"The Products of Minds as Well as of Hands": Production of Prestige Goods in the Neolithic and Early State Periods of China

Article excerpt

THE EARLIEST PRESTIGE ITEMS, as the first indications of emerging social inequality, although rarely found, may be traced back to as early as the Middle Palaeolithic. During the Upper Palaeolithic prestige goods were produced more frequently and in larger quantities, and have ever since played a significant role in the development of social inequalities in human history (for a review see Hayden 2001:235-243,254-255).

The production of prestige goods is associated with craft specialization developing out of political strategies. Therefore, variables involved in the production and distribution of prestige items can provide insight into the political structure of a given society (for a review see Costin 2001). Increased labor input in prestige-item production often correlates with greater political centralization, because more centralized societies tend to use more complex prestige items, many of which require significant labor investment and sophisticated techniques to produce them (Peregrine 1991). Manufacturing high-status goods out of materials derived from distant sources would give a great amount of potential control to the elite class (Helms 1979, 1988; Renfrew and Shennan 1982). By limiting access to knowledge, skill, tools, and raw material, the elite can gain economic and political advantage (Costin 1998a; Peregrine 1991). By monopolizing the production process of prestige goods, the elite may achieve great control of the society economically and symbolically (Earle 1987).

This article examines these propositions based on data from production processes of prestige goods in ancient China, focusing on procurement of raw material, and on manufacture, redistribution, and consumption of ritual objects. By revealing the changes in the relationship between the production of ritual objects and sociopolitical complexity from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, I argue that some fundamental political and economic changes, which occurred during the Erlitou period, indicate the transition from pre-state to state societies in North China.


In general there were three major categories of ritual objects in the early Bronze Age of China: jades, finely made pottery, and bronze vessels. Jades and high-quality ceramics were used as prestige goods throughout the Neolithic period, while bronzes first appeared as small tools, weapons, and ornaments in the late Neolithic, mainly during the third millennium B.C., and then became ritual objects in Erlitou Phase III (c. 1700 B.C.). The earliest bronze ritual objects took the forms of certain ceramic vessels, particularly white wares, which were mainly used for drinking. Jade artifacts and ritual ceramics and bronzes may have had different functions in ritual ceremonies and conveyed different social meanings.

Previous studies on these ritual objects may be described as having five general approaches. The first is formal, focusing on typology, classification, and spatial distribution of artifacts (e.g., Gao and Shao 1981; Institute of Archaeology 1985, 1994; Loehr 1968; Ren 1995; Xia 1986). The second approach is functional, emphasizing symbolic meanings of certain forms and decorative motifs (e.g., Chang 1983, 1989; Childs-Johnson 1988; Guo 1997; Mou 1997; Nelson 1995; Wu 1985). These two methods, dealing mainly with the consumption of finished products, have been the dominant research strategies during the past decades. The third approach is material, which, although not new, has drawn great attention from scholars in recent years. It investigates the mineral components and the provenance of raw materials of prestige goods, including bronze alloys (Jin 2000; Jin et al. 1995; Shih 1955), jade (Jing and Wen 1996; Wen and Jing 1992, 1997), and pottery (e.g., Chen et al. 1999; Xu et al. 2000). The fourth research theme is technological, especially focusing on metal mining (e.g., Golas 1999) and bronze casting (e. …