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Social Complexity Workshop


Social Complexity
in the Centers and Frontiers in Northern China

Recent discoveries from ruins along the Yellow River have reshaped our understanding of the Early Chinese civilizations, commonly known as the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties over 2000 years before the Common Era. Three visiting scholars from China have been actively involved with field projects from the birthplace of the Han people to the Eurasian Steppes of western China. This workshop will discuss issues still relevant to modern China, including the development of social complexity and inequality, political economy, and ethnic identities in frontiers through a prism of dusty relics.

Friday, February 20, 2009
Education Room, Museum of Natural and Cultural History

9:00 – 9:20 am
Workshop Introduction
Gyoung-Ah Lee (Anthropology, University of Oregon)

9:30 – 10:10 am
“Changes of settlement patterns and development of social complexity in the eastern Yuncheng Basin, north-central China”
Dr. Xingming DAI (National Museum of China)

10:20 – 11:00 am
“Understanding the pre-dynastic capital, Zhouyuan: new archaeological
discoveries and research”
Dr. Zhouyong SUN (Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology)

11:10 – 11: 50 am
“The Development of the early pasturage-nomadic societies and its historical
significance in the Eastern regions of Eurasian Steppes and the beyond”
Dr. Wu GUO (Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

1:00 – 1:40 pm
“Political economy of agriculture in the Central Plains at the dawn
of civilizations”
Rory Walsh and Gyoung-Ah Lee (Anthropology, University of Oregon)

1:50 – 3:00 pm
Commentary and Panel Discussion
Dr. Melvin AIKENS (Anthropology, Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon) and Dr. Ina ASIM (History, Asian Studies Program, University of Oregon)

3:10 – 3:50 pm
Guided Museum tour of the permanent exhibition and a special exhibition, “Earth” at the Musuem of Natural and Cultural History

This event is free and open to the public and is cosponsored by the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, the Department of Anthropology, the Asian Studies Program, and the Office of International Affairs. For more info, please visit or call 346-1521.

Presentation Abstracts:

Changes of Settlement Patterns and Development of Social Complexity in the Eastern
Yuncheng Basin, North-central China

Xiangming Dai

The Yuncheng Basin, which is located at north-central China, just at the northern bank of the Yellow River, occupies an important position in exploring the origins of early states and civilizations of ancient China. We carried out the full-coverage surveys from 2003 to 2006 in the eastern Yuncheng Basin, and reconstructed the process of the changes of settlement patterns from the Neolithic to the early Bronze Age (ca. 5000-1300 B.C.). This process can clearly reflect the changes of social organizations and the development of social complexity through time. There were several settlement clusters for each of seven cultural periods. During the Early Yangshao period (ca.5000-4100), some relatively simple and independent local groups existed in the villages of these clusters, and there was no settlement hierarchy for this time. The supra-local communities firstly formed in the settlement clusters during the Middle Yangshao period (ca. 4100-3500 B.C.). At this time some large central places had appeared in the clusters, and there were two or three levels of settlement hierarchy for each cluster, most of them were well integrated. This situation kept on going until the Late Yangshao (ca. 3500-2900) and Miaodigou II period (ca. 2900-2400) with some fluctuations of settlement patterns. During the Longshan period (ca. 2400-1900 B.C.), it is the first time that a super-large settlement (Zhoujiazhuang, measuring nearly 500 ha.) appeared at the north of the Basin, which might have integrated all settlement clusters into a single regional polity. From the Erlitou to Erligang period (ca. 1900-1300 B.C.), however, the number of settlements and the scale of central places in the Basin tended to decline, and the social organizations in this region may have been incorporated into the two successive early states—-Xia and Shang dynasties which sprang up in the Central Plains. In general, the eastern Yuncheng Basin may have witnessed a long-term social evolutionary process, from simple and egalitarian societies to hierarchical complex societies. It should have represented a typical trajectory of social development in central China. From 2007 to 2008, we conducted the excavations at Zhoujiazhuang, the largest Longshan site. So far we have found a tremendous fortification (measuring over 200 ha.) with nearly encircled trench at this site. We are concerning with the potential value of this site in investigating the high-level pattern of complex societies.

Exploring the Capital site Zhouyuan in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771BC), China
New Discoveries and Perspectives

Zhouyong Sun

The Zhou people established the third dynasty in Chinese history—the Western Zhou (1046-771BC), following the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BC) and the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046BC). As one of the pre-dynastic capital sites of the Zhou, Zhouyuan shows the evolution of the Zhou from a minor state, subordinate to the Shang, to a powerful dynasty. Although various locations for Zhouyuan were proposed in later historical texts, no agreement had been reached until the mid-twentieth century when archaeological surveys were initiated. From the 1950s to 1976, many Western Zhou tombs, bronze hoards and residential remains were excavated. These discoveries eventually resulted in the archaeological identification of Zhouyuan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Archaeological work on Zhouyuan was suspended in the early 1980s. From 1999 to 2004, the Archaeological Team has excavated the architectural foundations at Yuntang and Qizheng, the eastern Qijia cemetery, Qijia jue-earring workshop, Licun, Hejia, and Zhuangbai bronze foundry. These discoveries during the fifty years make archaeologists believe that the previously identified area is the legendary capital site Zhouyuan of the Zhou people before the Great Conquest of the Shang (1046BC). A recent discovery at the Zhougongmiao site, 30 km west of Zhouyuan, has resulted in reconsideration of the location of capital Zhouyuan (previously identified at the Zhouyuan site). Some scholars have proposed that the real core district of Zhouyuan might be located at Zhougongmiao or in its immediate vicinity, an argument supported by the presence of four-ramp tombs, the bronze foundry, the palatial complex, and the unique utilisation of flooring bricks, especially as a majority of these remains date to the period before the establishment of the Western Zhou Dynasty. However, three years of intensive excavation and investigation have not yet provided sufficient evidence to confidently contradict the previous identification. In this talk, firstly I will present a full-covered review of archaeological discoveries in the Zhouyuan area (including in the Zhouyuan and Zhougongmiao sites) during the past fifty years, and then particularly focused on the discoveries in recent five years. The conclusion will focus on the long-lasting dispute on the nature of the Zhouyuan and the implications of the Zhouyuan urban centre in the process of urbanism in Early China, from an archaeological point view.

Early Pastoral-Nomadic Societies in the Eastern Regions of Eurasian Steppes and the
interactions with the Early China

Guo, Wu

The point of departure of this lecture is the Sanhaizi rubble mound in Qinhe county in Xinjiang (China), the largest Khereksur in the Eurasian steppes. It has given its name to the Sanhaizi culture, of which it may have been the most important ritual center. The Shanhaizi culture inherited some of its cultural traits from the Andronovo period. It grew through multiple and various cultural interactions with the archaeological cultures distributed the eastern Eurasian steppes and with the civilizations of Shang and Zhou dynasties. Its favorable geopolitical conditions – abundant natural resources, the coexistence of multiple ecological systems, the protection from invasion afforded by mountains and deserts, and relative political calm – further facilitated the Sanhaizi culture’s development into a hegemonial power in the eastern Eurasian steppes. To a large degree, the development of the Sanhaizi culture is one of the earliest representative formations of the nomadic Social Complexity in the Eurasian steppes. Its florescence might have triggered the first wave of large-scale East-to-West migrations in the Eurasian steppes about the 8th century BC. Simultaneous with the rise of the Sanhaizi culture, the cultures distributed in the Great Wall Region played very important mediating roles between the Steppe region and the Central Plains of China between the late Shang and the Eastern Zhou periods. It should be pointed that the Chinese early civilizations, especially in the Erlitou period and the early Shang dynasty, rised in a relative peaceful and isolated environment, the fatal expanding powers of those who have mastered the new martial techniques in the middle regions of Eurasian steppes, such as the spoked chariot and the bronze weapons,were weakened by the large land of the Gobi, the desert, the high mountains, and the dry cold wether in the Central Asia. While the new techniques could be spreaded to the central plain of China. When the Sanhaizi culture grew up from the late Shang Dynasty and thrived in the late Western Zhou dynasty, the Chinese civilization had devoloped as strong as being capable of dealing with the threats from the Eurasian steppes by absorbing their advantages, such as the wheat, the sheep,the horse,and the chariot, etc. On the orther hand, the late Western Zhou dynasty had been influenced deeply both in the politics and the culture by the expanding of the Sanhaizi culture through the intermediate pastoral societies around the northwest frontier of the Western Zhou dynasty.

Political Economy of Agriculture in the Central Plains at the Dawn of Civilizations
Rory Walsh and Gyoung-Ah Lee

The China’s Central Plains experienced the dramatic increase of thein social and settlement complexity from the Middle Neolithic to the early state periods over 2000 years (3500 – 1900 BC). Particularly, the Yiluo valley, just south of the Yellow River in Henan province, went through the critical moment of the political and social changes, archaeologically known as the Erlitou phase (ca. 1900 – 1500 BC) and historically as the Xia Dynasty according to some scholars. A key to success in maintaining the states is to controling the mobilization of economic resources. Regional centers like the Huizui site that we are investigating may have channeled material goods from the producers in hinterlands to the consumers in the primary political capitals in the Yiluo valley. Food production has supported the political economy of the state, but the research on the role of agriculture in political economy has been rare, compared to that on the role of prestigious craft production in the region. To fill the gap, we will examine the diachronic changes in agricultural practice at the regional center at Huizui before and after the establishment of the Erlitou state-level society. We hope to contribute to the knowledge of how agriculture changed over the 2000 years leading up to the establishment of the Chinese civilization.