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1. Prehistorical Period (10000 to 2000 BC)
From Longshan culture to Yangshao culture.
Sites of major neolithic cultures in China
Major Neolithic and historic cultures in China over 6 millennia.
2. The Three Dynasties of China
Political sphere of Xia, Shang and pre-dynasty Zhou. See Chang, 1981, p. 155
2. Chronology of Xia-Shang-Zhou, the Three Dynasties (夏商周斷代)
The precise dating of Chinese history started in 841 BCE, the first year of Gong-Ho of Zhou Dynasty. Before that the
dating became fuzzy. For example, the date of Zhou Conquest has been studied over the past two thousand years with
about 44 different dates proposed (e.g. Shaughnessy, 1985-1987). However, scholars now can use a whole array of
technologies, in addition to ancient texts, to reconstruct the chronology of distant ancient time. The following list some of
these methodologies.
(1) Genealogy
Analysis of the genealogy listed ancient textual materials, particularly the Book of History (Sima Qian) and Bamboo
Annals. For example, between the end of King You of Zhou (771 BCE) and King Zhou of Shang (the last King of Shang
Dynasty) there were 11 Zhou kings. Then there were 17 kings from King Zhou to King Cheng Tang, the founder of Shang
Dynasty, and another 14 generations (or tribal leaders) to Qi, the Founding Father of Shang and a contemporary of Yu the
Great, the founder of Xia Dynasty. Thus there were 40 generations between King You and the Great Yu of Xia.
Assuming 30 years per generation, we can estimate that the beginning of Xia Dynasty should be dated around 1971 BCE.
The book Bamboo Annals was a set of chronological records of Wei Kingdom during the Period of Warring States (480-221
BCE) written on strips of bamboo sticks which were unearthed from a tomb of Wei ruler in Ji Jun (Henan Province, Ji
County) at the time of Jin Wu Di (Emperor Wu of Jin Dynasty) in 281 AD. The book gives a chronology of important
events from the time of sage Kings until the last year of Wei Xiang King (299 BCE). This book offers an invaluable source
of data on ancient China.
(2) Archaeology
The three dynasties, Xia (c 1971-1600 BCE), Shang (c. 1600-1000 BCE), and Zhou (c. 1000-221 BCE), covers a period of
2000 years in Chinese history. Although dynasty-wise, they succeeded each other in the order indicated, there are both
textual and archaeological evidence suggesting that Xia, Shang, and Zhou represent distinct, geographically and
culturally, yet related people. As late Professor Chang Kwang-chih pointed out: both new and old textual data indicate
considerable temporal overlap between Xia and Shang as political powers and between Shang and Zhou as well. The
evidence is beginning to be substantiated by radioacrbon dates (Chang, 1980, p.350).
The parallel development model of the Three Dynasties
civilization (Chang, 1980, p. 354)
(3) Dating by astronomy:
(i) Planetary conjunction (Pang, 1987). Conjuction of planets
are infrequent.The period of Jupiter is nearly 12 years and
that of Saturn nearly 30. The closeness of these periods to
the number of "earthly branches" and half the number of
years or days in a gan-zhih cycle was undoubtedly noticed by ancient Chinese astronomers. Indeed, Jupiter was at one
time called the Year Star (Shuei xing) and used to keep time. Conjunction of the five planets, Mars (Fire Star, 火星huo
xing), Jupiter (Wood Star, 木星mu xing), Venus (Gold Star or Great White Star, jin star), Mercury (Water Star, shuei xing),
and Saturn (Soil Star, tu xing) occurs about once every 500 years and was thought to be an epochal event. The
periodicity of planetary motion greatly impressed ancient Chinese philosophers and astronomers. Menzi (孟子Mencius)
went as far as declaring that great sages are born once every 500 years. With planetary motions perceived to have such
influence over earthly affairs it was only natural that ancient
Chinese astronomers observed and recorded them carefully.
"The Prognostication of the Five Planets", unearthed in the
Han Tomb at Mawangdui (ca. 170 B.C.) contains accurate
records of planetary positions kept for 70 years. According
to the book by Stahlman and Gingerich (1963), from
February 10 to March 1, 1953 B.C., Mercury, Venus, Mars,
Jupiter and Saturn came within 4° of one another. No such
quintuplet conjunction occurred for centuries before or after
this date. Such a spectacular display in the heavens must
have greatly impressed early Chinese astronomers and was
undoubtedly noticed and recorded. A record of this event
can provide us with a second absolute date for fixing the
chronology of Xia. Indeed we find in ancient textual
materials the following two pieces of relevant data.
Arcaheological sites associated with three dynasties as a function of
geography and time (Chang, 1980)
In <Hsiao Ching Ko Ming Cheh > in the 30th chapter of Ku
Wei Shu, a collection of ancient astronomical writings
compiled by Kung An Kuo in the 2nd century B.C., we find
the following passage:
"At the time of Yu the five planets were strung together like
a necklace. (They) shone as brilliantly as chained jade
Tai Pi Yu Lan, vol 7, see the last two lanes.
A very similar passage also appears in the 7th volume of Tai Ping Yu Lan, an encyclopedia compiled in 983 A.D.:
"According to Ko Ming Shih, at the time of Yu the planets were tied together like a string of beads, shining brilliantly as
chained jade disks . . ."
(ii) Solar or lunar eclipse
The occurrence of past solar and lunar eclipses can be dated with great accuracy, as on the scale of recorded history
(several millennia) the motions of the Earth around the sun and the moon around the Earth are practically invariant.
However, the rotation rate of the Earth has been varying to such an extent that these changes must be taken into
account in determining whether a past eclipse, though having occurred, was visible from a certain location or not
(Stephenson, 1982). Using ancient solar eclipse observations, including those from China made after 700 B.C. (i.e., when
the absolute dates are known), Stephenson and Morrison (1984) and others determined the past deceleration rates of the
Earth's rotation with great accuracy.
The textual record of the earliest solar eclipse is also the only Xia eclipse record. It thus has immeasurable value for
determining Xia chronology, and deserves a full discussion here. The earliest mention of this event is also by the Book of
Documents, in the chapter on the punitive expedition of Prince Yin. To pick up from where we left off in the second
section, Hsi and Ho (or their descendents with the same titles) had apparently neglected their duties to observe the
celestial bodies, and indulged in wining instead. The passage reads as follows:
"When Chung Kang (仲康 the fourth Xia King) began his reign over all within the Four Seas, the prince of Yin (胤侯) was
ordered to take command of six divisions. (At this time) Hsi and Ho had neglected their duties and were drunk in their
(private) cities, and the prince of Yin received the king's order to punish them . . ."
Addressing his troops the Prince of Yin mentioned the following crime of Hsi and Ho:
"On the first day of the last month of autumn the sun and moon did not meet harmoniously in (the 4th lunar mansion)
Fang! The blind musicians beat their drums, and the lower ranked officers and common people bustled and ran about. Hsi
and Ho, however, as if they were mere impersonators of the dead in their offices, heard nothing and knew nothing . . ."
The poetic but imprecise language used here has rendered the passage open to different interpretations. Although the
reaction of the people are characteristic of what happens during an eclipse (drum beating and commotion) the non-usage
of the standard phrase "the sun was eclipsed" caused scholars to question whether this is an eclipse record or not; see,
for example, Newton (1970). Looking at this passage in the context of discussions held during a solar eclipse that did
occur in the Spring and Autumn period; Wang and Siscoe (1980) argue that this is indeed an eclipse record. The relevant
passage is from Tso Chuan, a 5th century B.C. commentary on Spring and Autumn, written by Confucius:
"Seventeenth year of Duke Zhao (525 B.C.). In the summer, 6th month, on day chia-xu (August 21) there was a solar
eclipse . . ." While discussing what protocol should be followed during a solar eclipse, the duke's historian recalled that:
"This is what is written in the Xia Shu or Book of Xia: 'The sun and moon did not meet harmoniously in Fang, the blind
beat the drum, low ranking officials mounted their horses, and people ran up in haste'. That is said of the first day of this
month;—it was in the 4th month of the Xia year, which is called the first month of summer."
Although neither of these two records directly states that a solar eclipse occurred during Xia, the following passage from
the Bamboo Annals does:
"King Chung Kang . . . 5th year, autumn, first day of 9th month, day keng-xu, the sun was eclipsed. (The king) ordered
the Prince of Yin to command an expeditionary force to punish Hsi and Ho."
In the above passages the month of the Xia eclipse is given differently: Tso Chuan, quoting the Book of Xia, says that
the eclipse happened in the 4th month (or the first month of summer); while the other two sources say it was the 9th
month (or the last month of autumn). In the Xia calender, which is still widely used as the "agricultural calendar", the 4th
month is equivalent to May, while the 9th month is equivalent to October. To find out which of the two months is correct
one needs to only look up ancient records (or compute) to learn out where in the zodiac the sun was during the
respective months early in the second millennium B.C. Several of the books written during the Zhou dynasty (1100 221
B.C.), e.g., Canon of Yao or Li Chi, Yue Ling (or Monthly Ordinances of Zhou) give this information. For example, the
latter says:
"In the 4th month of the Xia year, the sun was in the l9th lunar mansion Pi . . . In the 9th month of the Xia year, the sun
was in the 4th lunar mansion Fang . . ."
Using the latest available solar eclipse canon (Mucke and Meeus, 1983) we can now confidently date the Xia solar
eclipse. A careful check of the eclipse canon yields October 16, 1876 B.C. as the only correct match. The annular
eclipse on that day was visible from China.
(4) Dating by meteorological and geological evidence
Case 1:
"Among events of divine ordering there was... after Caesars murder [March 15, 44 B.C.] . . . the obscuration of the sun's
rays. For during all that year its orb rose pale and without radiance... and the fruits, imperfect and half ripe, withered away
and shriveled up on account of the coldness of the atmosphere."—Plutarch, Caesar (circa A.D. 100)
From the Chinese chronicles of the Han dynasty: 43 B.C., third month,
"It snowed. Frosts killed mulberries." Fourth month, "the sun was
bluish white and cast no shadow. At high noon there were shadows
but dim." Ninth month, second day, "Frosts killed crops, widespread
famine. Wheat crops damaged, no harvest in autumn. "
With the excerpts from Plutarch and many others, Stothers and
Rampino were able to pinpoint the eruption date of this particular
volcano to 44 B.C. They also suspect that the volcano was Mt. Etna
in Sicily, for like others, Vergil wrote: "After the death of Caesar... how
often we saw Etna flooding out from her burst furnaces, boiling over
the Cyclopean fields, and whirling forth balls of flame and molten
stones. "
Case 2:
An excerpt from Chinese records notes observations that researchers
believe are related to the 1120 B. C. eruption of the volcano Hekla in
Iceland. On the left is a passage from The Bamboo Annals. It reads:
"Fifth year of King Chou [the last
king of the preceding Yin dynasty]
it rained dust at Bo. "
Book of Former Han, Year 43 BC, Han Xuan Di,
One of the oldest volcanic
Yong Yuan First Year.
eruptions to be studied through
historical literature is placed at
1120 B.C. + 50 years by ice core acidity measurements. Scientists, believing that the
Icelandic volcano Hekla is responsible for that acidity peak, have obtained a time of
eruption of 950 B.C. + 130 years using radiocarbon dating at the volcano. Pang and
Chou have found accounts in the Chinese record of the volcano's effect that report
unusually long dust storms of gray ash. In Lu Tao, a Zhou dynasty book, the
researchers read that one foot of snow fell in the sixth month and that the crops
didn't ripen. " In China, snow in the sixth month is like our expression once in a blue
moon," says Pang. "This is especially true because we know—based on the fact that
elephants and rhinos were seen on the banks of the Yellow River— that the climate in
China at that time was much warmer than it is now."
Since most reports of these events were written long after 1120 B.C. by chroniclers
compiling all the happenings that had occurred in the previous dynasties, Pang feels
that they can't be completely trusted. So he and Chou turned to the only written
records from that time—oracle bones, radiocarbon dated before the Zhou dynasty at
1095 B.C. + 90 years. (Paper
From Bamboo Annals. It reads
"Fifth year of King Chou [the last
had yet to be invented.) As a
king of the preceding Yin
means of fortunetelling,
dynasty] it rained dust at Bo. "
questions about the future
were carved into these oracle
bones—made of turtle shell or oxen bone—and the answer was
thought to depend on how the shell or bone cracked when
exposed to heat. Chou went through 100,000 pieces of oracle
bones, noting all the questions potentially relevant to volcanoes.
Some of the oracle bones, dated around 1120 B.C., have alluded
the fact that there was a year without harvest, that the seedlings
died and that the Chi—the sacrificial ceremony—was performed
throughout the land. Pang believes that the sacrifices, possibly
human, were made to appease the gods during the bad weather.
Correlation between Greenland acidity dates and
the basis of this archaeological evidence, the researchers
Chinese and European historical dates
concluded that the radiocarbon date of the eruption—950 B.C. +
150 years—should be refined to a date of 1100 B.C. with an
uncertainity of + 80 years and - 60 years, which is more in tune with the ice core data.
There is a very good correspondence between the dates of volcanic eruptions as determined from historical records and
those measured by acidity peaks in Greenland ice cores. Here the historical date (from reports of "dry fog,” adverse
weather and observations of eruptions) is plotted against the Greenland date for very large explosive eruptions that
occurred between 1500 B. C. and A.D. 1500. Radiocarbon dates are a/so included. Horizontal and vertical lines are
"uncertainty bars"; actual dates could fall anywhere between them. Question marks at 270 B. C. and A. D. 934 indicate
times in which abnormally cold weather was reported but no other symptoms of volcanic eruptions such as "dry fogs "
were noted. They also occur during times that were poorly chronicled in general.
3. Project Nine-Five—The Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project
Modern experts use science to unravel China's early history-Nine-Five Project has helped promote a deeper
understanding of many early historical and literary works, according to philologists involved in the project.
Peng Lin (Tsinghua University): "While historical documents are key elements in clarifying the outlines of early dynasties,
other scientific methods, especially physical and astronomic means, help correct many views on traditional documents,"
"The Chinese have studied philology for thousands of years, but many clues helpful in clarifying the early dynasties have
been neglected," Peng said. "However, we have been able to pick up more clues during our research." For example, the
"Bamboo Annals" recorded a solar eclipse during the Xia Dynasty, but many scholars pushed the description aside due to
lack of evidence. Even the veracity of the "Bamboo Annals" was called into question.
Xi Zezong (academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences): "The ancients were superstitious, and they counted
special celestial phenomena as signs from the gods. They noted the phenomena in their own calendars, which became
obscure to later generations, for example, a piece of animal bone dating back to the late Shang Dynasty bears four
ancient Chinese characters, meaning "three fires eat the sun." The inscriptions also indicate a month and a date in the
calendar then. In the past, both Chinese and international scholars thought that this piece of oracle bone recorded a
solar eclipse. But through new scientific calculations, astronomers, scientists and historians have found that no such
astronomical phenomena occurred during the period indicated on the oracle bone." Philologists have now determined that
the previous interpretation of the ancient characters "shi ri," meaning "eat the sun," was wrong. The words are now
considered to have nothing to do with solar eclipse.
During the project, scholars found two other ancient history books - the "Records of the Historian"by Sima Qian (135-87
BC) in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and "Shangshu (Book of Historical Documents)" also documented the eclipse.
Astronomers then went on to corroborate the ancient records with their own calculations. Consequently, the record was
recognized as a valuable clue in helping determine the chronology of the Xia Dynasty, said Liao, associate professor in
Qinghua University, who is also a member of the team that sorts out and authenticates related records in the "Shangshu"
and the "Bamboo Annals."
Commenting on the dismissal of the existence of this part of early Chinese history by numerous scholars, Liao said that
such scholars were far from objective in their principles and methods. "They often drew their conclusions upon one or two
ascertained historical records. They didn't try to find other evidence to compare," Liao said.
But the excavation of many ancient ruins has yielded ample relics from the Xia and Shang dynasties, refuting their
arguments, Liao said. According to Peng, results from the project are sometimes in clear conflict with certain authoritative
views, but abundant proof obtained through various scientific methods seem to support the new results. Peng and Liao
said that modern Chinese have the right and responsibility to know their early civilized history. "But we abide by scientific
rules, and perform all our work in accordance with scientific methods," Liao said.
Chang, Kwang-chih, American Scientist, 69, 148-160, 1981
Chang, Kwang-chih, Shang Civilization, Yale University Press, 1980
Legge, J., 1960. The Chinese Classics, Vol. 3. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong., 785pp.
Mucke, H. and Meeus, J., 1983. Canon of Solar Eclipses, - 2003 to + 2526. Astronomisches Buro, Vienna, 908pp.
Pang, K.D. and Chou, H.H., 1984. A correlation between Greenland ice core climatic horizons and : ancient Oriental
meteorological records. Eos, 65:846.
Pang, K.D. and Chou, H.H., 1985. Three very large volcanic eruptions in antiquity and their effects on the climate of the
ancient world. Eos, 66: 816.
Pang, Kevin D., Journal of Hydrology, 96, 139-155, 1987
Shaughnessy, Edward L. Early China, vol 11-12, p. 33, 1985-1987
Stephenson, F.R. 1982. Historical eclipses. Sci. Am., 247: 170 182.
Wang, P.K. and Siscoe, G.L., 1980. Ancient Chinese observations of physical phenomena attending solar eclipses.
Solar Phys., 66: 187-193.
Wang, S., 1985. The variation of droughts and floods in China during Qing dynasty. Presented a t Workshop on Qing
Population History, Cali£ Inst. Technol., Pasadena, Cali£
Weisburd, Stefi, Science News, 127, 91-94, 1985
Stahlman, W.D. and Gingerich, O., 1963. Solar and Planetary Longitudes for Years - 2500 to + 2000 by 10-Day
Intervals. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisc., pp566.