For centuries Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor), legendary ruler and ancestor, lived only in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people and in the words of legends written down in antiquity. But in recent years, intriguing new clues have been emerging from the Neolithic Hongshan Culture. Over 5,000 years ago this was to be found in today's Liaoning Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Hongshan is world-famous for its many jade artifacts. Among these, it is the so-called bear-dragons unearthed in recent years that have provided the first hard archaeological evidence to add credence to the much-told story of Huangdi.
As a rule, China's recorded history starts with the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC). In the absence of archaeological evidence, the pre-Xia era of the five "virtuous emperors" (Huangdi, Zhuanxu, Di Ku, Tang Yao and Yu Shun) has remained a time known only through legends handed down from ancient times.
Historical documents indicate that Huangdi, first of the five legendary rulers, lived in northern China. According to the Historical Records of Sima Qian of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), Huangdi was called Youxiong (Keeper of bears). During times of conflict with Yandi (Red Emperor), Sima Qian describes Huangdi as training black bears, grizzly bears, foxes, panthers, lynxes and tigers. He recorded that these six animals were generally regarded as the totems of Huangdi's tribe. Such accounts are reminiscent of the ancient nomadic and hunting tribes of northern China.
In recent years archaeologists have excavated more than 20 jade bear-dragons of the Hongshan Culture. These unique jade pieces are so named on account of their bear-like heads. Bear-dragon finds cover most of the distribution of the Hongshan Culture, ranging from Niuheliang and Jianping County in Liaoning Province; Aohan, Right and Left Balin banners in Inner Mongolia; to Weichang County in Hebei Province. So there can be little doubt that jade bear-dragons played a significant role in the Hongshan Culture.
Anthropologists describe bear worship as a custom peculiar to fishing and hunting tribes. Hongshan was a regional culture in north and northeast China characterized by fishing and hunting. Its practice of bear worship, as reflected in the widespread incidence of bear-dragons, coincides with the historical account of Huangdi being known as Youxiong (Keeper of bears).
The late archaeologist Su Bingqi once said, "In terms of both time and location, only the Hongshan Culture can be matched up with the legend of Huangdi."
The magical bear-dragons might prove to be the key for both archaeologists and historians seeking to shed light on the mysteries of Huangdi and the other legendary rulers of prehistoric China.
The case for a 'Jade Age'
Over the last 20 years or so, a large number of Neolithic jade articles have been unearthed not only from the Hongshan Culture but also from the slightly later Liangzhu Culture. This has led some archaeologists to put forward a case for inserting "Jade Age" between the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age.
"Since the 1970s, several thousand jade articles have been found in Chaoyang and Fuxin in western Liaoning, in Chifeng in Inner Mongolia, and in southeast China's Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces," said Guo Dashun, a leading member of the Archaeology Society of China. "Most striking are those that were unearthed at Niuheliang, a site of the Hongshan Culture. There the finds included jade dragons, phoenixes and figurines."
As far back as 1982, Sun Shoudao of the Liaoning Provincial Archaeological Research Institute suggested that a "Jade Age" as represented by the jade-rich Hongshan Culture might have existed some 5,000 or so years ago. This view has been echoed by Wen Guang of the China Geological Research Institute. Wen has applied the methods of micro-structural investigation and optical determination to study jade-ware unearthed from Neolithic ruins across China.
But Guo Dashun said, "Traditionally, the division into Stone, Bronze and Iron ages has been based on the evolution of the tools of production. However, history does not record the use of decorative jade artifacts as tools. Besides, prehistoric jade articles have generally been found only in Northeast Asia and in China's eastern coastal areas. So it would be no easy matter to gain universal acceptance for the existence of a 'Jade Age' based just on China's pre-history."
"Even so, the jade carvings that have proven to be quintessential of the Hongshan Culture, as has been demonstrated again and again by archaeological digs, do provide significant clues to the origins of Chinese civilization," said Guo.
The Neolithic Hongshan Culture, dating back some 5,500 to 6,000 years extended from the Liaohe River valley in the east to the Yanshan Mountains in the west. It is so named because it was discovered in 1935 at the Hongshan site in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia.
The Hongshan Culture is known not only for its jade but also for its red pottery with black patterns and pottery decorated with Z-shaped designs. Its larger flaked and ground stone implements co-existed with more delicately fashioned microlithic tools. In recent years, the ruins of large buildings, tombs, a pottery goddess figure and many jade animal-carvings have been discovered. They point back down the years to the Hongshan Culture as a source of Chinese civilization.
From say 4,000 to 5,300 years ago, the Liangzhu Culture, another representative of early Chinese civilization, emerged in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. The Liangzhu Culture is also known for its abundant jade articles. It was distributed mainly over today's Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai. It was first discovered in 1936 at the Liangzhu site in Yuhang City, Zhejiang Province. The Liangzhu ruins cover an area of 33.8 square kilometers.
Since it first came to light, the Liangzhu Culture has produced a series of archaeological finds that have captured worldwide attention.
Discoveries made in Liangzhu sites at Fanshan, Yaoshan, Huiguanshan, Mojiaoshan and Tuyuan, have been listed among "China's Top 10 Archaeological Finds" for five consecutive years.
(China.org.cn by Shao Da May 8, 2004)