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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2014

3 - Erlitou and Erligang: early state expansion

Summary

What the “multi-region” model of Neolithic cultural development cannot explain is how state-level society arose first not from other regional traditions but from the heartland of the Yangshao culture and its successors the Longshan cultures in Henan and Shanxi. However, the line of development in this large region leading to the rise of state was by no means very straight. The power of the Taosi “chiefdom” waned after a few hundred years of prominence and whoever remained to live in the Taosi community seem to have come under domination by another nearby political center. Archaeologists have much to do to understand this process of competition among the pre-state polities and the resultant regional integration in the middle reaches of the Yellow River and other regions in the contemporary time-frame. However, at the beginning of the second millennium BC, one society had risen to a level of power that was far above the limit of other “chiefdom”-level societies in western Henan and southern Shanxi. The Erlitou state or culture occupied a critical position in the formation of state and civilization in North China. It opened a new era that was marked by royal authority, urban civilization, larger political organization, and a strong coercive military presence.

The “State” and “State Formation”

Unlike the term “chiefdom” which is essentially an anthropological construct, the term “state” has a long history in the Western intellectual tradition, and is the one modern term to which different disciplines attach different meanings. In political science which conceives the meaning of “state” in legal–political terms, the “state” is defined as the embodiment of “sovereignty,” hence there is the notion of the modern “Nation State” which identifies the present unit of the “nation” as the bearer of such sovereignty. For political economists, the “state” is an institution equipped with coercive powers, standing in opposition to the individual citizens, and is supposedly the representation of public and collective interest versus individual or private interest. But in a sociological view, which is also the view of most social historians, the “state” is a human organization with multiple qualifications including territory, unified political order, law and coercive power to enforce it, and sovereignty. Finally, in an anthropological sense, the “state” is a type of society or a “stage” in social development, being different from and more massive and complex than the “chiefdom” society, therefore, validating the concept of “state-level society.”

Selected Reading
Liu, Li, and Xingcan, Chen, State Formation in Early China (London: Duckworth, 2003).
Liu, Li, “Academic Freedom, Political Correctness, and Early Civilisation in Chinese Archaeology: The Debate on Xia–Erlitou Relations,Antiquity 83 (2009), 831–843.
Chang, K. C., The Archaeology of Ancient China, 4th edn. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).
Chang, K. C., Shang Civilization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).
Thorp, Robert, China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
Nienhauser, William H.. (ed.), The Grand Scribe’s Records, vol. 1, The Basic Annals of Pre-Han China (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
Thorp, R., China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), pp. 21–61
Liu, Li and Xingean, Chen, State Formation in Early China (London: Duckworth, 2003), pp. 57–84
Qian, Sima, The Grand Scribe’s Records, vol. 1, The Basic Annals of Pre-Han China, edited by Nienhauser, William H.. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 1–40
Birrell, Anne M., Chinese Mythology: An Introduction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), pp. 77–79
Loewe, Michael (ed.), Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1993)
Chang, K. C., The Archaeology of Ancient China, 4th edn. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 319
Liu, Li, “Academic Freedom, Political Correctness, and Early Civilisation in Chinese Archaeology: The Debate on Xia–Erlitou Relations,Antiquity 83 (2009), 831–843
Pankenier, David W., “Astronomical Dates in Shang and Western Zhou,Early China 7 (1981–2), 3–37
Keightley, David N., “The Shang: China’s First Historical Dynasty,” in Loewe, Michael and Shaughnessy, Edward L. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 248
Chang, K. C., Shang Civilization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 263–283
Takashima, Ken-ichi, “Literacy to the South and the East of Anyang in Shang China: Zhengzhou and Daxinzhuang,” in Feng, Li and Branner, David (eds.), Writing and Literacy in Early China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), pp. 141–172
Pankenier, David W., “A Brief History of Beiji (Northern Culmen): With an Excursion on the Origins of the Character Di,Journal of American Oriental Society 124.2 (2004), 211–236