With the discovery in 1899 of pictographic inscriptions on bone and tortoise shell known as Jiaguwen at Yinxu, the ancient ruins of the capital city of the late Shang or Yin Dynasty near Xiaotun village, Anyang city, Henan Province and 15 excavations at the same site from 1928 to 1937, San Dai or the three earliest dynasties in Chinese history: Xia (2100 BC–1600 BC), Shang (1600 BC–100 BC) and Zhou (1100 BC–256 BC), of which there was little known before then, came into view.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, research has shown that the Xia people lived mainly in west Henan Province and in south Shanxi Province. Xu Xusheng in 1959 found the Erlitou site in Yanshi County, Henan Province. Later excavations at this site produced foundations of two magnificent palaces and the Erlitou culture (21st-17th centuries BC) was identified.
Since the 1950s, archaeological work in Zhengzhou, capital city of Henan Province, has reconstructed the early Shang culture represented by Erligang culture. In 1976 exploration of the Fuhao tomb at Yinxu further enriched knowledge of the Shang culture. Archaeologists also resumed the once suspended work at Yinxu, unearthing palace foundations, bronze casting workshops, separate graveyards for the nobility and the people, as well as over 4,000 Jiaguwen or inscribed tortoise shells and animal bones, which offer some insight into the life of the Shang people.
Recent excavations at Sanxingdui in Guanghan city, Sichuan Province and Wubeiling in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province shed light on the cultural links between the Shang imperial court ruling the Central Plains (i.e. the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River) and contemporary states spread over southwest and south China.
The 1929 finding of Sanxingdui culture dating between 5,000 and 3,000 BP has been ranked as one of China’s top ten archaeological discoveries in the 20th century. Since the 1980s, extensive archaeological work has produced an ancient 360-square-meter town site, a 12-square-kilometer living area; graves, and cultural relics in large quantities. Sanxingdui remains, plus later findings at Baodun in Xinjin County, Mangcheng in Dujiangyan city, Gucheng in Pixian County, and Yujicheng in Wenjiang city, all in Sichuan Province, demonstrate that even before the Xia Dynasty, regional civilization marked by grand ritual buildings and high-rise city walls had been created by the ancient Shu people (connected and attributed to the Sanxingdui culture) in Chengdu Plain, in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, lasting three dynasties.
Since the building in 11th century BC by King Wen and King Wu of Zhou, Fengyi and Gaojing – two capital cities covering a total area of 15 km2 and facing each other across the Fenghe River in Changan County, Shaanxi Province – have remained the political, economic and cultural centers of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 BC – 771 BC) for nearly 300 years. The Institute of Archaeology with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been involved in archaeological surveys and excavations at Fengyi and Gaojing since 1951. Other important discoveries of the Western Zhou Dynasty include: a royal bronze casting workshop in Luoyang, Henan Province; aristocratic cemetery of the Yan state – an enfeoffed kingdom in the Western Zhou imperial court – at Liulihe in Beijing; a tomb of Marquis Jinhou of the Jin state – another enfeoffed kingdom – in Beizhao village, Quwo County, Shanxi Province.
A large number of inscribed bronze ware, bamboo slips (used for writing), musical instruments like serial bells and chimes were unearthed from graves of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC) at tombs of Marquis Caihou, Zenghouyi, and King Zhongshan. These findings present a panorama of the Eastern Zhou society in its social economy, military organization, and ritual system.
During the 9th Five-year Plan period (1996-2000) China launched a “Periodization Project of Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties.” Based on extensive archaeological excavations, research, and dating technology, scientists have worked out a convincing chronological table for the three dynasties.
(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, March 24, 2003)