When people today think of ancient Chinese cultures, they immediately think of the more commonly known periods such as the Warring States period and the Ming Dynasty. China’s history stretches many more millennia into the past however, and some of the most important cultures are those that existed in prehistory, the Neolithic era. These cultures are extremely mysterious. We have no written documents by them and little of their villages survive. But scholars are learning more and more about these cultures from their art, namely pottery, that has fortunately survived seemingly countless years buried in the earth. The Yangshao and Longshan are two of these cultures that have left traces of their civilization through pottery remains.
The Yangshao culture is a name given to a large collection of people that lived in the Henan region of China. The earliest piece that can properly be classified as Yangshao is dated at about 5,000 BCE. These people lived in small village communities called yi. The most important excavation site concerning the Yangshao is located at Banpo. Most of the artifacts recovered were exhumed from tombs. The tombs suggest that these communities did have some sort of stratified social order because certain gravesites contained larger quantities of pottery than others, which suggests a higher social standing. The pottery was made from a sturdy type of red clay and baked in kilns. They were decorated with different colored pigments (mostly black and white).
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Much of the early Yangshao pottery has depictions of animals such as fish and birds and even dragons. Later Yangshao culture was influenced by neighboring peoples, such as the Dawenko culture, and the decorations slowly began to become more and more abstract and animal motifs became more rare. The Yangshao pottery served both utilitarian purposes and ritual purposes. A bowl could be used to hold liquids, foods, and other goods or for rituals such as burial rites, which explains why most of the pottery was recovered from tombs and graves.
Longshan culture emerged in 3,000 BCE in the Shandong region. Like the Yangshao, the Longshan is a broad term that encompasses several groups of people. These peoples lived similarly to the Yangshao, in small villages and also made many different forms of pottery. There are, however, two types of pottery that are unique and unlike anything the Yangshao produced. The first is a type of three-legged pitcher called a gui. The pitcher sits on three legs and is designed to heat and pour liquids easily. It is possible that these gui are the direct influence of the early Bronze Age pitchers found in Shang and (Western) Zhou tombs. The second, type of pottery is called “eggshell” pottery. This type of pottery receives its name because the sides of the pieces are only as thick as an eggshell. This indicates a specialized labor force to produce such difficult works of art. These pieces were only found in a very small number of Longshan graves. This indicates that the people who were buried with these items held some special significance in the community. They could have been an early form of nobility, shamans, or wealthy members of society.
It is difficult to say which of these two cultures had a greater influence over the whole of Chinese culture. It would seem that the later Longshan culture could be more easily compared to ritual art of the early Bronze Age. An owl shaped wine container found in the tomb of the Shang noble woman, Lady Hao, is a brass container in the shape of an owl. It looks much like a more advanced gui. Larger containers such as ding could also be descendents of the Neolithic gui.
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Both the Yangshao and Longshan cultures produced impressive works of art, which luckily has survived long enough to be rediscovered, and both may have had important influences in the history of China’s art and cultural world.