History of East Asia: Part 1

The origins of farming in East Asia

Before 8000 BCE, East Asia, like most of the rest of the world, was home to hunter-gatherer peoples. Throughout most of this vast region, small, mobile bands of hunter-gatherers roamed the land.

On the coast, however, comparatively large and stable communities had grown up, nourished by the rich and self-replenishing supplies of sea food available to them. These communities dotted the coastline in a thin chain stretching all the way from Vietnam in the south to Korea in the north, and along the western shores of the Japanese archipelago. They had a remarkably high level of material culture, making fine ceramics (the Jomon people of Japan produced the earliest pottery in the world, dating from c.10500 BCE), polished stone tools and other materials. There is strong evidence for advanced boat-building techniques, and the fact that sea turtles, crocodiles, whales and sharks all featured in their diet suggests that the people were making deep water fishing trips.

Sometime between 8000 and 6000 BCE, farming began in East Asia, in two separate areas. The plateau and central plain of the Yellow River (Huang He) gave rise to an agriculture based on millet, whilst to the south, in the central Yangtze river valley, wet-rice farming emerged. Of the two, the wet-rice agriculture of the Yangtze valley was probably the first to develop.

Wet-rice farming in the Yangtze valley

Wild rice is a marsh plant, so it is hardly surprising that the earliest wet-rice agriculture began in wetland environments of the central Yangtze river basin, on the margins of lakes and rivers.

In the areas where it grew, wild rice had always been a part of the hunter-gatherer diet. The Yangtze valley is on the northern edge of wild rice habitats, and the presence of wild rice there had fluctuated with climatic changes. It is possible that, as the climate cooled after c. 7000 BCE, techniques for cultivating rice were developed so that as the wild rice receded south, a domesticated variety remained, though retaining wild features such as small grains.

By c. 6500 BCE, rice cultivation had become fully established in the central Yangtze valley, although as only one element in a varied diet. Edible water plants such as lotuses and water caltrop were also prominent, and hunting and foraging were still important sources of food. This mix of wetland plant cultivation and hunter-gathering was well suited to this low-lying region of lakes and marshes, and enabled these early farmers to expand outwards into new lands.

Along with stone tools, which included the traditional flaked pebble choppers and axes which harked back to earlier hunter-gatherer times, these people made wooden spades specially to cultivate the soil, and also possessed pottery (in which rice husks were added to improve its firing qualities) and weaving technologies. They lived in permanent villages surrounded by defensive ditches, and their houses were raised on piles or posts above flood levels.

Intensification of rice cultivation

The early farmers soon benefited from the nutritious qualities of rice, and after 6000 BCE they relied more and more upon this plant. The mature domesticated strain was developed, soon dividing into its two main varieties, Indica and Japonica. By c. 4500 BCE, the Daxi culture people in the central Yangze valley lived in large villages containing rectangular, multi-roomed houses constructed of clay, bamboo and reed. They were located in swampy terrain suited to the establishment of rice fields, and the use of the plow shows a further intensification of rice cultivation. The Daxi people also raised cattle, sheep and pigs, and supplemented their diet with hunting and fishing.

Wet-rice agriculture spread out from the core lake-lands of the central Yangtze valley and down towards the sea. It also spread upriver, into the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze valley.

The Yellow River region

Several hundred miles north of the Yangtze river, the Yellow River region is much drier and cooler, and unsuitable for rice cultivation. Here, millet became the major crop.

After rising in Tibet and crossing regions of mountain and grassland, the Yellow River cuts through a plateau covered by deep loess soil. Loess is a fine dust which has been blown in from the central Asian steppes over thousands of years, and is some of the most fertile earth on the planet.

The river carries vast quantities of loess as it flows eastward into the huge North China plain and on to the sea. The soil in the water builds up in places, making the river prone to frequent flooding. This has caused immense destruction during China’s long history, but it has also deposited the rich loess over the flood plain.

By c. 6000 BCE, farming villages had appeared in the Yellow River region, practicing a mixed economy in which millet cultivation and stock-raising were combined with hunting, gathering and fishing to provide a stable subsistence base. The villages contained sunken houses with walls made from wood and clay, and roofs made of thatch; the inhabitants of these villages would have numbered in the low hundreds.

Later, two major Neolithic cultures developed, the Yangshao culture (c. 5200-3000 BCE), on the loess plateau, and the Dawenkou culture (c. 4300-2400 BCE, on the North China plain. As time went by, both cultures saw increasing population densities and social stratification. Surrounding ditches and wooden palisades showed the need for defense.

One interesting development that appears in the Yellow River region around 4000 BCE is pottery inscribed with symbols which look very much like primitive characters. These were probably marks of ownership, or something simple like that, but it represents strong evidence that what later became the Chinese writing system had its roots in this early period.

South-east China – and beyond

The expansion of rice farmers into the sub-tropical zone in south China was taking place by c. 3500 BCE.

Hundreds of miles to the south of the Yangtze valley, wet-rice farming reached the south coast of China, around the mouth of the Pearl River (near present-day Macao and Hong Kong), sometime after 3000 BCE.  For millennia, this region had been occupied by hunter-gatherers and fisher groups. As elsewhere, the rich marine environment had enabled them to form impressively large communities. The intrusion of farmers into the area in the 3rd millennium BCE resulted in the emergence of a new hybrid culture.

From the coast of southern China, farming spread to Taiwan. Deep-water transport technologies had been developed by coastal populations by c. 3000 BCE at the latest. Similarities in material culture show that groups had crossed from the mainland to Taiwan by c. 2500 BCE. Such groups were probably ancestral to the Austronesian-speaking peoples who would go on to colonize much of South East Asia, the far-flung islands of the Pacific and as far west as Madagascar.

South-west China – and beyond

Rice farmers had reached the area of the modern-day province of Yunnan, in south-west China, in c. 2500 BCE, dotting the river banks with their villages.

Some of the greatest rivers of Asia flow through Yunnan, from sources high in Tibet or in Yunnan itself. On a map of East and South-East Asia, these rivers resemble the spokes of a wheel, with Yunnan as the hub. The Yangtze and Pearl rivers head east towards the coast of China; the Red River heads south east into Vietnam; the Mekong heads south towards Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam; and the Salween and Irrawaddy rivers flow south and west through Burma and into the Indian Ocean. It is easy to see how Yunnan functioned as the hub for the movement of peoples and cultures from southern China into South East Asia.

The region has a densely wooded, mountainous landscape, and journeys are most easily undertaken by boat, even today. It was by boat that the rice-farming settlers had first arrived in the region from lower down the Yangtze, and it was by boat that their descendants carried their rice-farming culture down into the lands to the south. There they would become the ancestors of the Burmans, Mon, Khmer, Viet and many other groups in South East Asia.

Korea and Japan

Farming came to the Korean peninsula in c. 4500 BCE, from northern China, with the cultivation of millet. Wet-rice cultivation probably reached the peninsula from China early in the 2nd millennium BCE, but then took centuries of adaptation to adapt to the northern climate. After 1000 BCE, however, wet-rice became established as the staple crop, at least in southern Korea.

In Japan, meanwhile, the very successful Jomon hunter-gatherer-fisher culture continued to flourish, effectively keeping farming at bay. The large coastal settlements showed many similarities with farming communities elsewhere – the earliest pottery anywhere in the world comes from Japan, dated to as early as 10500 BCE. After c. 1000 BCE there is evidence that the Jomon people were familiar with rice cultivation, and had also begun to grow some local wild plants, such as yams and taro. However, farming did not become a major part of the economy until after 500 BCE.

Towards civilization

The growth of towns in the Yangtze region

In the central Yangtze valley, early walled and moated towns were appearing by c. 4000 BCE, the larger towns housing populations numbering hundreds, if not thousands. They consisted of stoutly constructed wooden longhouses with internal subdivisions for individual rooms. By c. 2500 BCE signs of social stratification were appearing in the varying sizes of the houses: many were simple one-room dwellings, while others were multi-roomed buildings, complete with corridors. Some graves contained many luxury objects – jade jewelry, fine pottery vessels, lacquerware and silk garments – as well as human sacrificial victims, showing that they belonged to powerful, high status individuals, probably chiefs.

The growth of towns in the Yellow river region

In the Yellow River region the Yangshao culture evolved into the Longshan culture around 3000 BCE. Technological advances around this time included the introduction of the potter’s wheel and the production of high quality jade ornaments. By c. 2500 BCE, professional craft specialists were producing fine jades and ceramic vessels. This technological advance accompanied increasing population densities and more marked differences in social ranking, with an elite ruling class emerging. Pottery fragments have been recovered which are inscribed with composite ideographs, which would become the basis of the highly sophisticated Chinese writing system.

Influences from the west

Metallurgy reached China sometime around 2500 BCE, almost certainly from the west. It first appears in East Asia in the central Asian steppes, where semi-nomadic peoples, with a culture clearly linked to those in the Caspian and Black Sea regions, lived. Amongst these peoples, a pastoral economy based on the rearing of sheep and cattle predominated.

These people were, unlike in later times, Indo-European speakers, who had been the first people to domesticate the horse. Horse transport offered the potential for quick, long-distance movement across the steppes, and this factor was probably key to the spread of new technologies from west to east.

These semi-nomadic peoples had brought copper metallurgy to the eastern steppes as early as 3000 BCE, and cultures capable of manufacturing forged copper knives and bangles had emerged in present-day north-west China by c. 2500 BCE.

The steppes of central Asia reach deep into northern China, and cultures here, whilst not as advanced as those in the Yellow River region, seem to have played a crucial role in the transference of western technologies to the rest of China. Sizable walled sites covering more than 10 hectares (25 acres) appeared in north China, with smaller defended sites clustered nearby, indicating that political and/or religious authority was spread out over a sizable area.  Bronze objects are present which very probably came from the west, as they share characteristics with bronzes from central Asia. As in the Longshan, the drilling and heating of animal bones for divination was widespread.

Several clay female figures, as well as jade representations of dragons and birds, recovered from burial mounds made of stone, are in styles similar to later Shang and Zhou dynasty figures. This may suggest that the later dynastic states of China were formed when these northern groups intruded southwards into the Yellow River region.

The emergence of urban civilization

From the 4th millennium BCE onwards, there is increasing evidence of contact between the various cultures within China. The painted pottery of the north-west, the distinctive black-burnished pottery of the east, and the jade of the south-east, were all items of long-distance exchange between the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys, and far into the peripheral regions. The jade objects and marine shells found in northern China had an origin a thousand miles and more away in southern China.

The Yellow river region: the Shang dynasty

The Longshan culture of the Yellow river region, which as we have seen evolved from earlier Neolithic cultures, grew in complexity and sophistication until, step by step, an urban, literate, Bronze Age civilization emerged. The earliest-known cities of East Asia made their appearance around 1800 BCE, and China finally came into the full light of history with the Shang dynasty. Cultural advance continued: Chinese craft workers were soon making some of the most beautiful bronze vessels ever produced.

The Shang kingdom has a special place in Chinese historiography as being ancestral to all the dynasties which came after, right up to the 20th century. However, it is clear that it originally formed only one state amongst many in the Yellow River region of northern China, albeit the wealthiest and most powerful.

The Yangtze regions

The Shang kingdom stood at the center of a trade network spanning the whole of East Asia. Trade routes between the Yellow River and Yangtze regions were particularly strong. The Yangtze valley produced a level of civilization rivaling that of the Shang, and large, wealthy urban centers emerged, displaying a distinctive southern bronze-working tradition.

Sanxingdui, in particular, was a large walled city in Sichuan, reaching its height during the late Shang period and rivaling Anyang (the Shang capital at the time) in splendor. It was about 450 hectares (1112 acres) in size, with an area outside the walls covering at least 15 sq km (6 miles). As in the Shang cities further north, these suburbs incorporated specialist workshops for the manufacture of bronzes, lacquerware, ceramics and jade, together with residential areas for the craftsmen and others. The walls, which date to c. 1400 BCE, had a width of 47 m (154 ft) at their widest.

Sanxingdui bronzes were of a size and form unparalleled in China. The bronzes were of a striking design, their quality of a very high level. They were undoubtedly the products of a wealthy and sophisticated society, although no evidence of writing has yet come to light.

Down the Yangze, other wealthy cities dating to the late Shang period, but outside the Shang area of control, displayed a distinctive southern bronze tradition, including, for example, the casting of tigers onto the handles of bronze vessels. The splendid royal tombs at Xin’gan indicate the existence of a powerful and sophisticated kingdom in this part of the Yangze valley, rivaling the Shang state further north yet entirely ignored by traditional Chinese historians.

Towards a unified China

Cultural progress was not impeded by political upheavals, as when, in the Yellow River region, the Shang dynasty was violently replaced by the Zhou.

The Zhou period was one of marked advance in Chinese society. In the first centuries of the Zhou dynasty the whole of the Yellow River region was brought firmly under the rule of a single kingdom (albeit one organized along quite loose, semi-feudal lines). From the 8th century BCE onwards, through war and diplomacy, more and more of the Yangtze river valley was also brought within the Zhou political system – even though (or perhaps because) the Zhou kings progressively lost power to regional lords. Iron technology had become established by 600 BCE, leading to an increase in agricultural productivity. The population grew, towns and cities increased in both size and number, government became more sophisticated and society more complex.

Korea and Japan

Bronze technology reached the Korean peninsula from northern China in c. 1000 BCE, along with other cultural traits such as the building of dolmens for the burial of chiefs.

Links between Korea and Japan grew stronger after 1000 BCE, but farming did not become a major part of the Japanese economy until the mid-1st millennium BCE. At that time there seems to have been a migration of people from Korea to Japan. The migrants took with them their culture, based on wet-rice cultivation, and their knowledge of bronze working.

The Steppes

In about 1000 BCE a major development took place on the steppes, with the breeding of horses large enough to bear humans on their backs. This enabled the nomadic peoples to herd their animals, particularly of course their horses, much more effectively than before. It may be that this enabled them to exploit the eastern steppes, which have a harsher environment than the western steppes, better.

Horseback riding also gave the nomads a significant advantage in war, even over chariot-warriors.

From this time onwards the Indo-European speaking peoples gradually began to lose ground on the steppes to Mongoloid peoples. These would become the ancestors of the Huns and the Mongols, who in later times would have a major impact on the histories of settled peoples across Eurasia.