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More light shed on China's ancient past
By Lin Shujuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-21 07:17

The cradle of Chinese civilization was long considered to be the region around the middle Yellow River. But recent archaeological discoveries from far-flung corners of China are forcing scientists to reconsider the origins of ancient Chinese civilization.

Some are now even questioning the existence of a legendary Chinese dynasty, the Xia (about 2100 BC - 1600 BC), according to a collection of news reports in today's issue of the journal Science.

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The origin of Chinese civilization has long been a complicated and confusing issue in China's academic circles.

Though boasting 5,000 years of civilization, the widely acknowledged beginning of the civilization with historical records could be dated to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC - 1100 BC), thanks to the discovery of oracle bones.

With the inscriptions on the oracle bones, the earliest characters in China, archaeologists outlined what the society was like in the Shang Dynasty.

But there are still 1,000 years unaccounted for in China's 5,000-year civilization, making it essential for the archaeologists to find out what the pre-Shang society was like.

As a construction boom continues to alter the physical face of the country - inadvertently uncovering vital clues to China's past, illuminating ancient trade routes and long-lost cultures - a new and more complex history of the Chinese people is emerging.

Recent archaeological discoveries show that there were many advanced cultures in the valleys of several major rivers in China about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.

More light shed on China's ancient past

Among all, the excavation in 2007 of a 4,300-year-old city at the lower reaches of the Yangtze River is challenging what the Chinese people once thought about their country and themselves.

The ancient city is believed to be part of the Liangzhu culture dated to Neolithic times, between 4,000 and 5,300 years ago.

Archaeologists are speculating that the city could be the lost capital of the Liangzhu kingdom, which, if it existed, would outdate the Xia dynasty, now considered the nation's oldest. The Xia dynasty is traditionally believed to have emerged about 4,000 years ago.

"Before these astonishing finds, we were focused on the central plains," said Wang Wei, director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, as cited in the Science news report.

Since 2004, Wang's institute has been coordinating an ambitious multidisciplinary effort to outline the chronology in the prehistoric millennium from 4,500 years ago to 3,500 years ago by bringing to bear the latest methods for analyzing the past 25 years of finds.

Less willing to take ancient texts at face value than their predecessors, this new generation of Chinese researchers is relying on physical data - and more "Western" methods - in their attempts to accurately retrace Chinese history.

"Most of us accepted that the Yellow River was the origin of Chinese civilization. But as we've done more research, we have found other cultural areas as numerous as the stars in the sky," said Wang. "Now it is clear that the development and expansion of regional centers contributed to the formation of Chinese civilization."

More light shed on China's ancient past

By drawing on researchers across China and collaborating with foreign scientists, Wang hopes to paint a more nuanced and data-driven view of the country's ancient past while pushing China's archaeological community toward the forefront of the field.

Andrew Lawler, author of the Science news reports, said with the exciting discoveries made recently across China and the country's fast-paced development, it is "an opportune time to dig into new questions about China's origins, the state of its threatened ancient sites, and the increasing expertise of its archaeologists."

Lawler's special news package also covers the accidental discovery and later excavation of Jinsha, an ancient site near downtown Chengdu in Sichuan, and about 1,000 km from the traditional center of Chinese civilization along the Yellow River.

Another article by Lawler illuminates the earliest Silk Road, which brought valued goods, including bronze, from the west and possibly the staple grain of ancient China, millet, to the west. These recent discoveries have led Chinese researchers to acknowledge significant outside influence on their ancient culture.