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Historical Periods of Erlitou

Erlitou Culture

Erlitou culture (first half second millennium B.C.) was the first to introduce industrial casting of bronze vessels, a craft that was not evidently imported from the west. We have not much traces left of the palaces and the burial sites of the ruling class of Erlitou. The findings of the tombs like jade, turquoise and cowry shells give evidence of a widespread trade system. Pounding earth for the buildings and tombs and casting the bronze vessels required sophisticated labor organization and a social stratification.

Erligang Culture

The outstanding culture nearby, a little bit younger than Erlitou, is the Erligang culture (1500 to 1300 B.C.) more to the east. Unfortunately the greatest part of the city wall lies just beneath the modern city of Zhengzhou. The findings at Zhengzhou themselves can not give the impression of a rich culture.

Other Cultural Centers

Other places that are connected to the Erligang culture like Panlongcheng/Hubei show how widespread culture and power from Erligang was. Panlongcheng must have been something like a fortified colony to assure the ore transport to the "capital" at Erligang. Findings of bronze vessels and burial customs are identical to the findings in the north. But much more to the south, at Xin'gan/Jiangxi we find the traces of the Wucheng Culture, whose relicts are in style partially identical to the northern relicts but on the other hand show clear evidence of a local genuine style in vessel types as well as in decoration. The rulers of the Yangtse valley thus can not have been simple fief holders of the northern rulers. Findings in Anhui, Hebei and Shaanxi from the end of the Erligang period are witnesses of a diversification in styles and types and thus of the multi-centered character of the Shang period. The diversity of local bronze casting industries can be pointed out very clearly by the bronze music utensils of the Middle Yangtse valley which were not used by the northern regions, at least not in the huge size of the items found in Hunan. One type of music instruments is a clapperless bell called nao, another a horizontally mounted bronze drum (unlike the vertically beaten Dong Son drums from South China and Vietnam). The vessels of the Yangtse region are the first to show real animal shape (no more fabulous dragons or Taotie), a pattern adopted later by the Zhou artisans. Even more outstanding are the findings from Sichuan that enclose richer burning offerings like gold and elephant tusks and which are not complemented by human sacrifices like in the north. Obviously there was only little relationship with the Anyang culture but intense contact to the Middle Yangtse valley. The Wei River valley, the region of the Zhou conquestors, shows no sophisticated culture but instead seems to be an eager recipient of Anyang, southern and northern-siberian cultures. In Sichuan, we find the beginnings of a culture with own characteristics that developed in a way different to the states and countries in proper China (the Yellow River plain). It is the culture of Sanxingdui.

Anyang Culture

Around 1200 B.C. begins the historical period of Anyang, the actual site of the Shang house (by older archeologists called Yin Xu, "Wastes of Yin"). The first ruler whose name appears in the oracle bone inscriptions is Wu-ding. He ruled over a large, unwalled city and was buried with great pomp. Unfortunately his tomb was plundered, but the burial site of his consort Fuhao (Fu Hao) was unearthed wholly intact. The two tombs - like all the tombs who are sited in a wide graveyard-like area - contained not only a multitude of burial offerings like bronze vessels, jade and chariots (that must have been imported from the steppe peoples) but also dozens of in some cases beheaded sacrificial human and animal victims. The bloodiness of Shang burial rites can be compared with the Aztec sacrificial slaughter, but they left no trace in the memory of the following Zhou Dynasty. In the Zhou moralist's eyes, the last depraved rulers of the Shang have been lustful, not bloody. The tradition to slaughter slaves, concubines, servants and captives as a burial offering for a deceased ruler was still intact during the Spring and Autumn Period, and the most famous example of human offerings is the tomb of the First Emperor of Qin.

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