‘Plurality and Unity’ key to tracing origins of Chinese civilization

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2022-11-08

“Plurality and Unity” is an important theoretical innovation for Chinese archaeology to interpret the formation of Chinese civilization. It can clearly describe how a civilization-state formed in a vast geographical space.

Birth of concepts

In 1988, the Chinese anthropologist and sociologist Fei Xiaotong (1910–2005) published his paper titled “Plurality and Unity in the Configuration of the Chinese People,” proposing the concept of “Plurality and Unity” for the first time. Pluralistic because each ethnic group in China has its own history and culture; unified because together they make up the Zhonghua Minzu (the Chinese people as a whole), an entity formed by the inseparable internal connections and common interests of all ethnic groups.

In 1981, the Chinese archaeologist Su Binqi (1909–1997) and Yin Weizhang published a paper “On Regional Systems and Cultural Types of Archaeological Culture,” rejecting a traditional point of view that the Yellow River basin was the cradle of the Chinese people, where the Chinese civilization originated and radiated out to remote regions in the rest of China. They proposed that China’s prehistoric culture can be divided into six major types, each “developing in its own way and with its own characteristics,” thus laying the foundation for the multi-ethnic unified country.

In 1986, in his book The Archaeology of Ancient China, the Chinese archaeologist Kwang-chih Chang (1931–2001) proposed the “Chinese interaction sphere” model, acknowledging the pluralistic development of various regions [in China], which formed a cultural community through close communication, without the need for a central leadership. It is what Chang called “primitive China.”

“Plurality and Unity” has become a standard narrative of the formation process of Chinese civilization, and has been widely applied in academia: regions and their diverse cultural traditions in China are known as the “plurality,” while the cultural community formed by the interaction of various regions is the “unity.”

Formation of Chinese civilization

It is generally believed in academia that the pluralistic, yet united, nature of Chinese civilization stems from its complex geographical environment. During the Paleolithic Age, there were obvious differences in stone tools between the north and south of China. The north was characterized by flake stone tools or small stone tools, while the south had a tradition of using gravel stone tools. The differences between the north and the south continued to exist even after the emergence of modern humans in China around 40,000 years BP.

Generally speaking, the development of Chinese civilization should start from the transitional stage between the Neolithic and Paleolithic ages more than 10,000 years ago. During this period, China saw the divergence of agricultural practices in which rice was generally grown in the south and maize in the north. From then, to about 7,000 years ago, multicultural traditions gradually formed in various places. There were several cultural spheres typified according to the local mainstream cookware, including the Yangtze River basin where the cauldron was the main cookware, the Huaihe River basin and the Loess Plateau where the tripod cooking vessel was most popular, and the north and south regions of Yan Mountains with the cylinder pot as the most important local cooking vessel.

Between 7,000–6,000 years BP, the trend of several regional systems and cultural types advancing side by side became clearer. The West Liao River basin in northeast China was dominated by the Zhaobaogou Culture, the Loess Plateau in north-central China by the “Banpo phase” of the Yangshao Culture, from eastern Henan to the northern Hebei provinces by the Phase I of the Hougang Culture, the Haidai area between the East China Sea and Mount Tai in eastern China by the Beixin Culture, the middle reaches of the Yangtze River by the Tangjiagang Culture, the Ningshao area in southeast China by the Hemudu Culture, and the surrounding area of Lake Tai in south China by the Majiabang Culture. Different regions had different styles of pottery. In terms of settlement layout, the West Liao River basin continued the tradition of arranging houses in rows, the Banpo houses were grouped around the central square, and the Hemudu people lived in stilt houses. In terms of art and belief, the design of Banpo painted pottery evolved from a fish pattern to a combination of fish and birds, while the Hemudu Culture featured the flourishing art of engraving. At that time, although there were exchanges between different places and cultures, the unifying process had not yet begun.

The period between 6,000–5,000 years BP was a golden age for the formation of Chinese civilization. Leap-forward social development generally occurred in various places, and many guguo [proto-state, which refers to the state-like regime that emerged around 5,000 years BP] had been formed. Both the Hongshan Culture in the West Liao River basin and the Lingjiatan site culture in Anhui Province used a large number of jade artifacts with special connotations, revealing a strong sense of religion. Luxurious burial objects were unearthed from high-ranking society members’ tombs from the Dawenkou Culture in the Haidai area, most of which were exquisite ceramics that represented prestige, status, and wealth. When the Yangshao Culture developed into the Miaodigou period [a transitional phase of the preceding Yangshao Culture (around 5000–3000 BCE) and the later Longshan Culture (around 2500–2000 BCE)], super-large tombs, large settlements, and public buildings appeared, but there were very few burial objects.

What is particularly striking is that the development of various regions was accompanied by increasingly close exchanges and communication. In order to acquire rare objects and knowledge from distant places, the newly emerging upper classes strived to carry out long-distance communication and formed a long-distance communication network connecting major cultural regions. The main contents of the communication were primitive cosmology, astronomical calendars, technology of making premium items, expressions of power, funeral and sacrificial rituals, and other advanced cultural essence at that time. Such exchanges integrated all regions into a community sharing the essence of cultures, to create the “primitive China” defined by Kwang-chih Chang. The “Plurality and Unity” of Chinese civilization had been formed.

Cultural leaders

Around 5,000 years ago, the Liangzhu Culture around Lake Tai flourished and became the first splendid result of cultural fusion in “primitive China.” The fact that Liangzhu Culture had completed the construction of the first early state of Chinese civilization was proved by the archaeological discoveries at Liangzhu site, including the Liangzhu Ancient City with an area of nearly 3 million square meters, the artificial terrace with an area of 300,000 square meters at the Mojiaoshan relic site, the Fanshan Royal Cemetery, the jade ware reflecting the systematic religious beliefs, the remains of large rice fields, and the large-scale water conservancy facilities. At the same time, various regions continued to develop in different ways. The Dawenkou Culture in the Haidai area continued the development path that focused on power and etiquette. Large-scale migration and social integration occurred on the Loess Plateau. The Yangshao people went westward and deep into the Hexi Corridor, opening a channel to the heartland of Eurasia.

Around 4,300 years ago, the Liangzhu Culture declined, but it had a profound impact on the development of the Longshan Culture in the following 500 years. At the Taosi site [2300–1900 BCE; belonging to the late phase of the Longshan Culture in southern Shanxi Province], archaeologists found large-scale city ruins including the palace city, an astronomical observatory, and high-ranked tombs, which signal the rise of early states in this region. Strikingly, the Taosi site reflects an influx of elements with different cultural backgrounds from the rest of China. The excavated ceramics absorbed cultural elements of the Longshan era from present-day Shandong, Henan provinces, the Jianghan area at the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, and northwest China. Ritual objects from different regions of China were deliberately buried with the Taosi rulers. It shows that the rulers of Taosi intentionally displayed their central position in the country.

Around 3,800 years ago, the first dynasty of the Chinese civilization was built, represented by the Erlitou site in the Yellow River valley. At the Erlitou site, archaeologists have found stamped hard pottery, duck-shaped pots, and sea shells from the south, bronze axes from the northwest, drinking vessels from the east, and jade ware from the Jianghan area. Motivated by the political ideal of integrating all the regions within China, the Erlitou rulers obtained resources and promoted etiquette systems through political, economic, and military approaches. The pluralistic yet united development of the Chinese civilization entered a new stage guided by a core leadership.


Li Xinwei is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS.

Editor:Yu Hui

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