The Yellow River Culture


The Yellow River Valley

   As in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and along the Indus River, Chinese civilization began within a major river valley. Modern China itself is a huge geographical expanse. Around 4000 BC, this huge area contained an infinite amount of ethnic groups and languages. The course of Chinese history, however, is in part dominated by a single ethnic group and language. This history, in which a vast area of infinite ethnic groups became, over time, a more or less single culture, began in the Yellow River Valley

   The Yellow River is the northernmost of the major Chinese rivers. Directly to the south is the Yangtze River; south of the Yangtze is the West River; south of the West River is the Red River much of which passes through modern-day Vietnam. Sometime around 4000 BC, when the area was much more temperate and forested, populations around the southern bend of the Yellow River began agriculture. They sowed millet, but sometime later, the Chinese began cultivating rice to the south, near the Huai River. These were a Neolithic, tribal people who used stone tools. We know also that they domesticated animals very early on, but they still continued as a hunter society as well. Remains of game animals are almost as common as domestic animals in these villages. We know almost nothing about them for they left no records, and the life-blood of a people does not flow in the archaeological garbage they leave behind. We believe that tribal warfare was common and that they may have had some form of ancestor worship, but these are mere guesses.China Atlas

Yellow River Cultures

Learning Modules

The Agricultural Revolution


The Three Cultural Heroes

   In the Chinese version of history, however, history begins with three semi-mystical and legendary individuals who taught the Chinese the arts of civilization around 2800-2600 BC: Fu Hsi, the inventor of writing, hunting, trapping, and fishing; Shen Nung, the inventor of agriculture and mercantilism, and the Yellow Emperor (around 2700 BC), who invented government and Taoist philosophy (compare this history with the Hebrew version of the founding of civilization and its arts in Genesis, Chapter 3). While Western historians dismiss these Three Cultural Heroes as legend, they were regarded as historical fact for most of Chinese history. The Hebrews

Genesis: The Creation


The Sage Kings

   The Chinese believed that the Three Cultural Heroes were followed by the Three Sage Kings, Yao (around 2350 BC), Shun (around 2250 BC), and Yu (rule began in 2205 BC). These Sage Kings ruled with perfect wisdom, clarity, and virtue. In the Chinese model of history, human events follow discernible cycles in which times of great virtue and wisdom are followed by times of decadence and decline. Still, Chinese historians believed the Sage Kings rule as the most virtuous time in Chinese history.

The Hsia Dynasty, 2205-1766 BC

   According to the Chinese historians, the last of the sage kings, Yu, founded a dynasty of kings, the Hsia. The Hsia began with virtue and wisdom, and ended with the rule of Chieh, who was decadent and cruel. In 1766 BC, after four hundred years of rule, the Hsia dynasty was overthrown by T'ang, who began a new dynasty, the Shang.

   There is, however, absolutely no evidence, archaeological or otherwise, that supports this account of the early civilization in China; this lack of evidence has led historians to relegate the entire account, from the Cultural Heroes to the Hsia dynasty, to the realm of mythology. Two things, however, should be kept in mind. In the strictest sense, history is not about facts, it is about cultural memory , which means that what a culture believes its history to be is as or more important than the "facts" in terms of the lived experience of that culture. Second, the Shang dynasty that the Chinese claimed followed the Hsia, was also believed to be mythological until archaeological evidence appeared in the 1920's. We may yet find a Chinese civilization equivalent to the Shang in even earlier strata of Chinese time.World Cultures Glossary

History


The Shang, 1766-1050 BC

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-29-97