Chinese Studies Neolithic Cultures in China
Tracey L-D Lu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0004


Defined by John Lubbock in 1865, Neolithic initially referred to the period when polished stone tools were used. Later the Australian British archaeologist Gordon Childe defined Neolithic as a period when people began to settle down, cultivate plants and herd animals, and make pottery. But this definition is based on archaeological discoveries in Europe and the Middle East and does not fit well into the prehistoric cultural developments in the landmass now called China. On the basis of archaeological discoveries since the late 19th century, it is now generally agreed that the Neolithic cultures in China are dated to between approximately twelve thousand and four thousand years ago, but the characteristics of these Neolithic cultures vary significantly. Some of the Neolithic cultures were created by sedentary farmers and were characterized by labor division, social segmentation, and fortified settlements, while other Neolithic cultures were created by mobile hunters and gatherers with an egalitarian social structure. Consequently, how to define Neolithic remains an issue under debate in China’s archaeology. While some scholars have argued that sedentism and agriculture should be key elements to distinguish Neolithic from Mesolithic or Paleolithic, others have pointed out the uniqueness of cultural changes in prehistoric China and have proposed to use pottery as an indicator of the Neolithic cultures in China’s context. The majority of Chinese archaeologists follow the latter definition, which is different from that in Europe and western Asia. The discussion on defining Neolithic is not just about how to construct the prehistoric chronology in China but also about whether prehistoric cultural diversity in the world should be recognized and whether the archaeological framework that originated and developed in the West can provide a universal explanation for the development of human cultures in prehistoric eras in other regions.

History of Research

One of the most comprehensive reviews of the history of studying Neolithic cultures in China is Chen 1997, which discusses the contributions and insufficiencies of European archaeologists in discovering and interpreting the Neolithic cultures in China, including the Swedish scholar Johan Gunnar Andersson and his team—their discovery of the Yangshao culture in Henan Province in 1921 marked the beginning of Neolithic research in China. Chang 1986 analyzes the transition from historiography to modern archaeology in China and comprehensively covers the archaeological findings and interpretations up to the 1980s. Rejecting the idea that agriculture was introduced from western Asia into China, Ho 1975 argues that China is one of the centers for the origin of agriculture in the world, with foxtail and broomcorn millet being domesticated in the Yellow River valley; the author’s argument has been proved by archaeological discoveries since the 1970s. On the basis of the richness and diversity of Neolithic cultures, Su and Yin 1981 argues that the Neolithic cultures in China could be classified into six regional types, an argument still supported by some Chinese archaeologists in the early 21st century, though others consider it a typological classification of the Neolithic cultures. Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 2010 summarizes the history of research on the Neolithic cultures in China from 1926 to the early 21st century, including the participation of overseas archaeologists in research after the 1980s. It also lists important discoveries before and after 1949 and includes major publications. Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo and Shanxisheng Xi’an Banpo Bowuguan 1963 is an early example of settlement analysis of Neolithic cultures in China.

  • Chang, Kwang-chih. The Archaeology of Ancient China. 4th ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

    The book covers Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age archaeology in China. Although somewhat dated, it remains one of the most authoritative general overviews of research on Neolithic cultures up to the 1980s and provides a framework for the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age in China.

  • Chen Xingcan 陈星灿. Zhongguo shiqian kaoguxueshi yanjiu, 1895–1949 (中国史前考古学史研究, 1895–1949). Beijing: Shenghuo dushu xinshi sanlian shudian, 1997.

    A very comprehensive study focusing on the formation and development of Neolithic archaeology in mainland China from 1895 to 1949. It objectively reviews works and contributions made by foreign archaeologists and other scholars in China during this period of time and also reveals the academic mind-sets of some leading Chinese archaeologists.

  • Ho, Ping-ti. The Cradle of the East: An Inquiry into the Indigenous Origins of Techniques and Ideas of Neolithic and Early Historic China, 5000–1000 B.C. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1975.

    By the 1970s the majority of scholars in the world believed that agriculture was introduced into China from the Middle East. This book points out that China should be seen as one of the primary centers of Neolithic agriculture and that millet must have been domesticated in the Yellow River valley. It challenges the diffusion hypothesis on the origin of prehistoric agriculture at that time.

  • Su Bingqi 苏秉琦 and Yin Weizhang 殷玮璋. “Guanyu kaoguxue wenhua de quxi leixing wenti (关于考古学文化的区系类型问题).” Wenwu 5 (1981): 10–17.

    Translates as “On the issue of the distribution and development of regional cultures in Chinese archaeology.” This article proposes that the Neolithic cultures in China are much diversified and can be classified into six regional types, North China, the middle Yellow River valley, the lower Yellow River valley, the upper Yangzi River valley, the middle-lower Yangzi River valley, and South China, each type with its own cultural characteristics.

  • Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 中国社会科学院考古研究所, ed. Zhongguo kaoguxue: Xinshiqi shidai juan (中国考古学 : 新石器时代卷). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, 2010.

    The book reviews the history of Neolithic archaeology in China, sets the chronology of Neolithic cultures from approximately twelve thousand to four thousand years ago, and summarizes the climatic and natural contexts and major Neolithic cultures in mainland China by regions. It also presents physical anthropological studies of human remains found in Neolithic sites and discusses the origin of agriculture and the beginning of civilizations in China.

  • Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 中国社会科学院考古研究所 and Shanxisheng Xi’an Banpo Bowuguan 陕西省西安半坡博物馆. Xi’an Banpo: Yuanshi shizu gongshe juluo yizhi (西安半坡:原始氏族公社聚落遗址). Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1963.

    The book classifies different geographic locations of prehistoric settlements; analyzes the typological, structural, and chronological changes of houses, burials, and other archaeological remains; and hypothesizes the size of the Neolithic populations and their social structures on the basis of the sizes and locations of the houses, burials, and other artifacts found in the sites. However, it lacks theoretical analysis on social structures.

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