I’ve decided to write up notes on the non-fiction books I’m reading in chunks, coz frequently that’s how I read them – in sections, with fiction in between to clear the palate, so’s to speak 🙂
The book I’ve just started was a birthday present from my parents and is an overview of the history of China from pre-Homo sapiens right through to the last Emperor who died in 1967. So quite a lot of ground to cover there! It’s part of a Thames & Hudson series of books called Ancient Civilisations and is written with contributions from 17 people, but lists John Makeham as “Chief Consultant” so I’m putting him down as the author. It’s a big glossy book with lots of illustrations & the format (like the others in the series) is that within the chapters each double-page spread covers a particular topic.
The first chapter is a brief overview of China as a whole – 5 double-pages covering the geography, art and science associated with the region. And also the history of archaeology in China. Oddly there isn’t an overall map of China – I would’ve expected one in this section particularly when they were talking about the geography, I had to use google maps to let me figure out where they were talking about. The take home message about the geography is that China is big enough to have noticeably different climates in north & south, with different advantages & challenges for living in & feeding people. The three great rivers are also important (and I confess I didn’t previously know the name of the Pearl River, which is the southern one, although I knew the Yellow River (north) and Yangzi River (central) existed). For art & other cultural treasures of China they mention silk, porcelain, lacquer & paper in particular, all dating back startlingly far. In terms of agriculture I knew about rice (obviously), but I didn’t realise that in the north of China (particularly the Yellow River valley) the staple crop is millet. Until the Mongols took over (13th Century AD) China was the innovator for new scientific & technological advances – but once more global trading of ideas & devices took place the Chinese ideas helped to kick-start the European Renaissance which eventually led to Europe pulling ahead in innovation. It didn’t mention it here but I guess the Chinese also have to have become more hidebound as well.
Proto-archaeology, ie the sort of collection of antiquities equivalent to the sorts of things happening in the Enlightenment era in Europe started relatively early in China’s history – by the 7th Century AD. But it didn’t develop into any sort of science of archaeology that we’d recognise until the 19th & 20th Centuries.
Origins: Prehistoric China
They start with some discussion of Palaeolithic China – there were definitely hominids in China before Homo sapiens, Peking Man is a famous Homo erectus skeleton discovered near Beijing. And then there’s archaic modern humans – like Neanderthals (which it says are European only – I didn’t know that before), but not Neanderthals. And then after that we get fully modern humans. I thought the prevailing theory was that Homo sapiens was a different species to Homo erectus, and that the separateness of the Neanderthals was in doubt (ie Homo sapiens may’ve been able to interbreed with them). But this book is saying that it’s also possible that Homo erectus is the same species as us – and then modern humans evolved in multiple places with interbreeding between the populations – the evidence is in anatomical features in Homo erectus that’re different in different geographical areas and are similarly different in the Homo sapiens skeletons from these different areas.
The Neolithic is the period of pre-history where ancient peoples settled down, started to farm, started to make pottery. China’s one of the places that independently developed agriculture, and the Neolithic revolution happened in a different order here to that in the Middle East – something I didn’t know before. In the Middle East the sequence is settle down -> agriculture -> pottery. Whereas in China it was pottery -> agriculture -> settle down. I was astonished how much of the stuff that is quintessentially Chinese was developed during the Neolithic – high quality pottery, silkworms were domesticated & silk was made, jade was used for grave goods/ritual items, even dragon imagery. Agriculture was possibly developed twice – millet grown on dry land in the Yellow River valley and rice grown in wet paddy-fields in the Yangzi River valley. It was a slow process getting from nomadic hunter/gatherers without pottery to fully sedentary agrarian villages with pottery – starting around or before 10,000-11,000BC (there are pottery fragments dating to this time), and really only fully developed around 5000BC. I’ve got 6000BC in my head for agriculture being developed in the Middle East, so definitely sounds like the Chinese were starting the process a lot earlier. I know that one of the things shifting to agriculture for food production does is to free up some people’s time to spend on other things – dedicated artisans, and ruling elites, start to exist. This happens in China too – early Neolithic villages have houses that all look similar, and the graves of the people are all much the same. But later Neolithic villages have evidence of a hierarchy in their buildings, and in the grave goods of the people. The book says that some of the features distinguishing the houses are common through Chinese history – enclosures around the elite buildings, and significant buildings on platforms.
Writing is also starting to be developed by the end of this period, but it’s not clear if the systems seen are actually related to the writing system that later developed. What’s seen is seen on pots and stone objects, but there’s later textual evidence that perishable surfaces might’ve been used for writing (bundles of bamboo strips).
Tangents to follow up on: Homo sapiens evolution. Middle Eastern development of agriculture/Neolithic era technology. Conveniently I think I’ve got books in the queue already that deal with both of those 🙂