ERLITOU CULTURE (1900–1350 B.C.)

Erlitou dong

The Erlitou Neolithic-Bronze culture (1900–1350 B.C.) of the central plains of northern China was the first state-level society in China, and its remains are taken to be correlates of the Xia dynasty. The Erlitou site is near Yanshi city in Henan Province is thought by some historians and archeologists to have been the capital of the Xia dynasty. Excavations there have revealed palatial buildings, royal tombs, paved roads and tombs containing musical instruments and bronzes. The society employed advanced bronze technology. The relationship between Erlitou bronzes and those produced earlier at Qijia in Gansu remains unclear. [Source:]

According to the Encyclopedia of East Asian Art: “Located throughout Henan and Shanxi Province, and later Shaanxi and Hubei provinces, the Erlitou culture - discovered in 1959 by Xu Xusheng, was famous for its bronze smelting workshops and its status as the centre of Erlitou Culture ceremonial bronzes. In fact, research shows that Erlitou was the largest community in China (possibly in the whole of East Asia) around 2000 B.C., with the earliest known palace building complex, the earliest known series of ritualistic bronze vessels and the earliest known bronze casting workshop.” [Source: Encyclopedia of East Asian Art,]

According to “Erlitou is a common village on the northern bank of the Luohe River, Henan Province. Few has known it was the location of the capital of China's first dynasty, Xia between c.1900 B.C. to c. 1600 B.C.. It witnessed the prosperity of the Xia and the transmission from the Xia to the Shang. However, the memory about the Chinese nation seemed to dim from people's mind and some even doubted if there had been such a brilliance. In the 20th century, the discovery of inscriptions on tortoise shells or animal bones and excavation of the Yin Ruins of Anyang proved the existence of the Shang Dynasty. This greatly encouraged Chinese scholars, who hoped to restore the real appearance of the Xia Dynasty by seeking relevant relics. [Source:, translated by Li Jinhui, November 10, 2003 ^]

See Separate Article XIA DYNASTY (2200-1700 B.C.)

Erlitou Culture’s Links with the Xia Dynasty

Legendary Yellow Emperor of the Xia Dynasty

The Erlitou culture has been identified by several Chinese archeologists as the site of the legendary Xia Dynasty (2100-1700 B.C.). According to “In the past half a century, Chinese archaeologists have dedicated themselves to seeking relics of the Xia Dynasty and their work centers on western Henan Province. Historical records show the western part of Henan Province was the central area for activities in the Xia Dynasty. Dr. Xu Hong, head of the Erlitou Archaeological Team under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, stresses the academic significance of the work: it helps better understand the nature of Erlitou Ruins as a capital, the emergence of city, and the early form of state. [Source:, translated by Li Jinhui, November 10, 2003 ^]

According to “The Erlitou Ruins were discovered by Chinese scholars in their field research of Xia culture.” During more than 50 years of outdoor excavations, “they obtained rich relics and references. As a result, the Erlitou Ruins were confirmed as the ruins of an important capital existing between the Xia and Shang dynasties. The first-hand information and scientific materials laid a solid foundation for the research of Xia culture. Meanwhile, since its discovery, disputes about it have never ended. [Source:, translated by Li Jinhui, November 10, 2003 ^]

“Situated in the central area of the Xia Dynasty as shown in historical records chronologized as in the Xia Dynasty, the Erlitou Ruins naturally became a key site in the exploration of the Xia culture as well as the division between Xia and Shang dynasties. The question remaining is whether it is a Xia-dynasty capital or the Shang capital Xibo. Disputes also center on the nature of the Erlitou culture. Some think it featured Xia culture in early period and Shang culture in later period, while others believe it was of pure Xia culture.” ^

"The final solution to the mysteries of Erlitou culture and Xia culture still depends on more historical witnesses, such as the creation of characters," Dr. Xu Hong said. "With further investigation, excavation and research on the Erlitou Ruins, people will better understand the significance of the ruins in exploring the source of Chinese culture, Chinese early civilization and formation of state." Along with new discoveries, the disputes over Xia culture and the division of the Xia and Shang dynasties have heated up again, attracting both domestic and overseas scholars.”

History of Archeological Discoveries at Erlitou

According to the Encyclopedia of East Asian Art: “In 1959, archeologists uncovered two palaces in Erlitou, located at "No.1" and "No.2" sites. They were believed to be the earliest large-scale palaces in China, dating back to roughly 1875-1575 B.C. More recently, in 1979, the remains of an even larger and more complex structure have been unearthed underneath site "No.2", dating back to c.1975 B.C.: that is, about a century earlier. As the construction of this third palace clearly predates the Shangs by at least 300 years, its discovery seems to confirm that it belongs to the Xia culture. [Source: Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, ^=^]

“In some of the courtyards of No.3 site, scientists discovered a series of tombs, all paved with cinnabar, which were found to discover a number of unique, never previously seen, objects including bronze containers, jades, lacquerware and white pottery as well as glazed ceramic art decorated with turquoise and seashells. Sadly, no examples of Chinese painting were discovered.” ^=^

According to “In 1959, historian Xu Xusheng found the large ruins of Erlitou in Yanshi of western Henan Province. Since then, three generations of archaeologists have conducted more than 40 excavations... As early as in 1978, archaeologists had noticed large-scale rammed earth under the No.2 palace site and decided to explore its scale, structure and date. In recent years, the Erlitou Archaeological Team has focused their field work on early buildings of Erlitou and its relationship with later buildings. Since autumn 2001, more than 3,000 square meters have been excavated. [Source:, translated by Li Jinhui, November 10, 2003 ^]

Large Palaces Discovered at Erlitou Site

Erlitou map

In 2003, Chinese archaeologists announced that they had found a large-scale building foundation in Erlitou, dated to a period that coincided with the later period of Xia Dynasty. The discovery spurred discussion and debate on the links between Erlitou and Xia and Shang dynasties. "The site causes great concern because it was founded at the key moment when the Xia Dynasty was replaced by the Shang Dynasty," said Dr. Xu Hong, head of the Erlitou Archaeological Team under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Was it built by people of the Xia or the Shang? Further excavation will help find the final resolution and provide new materials for periodization of the two dynasties."[Source:, translated by Li Jinhui, November 10, 2003 ^]

According to the Encyclopedia of East Asian Art: “In 2011, Chinese archeologists at Erlitou unearthed the remains of what appears to be an imperial palace - carbon-dated to approximately 1700 B.C., adding further weight to the supposed existence of the Xia Dynasty and the central role played by Erlitou in its development. However, according to Dr. Xu Hong, director of the Erlitou Archeological Team at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, doubts remain as to whether the palace was built by the Xia or the Shang, or another people altogether. The issue reflects the wider question - was Erlitou culture made up of Xia culture to begin with, then later Shang culture, or was it exclusively Xia?” [Source: Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, ^=^]

Erlitou Roads, Palaces and Tombs

Erlitou burial

According to “Under the No.2 site of Erlitou Ruins, which is the foundation of a large-scale palace complex, archaeologists discovered a new site of rammed earth, which indicates an earlier, larger and more complicated structure once existed there. It pushes the age of China earliest palace complex back 100 years. According to Dr. Xu Hong, the site, encoded No.3, should belong to early-period Erlitou culture. To date, it has been confirmed that the structure was about 150 meters long, and its major body comprises at least three courtyards. Before the discovery, archaeologists believed the No.1 and No.2 sites of Erlitou were the earliest large-scale palaces in China, leading to the conclusion that the early period palace was simple in structure and usually had one gate and one courtyard. The excavation of No.3 site, however, made them change minds. [Source:, translated by Li Jinhui, November 10, 2003 ^]

“The palaces in the Erlitou Ruins had three avenues: the one in the east was nearly 700 meters long, the other two in the north and south were over 300 meters each, with a distance of 400 meters between them. Also, several paths were discovered in the palace area. Between No.1 and No.2 sites, large areas of earth, hundreds square meters of pebble and some rammed-earth foundations were found.” ^

The exploration and excavation “show the palace ruins were distributed in a northwest-southeast trend along the ancient Yiluo River. The longest distance from east to west was 2,400 meters, and that from north to south, 1,900 meters. The northern part of it had been damaged by the Luohe River, with only a three-square-kilometer area left. The most important part was the highland in the southeast, with palace foundation ruins, bronze smelting workshop ruins and medium-sized tombs. The western part of it was relatively low and used to be common residential areas. On the edge of the eastern part a ditch extending 500 meters intermittently was found. It was believed to be a ditch providing earth for construction or pottery making in the past. Also, it formed the eastern border of the palace. ^

The more complicated No.3 and No.5 palace sites sit side by side, one in the east, the other in the west. Under the passageway between them, there is a 100-meter-long wooden-structured drainage culvert. In the middle and south courtyards of No.3 site, archaeologists also found rows of medium-sized tombs, of which five have been cleaned up. All of the tombs are paved with cinnabar and traces of coffins can still be seen. Burial articles unearthed include bronze, jade, lacquer and white pottery ware as well as glazed pottery inlayed with turquoise and artifacts made from seashells. Many items, such as white pottery in shape of wide-rimmed bamboo hat, jade ornament looking like a bird's head, large vessel inlayed with turquoise and ornament composed of nearly 100 gear-like holed clams, had never been seen before. The discovery of the tombs with so many aristocrats is of great significance to the study of the nature of No.3 site and the burial ceremonies of the Erlitou culture. ^

Chinese Take on Erlitou-Xia Dynasty Links

Erlitou sites

According to “Since Erlitou was discovered by Xu Xusheng and his archaeological team in 1959, Chinese archaeologists have entered a new stage in the exploration of the Xia culture.The continuous excavation brought to light ruins of large-scale palace foundations, large-scale bronze smelting workshop, pottery making and bone article workshops as well as buildings related to religious sacrifice, 400 tombs, sets of bronze and jade sacrificial vessels. All these have proven Erlitou was the earliest capital ever founded in China. [Source:, translated by Li Jinhui, November 10, 2003 ^]

“After the periodization of the Xia, Shang and Zhou (c. 1100 B.C. - 221 B.C.) was completed, more and more experts tended to believe Erlitou was a site of Xia ruins and it once served as the capital during the dynasty’s middle and later periods. "This means people can almost touch the pulse of China's first dynasty. I say 'almost' because many mysteries about the Erlitou Ruins remain unsolved," Dr. Xu Hong said. "We've got only an outline of the information it has provided, such as the internal layout, evolution process, culture, social life, organizational structure and ethnics, of this capital." ^

“The periodization of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties greatly promoted the study of Xia culture. The initial building of the Shang city in Yanshi has been confirmed as a boundary mark between the Xia and Shang dynasties, and Erlitou Ruins, a capital of the Xia Dynasty. More and more scholars begin to accept the view that the mainstay of Erlitou culture was Xia culture.” ^

Shijiahe Culture and Shijiahe Jade

The Shijiahe culture (2500–2000 B.C.) was a late Neolithic culture centered on the middle Yangtze River region in Hubei Province, China. It succeeded the Qujialing culture in the same region and inherited its unique artefact of painted spindle whorls. Pottery figurines and distinct jade worked with advanced techniques were also common to the culture. The culture is named after its type site, the Shijiahe site cluster, in Tianmen County, Hubei, in the Middle Yangtze Valley. The lower layer of the site belonged to the Qujialing culture. The city site is said to be a "nearly perfect square" of 120 hectares (300 acres) in area and was densely populated. It may have housed from between 15,000 and 50,000 inhabitants within the settlement's walls. At Dengjiawan, within the Shijiahe site cluster, some pieces of copper were discovered, making these the earliest copper objects discovered so far in southern China. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The primary mode of travel was thought to be watercraft. People even built channels as makeshift rivers to connect urban core areas to adjacent rivers or from towns to main rivers. In addition to walls, moats were also dug around towns and urban centers in the same fashion as the constructed channels. At the town site at Chengtoushan, the moat is about 40–50 m in width. Researchers estimate that a total labor force of 200,000 to 470,000 people was needed to construct the moat and walls at this site. The people of the Shijiahe culture grew both rice and millet. +

Erlitou mosaic

Some scholars have speculated that Shijiahe could have been considered an ancient state due to its relatively advanced socio-political structure. Shijiahe is said to have a population size and land area greater than Erlitou, however it is not very clear if they had the same level of centralized control over these regions that the Erlitou did. Other scholars note that the Shijiahe and other cultures along the Yangtze were more socially complex and developed than their northern contemporaries in the Han Valley. +

Many jade artifacts have been unearthed from Shijiahe sites, mainly dating from the late phase. Most jades have parallels in the Liangzhu culture, and in many ways the Shijiahe site complex is similar to the Mojiaoshan complex of Liangzhu, suggesting strong influences from the lower Yangtze region to the east. In 2015, archaeologists excavated the Tanjialing site, dating to late Shijiahe culture. They discovered more than 250 pieces of jade in five tombs. The jade carving technology exhibited by these artifacts appear to have exceeded that of the Liangzhu and Hongshan cultures, both of which are renowned for their jades. +

The Shijiahe culture ended around 2000 B.C., about the same time as Liangzhu. However, unlike the Liangzhu culture, which completely disappeared, Shijiahe seems to have had a drastic decrease in population. Some scholars believe the decline was a result of warfare with the Longshan culture, which was expanding from the north. Other possible reasons are flooding, collapse of social order or a combination of these factors. +

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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