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Three Gorges Civilization in the Neolithic Age

Culture in the Three Gorges area in the Early Neolithic Age was mainly affected by the culture of the Yangtze-Hanshui Valley Plain and western Hunan mountain area. But by the time of the Late Neolithic Age, it became similar with that of the Chengdu Plain. In this process, the Three Gorges contributed to exchanges between east and west.


Shaopengzui Culture


Zhongxian County is about one hour's drive southward from the "ghost town" Fengdu. The decadent old county stands lonely along the Yangtze River, with collapsed walls like huge black open mouths. The new county proper now sits above the old one.


A complete archaeological site, measuring seven to eight meters at its top, demonstrates to people a profound cultural preserve. This is the Shaopengzui Culture Ruins, named by Professor Sun Hua from Peking University. As an annual excavation project site of the university, it dates back 5,200 to 4,000 years, or the Middle Neolithic Age. Bricks and tiles of primitive time are common findings here.


According to Jin, a teacher from Zhongshan University of south China's Guangdong Province, the Shaopengzui culture, in the western part of Three Gorges area, shares some common characteristics and similarities with cultural ruins in eastern Sichuan Province and the Chengdu Plain. Archaeologists believe that the Shaopengzui culture and the Baodun culture of the Chengdu Plain are largely identical but with some minor differences, so they categorize the two cultures into the same system.


On the other side of the river, opposite Shaopengzui, is Zhongba, which has been considered one of the most important ruins in Three Gorges area. Since it was unearthed in 1997, great work has been done on its 7,000-square-meter area. The site was dug down by 12.5 meters. In the past six years, a large number of cultural relics and remains have been found, covering 11 historical periods including the Late Neolithic Age, Xia, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, Spring and Autumn Period, Warring States Period and Han Dynasty, and reflecting a 5,000-year-evolution process of history and culture. Such a complete and consecutive stratum and accumulation is rarely seen in the world, so it is regarded as a visible "general history" in the archaeological field.


Jin said that since the salvage excavation started in 1998, successive discoveries had been made in this area, including the Sanxingdui, Laoguanmiao and Shaopengzui cultural ruins, and their strata. An age sequence from Late Neolithic Age through Xia Dynasty to Shang Dynasty was initially set up.


Laoguanmiao Ruins


Fengjie is the starting point of the Three Gorges. About 8 km to its east is the famous Baidi City, or the White Emperor City. It is the place where Liu Bei, the King of Shu Kingdom (221-263) in Three Kingdoms period (220-280), before his death, entrusted his state power and his son to Zhuge Liang, his Prime Minister and talented advisor.


Once the second phase of water storage completes, the city will become more solitary than it was before Liu Bei's death. What people will see is only the top of an isolated island. The famous Laoguanmiao Ruins of the Neolithic Age were found opposite the city.


The Laoguanmiao Ruins were at an elevation of 180 meters. It is more fortunate than other ruins because it was protected on the site rather than being moved or swallowed by water.


A museum was set up on the site. In one of the tombs, a male corpse was found. It looked rather small in the earthwork supposed to preserve it, with its left leg bending a little. At other parts of the museum, various stone, pottery and bone ware were on display. Among them, there was a cone-shaped pottery jar, similar to utensils found in Shaopengzui.


The difference was that the pottery ware found in Shaopengzui carried diamond-form designs, while that unearthed in Laoguanmiao had rope-like designs on its sides. According to Zhao Binfu, professor with the Archaeology Department of Jilin University and denominator of the Laoguanmiao Ruins, the diamond-formed design could be regarded as an interlaced rope design. "The Laoguanmiao earlier culture can also be called Shaopengzui culture, Zhongba culture, or Weijialiangzi culture. In term of age span, the early stage of the culture is represented by Shaopengzui, while the late stage, by Laoguanmiao. In fact, they belong to the same culture," he said.


However, Zhao said, it was too early to answer questions about the cultural sources and their interaction. Archaeologists are now engaged in data collecting, and the present work only focuses on categorizing and periodizing of the culture found. Different areas cultivated different culture. Zhao himself believed that the Sanxingdui civilization originated from the Central Plains and that Three Gorges culture came into being synchronously with other prehistoric cultures.


Daxi Culture


Setting off from Fengjie and going on eastward, visitors arrive at Wushan. From the east mouth of the Qutang Gorge to the Daning River mouth of Wushan is the first dale of the Three Gorges, especially suitable for inhabitation. For this reason, Wushan turned into a place of good geomantic omen for archaeologists.


The Daxi Ruins are located on a gentle slope, facing both the Daxi and Yangtze rivers. It is luxuriantly green even in winter.


The Daxi River, lying at the mouth of the Qutang Gorge, remains a vital line of communications. It used to be an important place for material exchanges between southwest Hubei and western Hunan provinces.


Because of its advantageous geographical location, Daxi became an ideal habitat for mankind. People hunted in the mountains and fished in the rivers to make a living. That's why archaeologists can find cultural relics in this area ranging from the Neolithic Age to the Qing Dynasty. These relics, including pottery kettles, calyxes, bowls, cups, jars and bronze and porcelain ware, are preserved in a storehouse guarded by heavy iron gates and locked windows.


On some Neolithic utensils were painted colorful designs which would never fade after being baked. One of them, a pottery bowl, was red outside but black inside. At the bottom of it was an irregular crack. It was said to be a typical relic of the Daxi culture. When the primitives died, the living would bury such articles with one edge lost, showing that they belonged to the deceased.


Technology of pottery production varied in different periods of the Neolithic Age. For instance, in the early period, pottery was made by hand. Later in the Chengbeixi Age, the pottery was made by pasting clay slices. By the time of Late Chengbeixi Age and Early Daxi Age, the technique of winding clay stripes was employed. The clay stripes were first twisted together and then pressed. Afterwards rotating technology became popular, as we do today.


Bai Jiujiang, a kind-hearted Sichuan local, introduced that pottery in the early period was extremely red, which darkened as time passed by. By the late Daxi Age, black pottery became frequently seen.


Archaeologists also found a pit with a thick accumulation of fishbone, proving the Daxi people had abundant food in the Neolithic Age. Some fish had huge vertebras.


A significant characteristic of the Daxi culture is that crooked bodies were found in its tombs, which is rarely seen in other cultures. Archaeologists have four hypotheses about this. One is that the dead were imitating its posture when in the mother's wombs so that it could reincarnate more easily. If the fact was like this, it would have shown that the Daxi people had grasped some knowledge of anatomy. Second, since Daxi was a cold place, the bent body might indicate the deceased had gone to sleep in coldness. Third, the deaths might have occurred unnaturally. Fourth, the body was intentionally crooked to avoid its soul escaping. According to Bai Jiujiang, the Naxi ethnic group in southwest China's Yunnan Province employed this way of burial before the 1950s, but the reason is still uncertain.


The Daxi ancestors, who lived 6,000 to 5,000 years ago, were a matriarchal society but which showed some signs of turning into a patriarchal society. Its culture developed almost at the same pace with that of the Yangtze-Hanshui River Valley Plains. Bai said that the Three Gorges culture was on a par with the Yangshao culture of the Central Plains, and that they exchanged with each other. For example, designs found on the colored pottery of Daxi were similar to that from Yangshao.


Cultural Exchanges


Something found in the late Daxi culture showed some similarities with that of the Shaopengzui culture in the eastern part of the Three Gorges. Bai explained that by the late Neolithic Age, both the Qujialing and Shijiahe cultures had strong influences. In these two ruins were buried many city sites, with city walls and moats. They were believed to be unimaginably large projects at that time. The cities showed highly developed social organization and great cohesive forces in that period. Also, the relics unearthed indicated that the people had been obtaining their necessities through trade. As these two great cultures retreated from the Three Gorges area, the relatively weak Shaopengzui culture extended its influence to the east of the Qutang Gorge. The culture center of the Three Gorges area was actually changing most of the time. An interesting discovery was that something belonging to the Ba culture in the Shang Dynasty was later possessed by the Chu culture, symbolizing that the Chu State turned much stronger than the Ba State and drove the Ba people westward. Bai Jiujiang joked that it was possible to excavate mausoleums of several dynasties in the region.


Yang Hua, from Yichang Archaeology Institute, Hubei Province, summarized the new achievements in unearthing the Neolithic Age ruins of the Three Gorges area. First, the appearance of a kind of primitive character, i.e. "engraving signals". Second, the discovery of large-scale residential communities. Third, the emergence of discrepancies between rich and poor. Fourth, the beginning of primitive war -- revenge between different tribes. Fifth, finding of sacrificial site of primitive clans. And the sixth, signs of primitive agriculture entering a more developed stage.


In summarizing the cultural exchanges between east and west, divided by the Qutang Gorge, Yang said that the Neolithic culture of the Three Gorges area had exerted a great influence on that of the Chengdu Plain. The springing up of some ancient cities in the Chengdu Plain was closely connected with the Qujialing and Shijiahe cultures. The Shu civilizaiton developed on the Chengdu Plain had benefited much from its neighboring cultures. The Three Gorges area underwent grave historical reform in the Neolithic Age, which turned it from a barbarous society to a civilized one.


The archaeology of Three Gorges is now at the stage of data collecting. The losses are unavoidable though the salvage excavation is underway. However, the Three Gorges culture will never end, just like Chinese civilization.




About 10,000 years ago, mankind entered the Neolithic Age. The Three Gorges culture was divided into two categories by the Qutang Gorge.


The development sequence of Neolithic archaeology in the eastern part of the Three Gorges has been established. It is as follows:


Weiganping Ruins (10,070 years B.P.) →Chengbeixi Culture (7,420 years B.P.) →Daxi Culture (6,500-5,000 years B.P.) →Qujialing Culture (5,000 years B.P.) →Shijiahe Culture (4,000 years B.P.), and later connected with Xia and Shang cultures.


The development sequence of Neolithic archaeology in the western part of the Three Gorges has also basically taken shape. It is as follows:


Yufupu Ruins (Initial Stage) →Yuxi Ruins (Early Stage) →Shaopengzui Earlier Cultural Ruins (Middle Stage) →Laoguanmiao Earlier Ruins.


(Beijing Youth Daily translated by Li Jinhui for China.org.cn August 5, 2003)



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