Zhukaigou, Steppe Culture and the Rise of Chinese Civilization

Article excerpt

Zhukaigou, a late prehistoric site in Inner Mongolia, stands in an important zone, the region where the steppe cultures meet the settled farming civilization of China. As elsewhere across the Asian steppes, that zone where each tradition meets its 'other' is observed both from its archaeology and from such clues as we have to ancient perceptions of 'significant others'.


Between 1977 and 1984 the remains of a settlement at Zhukaigou, in Yijinhouduo Banner, Inner Mongolia, was excavated [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. This important site yielded cultural remains in five stages, dating from the late 3rd to the mid 2nd millennium BC or, by cultural association, parallel to the late Longshan up to the middle Shang Dynasty. Because of its early date, deep stratigraphy and hybrid cultural character, analysis of Zhukaigou is both complex and, therefore, challenging.

In their analyses, the excavators, Tian Guanjin and Guo Suxin, suggest that the bronze artefacts and accompanying pottery found in the fifth Phase at Zhukaigou and surrounding area signal the origins of the 'Ordos style' and they have designated Zhukaigou as the typesite (Institute of Archaeology 1986; Tian & Guo 1988). They use 'Ordos style' to describe the culture and materials from the Ordos, or southwestern Inner Mongolia and not to indicate a broad stylistic category meant to include steppe culture in general. They think that the culture radiated out to other regions and profoundly affected the development of steppe culture in general. During the late Shang period, they say, this is the area (but not the site) where mature, or characteristic, Ordos artefacts are eventually found and where the local tribes become strong enough to threaten the security of the northern borders of the Shang domain. Wu Ding sent troops to this area during the period of the Anyang dominion. By that time the ancient Chinese identification of these very distinctive, non-Chinese groups was complete. But can the cultural distinction be recognized archaeologically in the sequences at Zhukaigou?

My essay gives a preliminary synchronic picture of each level as well as putting forth hypotheses about the process of cultural exchange suggested by variation in cultural debris found in the five Phases at Zhukaigou. In addition, I outline the potential for analysis of social organization and the role that ritual bronze and other artefacts played there in relation to that.


Centuries ago, Chinese historians described the Chinese domain as the Central Kingdom; those falling beyond that realm were outsiders, or loosely referred to as 'barbarians'. They could not have conceived of their neighbours, illiterate speakers of non-Sinitic languages, coming within the Chinese sphere of culture and economy. Having had their history written by Chinese chroniclers, these people were 'without history', and yet these barbarians were often central players, the 'significant others' of the early Chinese historiographers. The best-known account of the origins of the Zhou, recounting the period dating approximately 1500-1000 BC (Shiji 4/4), even claims that the pre-dynastic Zhou peoples deserted the camp of Hou Qi, their founder, and the Office of Agriculture to live among the 'barbarians'.

The semi-legendary record of the Zhou points out several features of pre-dynastic Zhou life thought salient by historians. First, the Zhou established a political and social entity under Hou Qi coincident with the adoption of agriculture and a sedentary life-style. Second, this way of life was altered when the Zhou moved outside the known sphere of Chinese cultivation and, third, they traced their historic heritage to the period of the supposed Xia prominence, or the late 3rd millennium BC. This temporary shift in location must have taken them to a zone where agriculture was not practised consistently, and/or where customs were quite different from those practised by the Zhou. …