NEOLITHIC CULTURES OF CHINA (10,000 - 2,000 B.C)
This period in Chinese history, or pre-history, roughly tracks with the pre-dynastic period and pyramid building period of Egypt, the lake dwelling Culture of Central Europe, the later Stone Age of Northern Europe, the early Indus Valley culture of India, The Mayan Culture of Central America and the basket makers and pueblo dwellers of the Southwestern U.S. It is known in Chinese history as the pre-Legendary and Hsia Periods or, more inclusively, the Neolithic Period.
The Neolithic period began in China about 12,000 B.C. However, good evidence of Neolithic settlements exists from only about 4,000 B.C. The Neolithic lasted until about 2,000 B.C. It is defined by a spread of settled agricultural communities, but hunting and gathering was still practiced. The largest concentration of agriculture was below the southern bend of the Yellow River and millet was the main crop. The climate and geography of Neolithic China was different from today. It was much wetter, with most of Northern China being lakes and marshes and central China covered in an enormous lake. The climate was warm and moist, rather than the colder, arid China of today. The mountains were well forested and there was a wide variety of animal life.
By 5000 B.C., Neolithic societies had already begun development in several parts of China. Over 6000 neolithic sites have been discovered in the north and south to date, as well as in Liaoning and Inner Mongolia. As a result of expanding discoveries, the Yellow River region is no longer considered to be the cradle of civilization in China. That distinction now falls to the peoples of the middle and later Neolithic. The most abundant form of art produced by Neolithic cultures that has come down to us is pottery.
A wide variety of pottery was made during this time period. The two main types, Painted Pottery and Black Pottery, belong to the two distinct cultural groups of the Neolithic, the Yangshao and the Lungshan. It is with the Yangshou that we will be mainly concerned here.
A coarse, gray jar, early (?) Yangshou Culture, Yellow River Valley, Asian Trade Collection
The Yangshao lived in the mountainous regions of northern and western China in round or rectangular houses that were below ground level and surrounded by little walls of earth. The dwellings of this time were in clusters that suggests kinship, community, was important. Clothing was made of hemp and the main domesticated animals were pigs and dogs. The earlier pottery was fired at 900°C and was quite coarse. It was made of a gray, sort of greasy, clay. Archaeologists and scholars are divided on the question of whether this inferior product was a precurser to the rest of the relatively sophisticated body of Neolithic Period pottery or was it simply inferior wares that developed in parallel with the higher quality wares. We don't know. Pieces were built up in the coil method by hand. The joints between the coils were smoothed over by using a corded beater, or paddle, which left striations all around the piece (see above).
YANGSHAO CULTURES (5,000 - 3,000 B.C)
Besides the coarse, gray ware discussed above, there were finer ewers, jars, bowls and cups made of higher quality clay that were fired at temperatures as high as 1,020°C, burnished and painted (see below).
A Painted ewer, Yangshou River Valley Culture, Asian Trade Collection
This finer group, the more artistic and by any standards the more technologically, advanced, consists of both funeary wares and pottery for general use. These were made roughly 3500 - 2000 BC. They were handmade, were finely levigated, i.e., have smooth, glossy surfaces, relatively thin walls, made of strongly baked buff and red clays, were shaped in pleasing, and often quite imposing, forms and decorated with elegant painted designs in red, black, purple and white. It is possible that some were made on slow, rudimentary wheels. The pots were built up by hand by the coiling method, and in order to rotate them, especially in the final stages when the lip was finished, they were sometimes set on a piece of matting which could easily be turned on a flat surface of earth or on a large flat stone. Thus, perhaps, an early version of the potter's wheel. Pieces exist with impressions of these rotating mats on their bases. They were submitted to the fire of the kiln. This painted ware, which is superior in technique to later pre-Han pottery of dynastic times so far known, has intereseting, if superficial, resemblances to the painted pottery found at Anau, Susa, and other Western Asiatic sites of later neolithic date.
Bases of two painted Yangshou ewers showing mat impressions, Asian Trade Collection
When the vessels were completed they were allowed to dry for a time, and then the surface was lightly burnished (rubbed, polished). In some cases, particularly the large ewers from Kansu, the lower parts show signs of having been trimmed and shaved thinner with some kind of blade before burnishing, which does not always reach the base. The burnished clay provided an excellent surface for the subsequent painting.
Shave/trim marks on the unpainted lower half of a painted Yangshou ewer, Asian Trade Collection
Pottery from the Neolithic Period at Asian Trade