economic status. This stage also witnessed the concentration of power and the beginning of the formation of royal power.

The book also fully documented the long-standing clan factor in the evolution of ancient Chinese society. Analysis of the settlement cemeteries in Dawenkou and Lingjiatan is mainly illustrated from the perspective of patriarchal family structures, assuming that various social inequalities and stratification emerged with the rise of the patriarchal family. And the class differentiation and confrontation based on patriarchal clan structures became increasingly common in the Longshan period and even during the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. Wang uses the concept of “compound state structure” to explain the forms of the three dynasties. The core of these dynasties is the royal family. Other noble families coexisted with the royal family and constitute the core of the country’s military and political power.

Editor: Yu Hui

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