THE ORIGIN OF ARCHAIC STATES and civilizations is the subject of an ongoing research in anthropological archaeology. In the past, much of the discussion has focused on the ancient Near East and Central or South America. Ancient China, with her wealth of historical records and archaeological evidence, was until recently mostly absent from this global archaeological debate (cf., however, Chang 1983; Keightley 1983; Liu Li 1996; Service 1975; Shelach 1994, 1998; Underhill 1991, 1994). China's absence from the global archaeological debate on the origin of archaic states probably stems from the lack of effective communication between Chinese and foreign archaeologists, associated with linguistic and political barriers. With the opening of China to the West as an equal power, and with the increase in academic communication, archaeological understanding between East and West is improving. China is now granted greater attention, as is her prehistory and protohistory. In this climate, it is now possible to address problems concerning the origins of Chinese civilization and to reevaluate the role played by predynastic polities in the establishment of state-level society at the time of the first dynasty, Xia (2100-1600 B.C.). This predynastic period, known from traditional sources as the legendary Five Emperors period (Wudi Shi), is known archaeologically as the Longshan era.
In addressing the problem of increasing complexity in the Longshan era, some scholars (Liu Li 1996; Underhill 1991, 1994) have proposed that this period represents the prestate stage of socioeconomic and political organization referred to in cultural evolution as chiefdom. In these studies, the label of chiefdom is applied to the Longshan period to suggest that these societies were quite complex but had not reached the more complex level of sociopolitical organization known as the state. While these assessments of the relative complexity of the Longshan-era societies are sound, the use of the chiefdom concept for the Chinese evidence is not particularly useful or explanatory. This is because chiefdom, a term first used by Elman R. Service (1962) to identify one of four societal stages (bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states), is a generic descriptive concept whose intrinsic lack of specificity is bound to increase once the term is applied to the archaeological record, where, unlike in ethnographic or historical context, clear-cut socioeconomic and political structures are generally difficult to identify.
According to Johnson and Earle (1987:207),
The evolution of chiefdoms is marked by distinctive changes in the scale of
society, in the organization of leadership and stratification, and in
political economy. The scale of the society is the most dramatic change.
Chiefdoms are regional systems integrating several local groups within a
single polity (Carneiro 1981). For the first time the polity, defined as a
group organized under a single ruling chief, is unusually large in
comparison with non-stratified societies; however, the more dramatic change
is in the size of the population that is united politically.
The sheer size of chiefdoms mandates the existence of a hierarchical organization, dominated by a ruling elite that has control over the religious, political, and social realms. Archaeologically, chiefdoms are said to be identifiable by the exchange of prestige goods and the presence of large-scale constructions that are taken as symptoms of the "central organization of a large labor force and [of] the function of a site as a regional ceremonial and political center" (Johnson and Earle 1987:207). However, other elements of chiefdoms generally considered essential to the definition (e.g., chiefly control of redistribution, chiefly political power, etc.) are difficult to detect in archaeological contexts. Even more worrying, for an archaeologist, is that chiefdom definitions are not tied to a specific type of settlement pattern (Feinman and Neitzel 1984: 65-72). …