Early Urbanization in the Eastern Zhou in China (770-221 BC): An Archaeological View

By Shen, Chen | Antiquity, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Early Urbanization in the Eastern Zhou in China (770-221 BC): An Archaeological View


Shen, Chen, Antiquity


Take six early Chinese cities from the key Eastern Zhou period, study their shape and topography, see how their development represents both migration into the urban centres and the established structures of the ruling class.

Most previous studies on Chinese urbanization have not paid attention to archaeological perspectives. During the past decade and a half, a great number of early cities, especially Eastern Zhou dynasty cities, have been unearthed, and we can now interpret the matter from an archaeological point of view. This paper explores some patterns of early urbanization during the Eastern Zhou period (770-221 BC), based upon evidence from recent archaeological discoveries at six cities. The essay starts with a brief review of early studies, and then outlines these six Eastern Zhou cities, focussing on their layout plan. Certain patterns of early urbanization are drawn from the comparative study of these cities. Finally, Qufu city is used to exemplify the urbanization process during the Eastern Zhou period.

Research background and problems

Before the 1980s, research on Chinese ancient cities relied heavily on the Classic texts (Wheatley 1970; 1971; Chang 1976). Although some archaeological evidence was applied to support correlations with ancient cities identified in texts, none of these studies was directed towards archaeological interpretations of early urbanization. Most scholarly interest in the state-capital cities of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty by Chinese archaeologists and historians was limited to

1 the geographical localities of cities (Shi 1980; Zhou 1978; Pei 1980),

2 the changes in physical features within cities corresponding to shifts in function (Yu 1985), and

3 the origin of the city-layout plan (Si 1986; Ma 1981; 1984; Li 1987).

As these archaeological interpretations tended merely to verify the written records, few attempts were made to reconstruct the urban life of that 500-year period (Li 1984). Since 1980, adequate archaeological data have become available, and to a certain degree some previous conclusions concerning both the functions of the early city and the standardization of early city layout need to be reconsidered. In this paper I do not discuss these disputes, but it seems necessary to outline briefly some comments.

It seems certain that the early urbanization of China took place in two stages; according to Chang (1976): the first, in the Shang Dynasty, was regarded as a revolution in the social system; the second, in the middle of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, was the result of the reforming of the social order due to 'a technological revolution' (Chang 1976: 60). In his broad analysis of Shang and Zhou texts, Chang has described the Chinese ancient city as a political nucleus and administrative locus (1976: 69; 1983: 1718; 1986: 418-19). On the other hand, Fu views the appearance of early cities as a result of setting up administrative and defensive centres by the ruling class to control their lordland, not as a result of the natural aggregation of population for commercial purposes during the Shang Dynasty (1980: 321-86; 1981: 280). Fu claimed that the cities before the Eastern Zhou in a general sense were not true cities, but 'farmland with walls'. He further noted that the standard layout of the early city reflected the political settlement pattern of the ruling class. According to the Classic text Kuaogong Ji, this kind of settlement pattern strictly followed the principle of the city plan:

The artificers demarcated the [Royal Zhou] capital as a square with sides of 9 li, each side having 3 gateways. Within the capital there were 9 meridional and 9 latitudinal avenues, each of the former being 9 chariot-tracks in width. The ancestor-worship temples were on left side of the city while the god-worship temples on the right. The administrative centre was in the front and the markets were in the back.

It is still widely accepted that most capital cities of the Eastern Zhou States shared these characteristics of layout (Yu 1985; Yang 1984), which led archaeologists to look for features such as gates, streets, temples, palaces, etc. …

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