Neolithic Period ca. 8000–ca. 2000 B.C.

Selections from the Collection

In China, Neolithic cultures emerged around the eighth millennium B.C., and were primarily characterized by the production of stone tools, pottery, textiles, houses, burials, and jade objects. Such archaeological finds indicate the presence of group settlements where plant cultivation and animal domestication were practiced. Archaeological research, to date, has led to the identification of some sixty Neolithic cultures, most of which are named after the archaeological site where they were first identified. Attempts at mapping Neolithic China have typically grouped the various archeological cultures by geographic location in relation to the courses of the Yellow River in the north and the Yangzi River in the south. Some scholars also group Neolithic culture sites into two broad cultural complexes: the Yangshao cultures in central and western China, and the Longshan cultures in eastern and southeastern China. In addition, changes in ceramic production over time within a "culture" are differentiated into chronological "phases" with corresponding ceramic "types." While ceramics were produced by every Neolithic culture in China, and similarities existed between many different culture sites, the overall picture of cultural interaction and development is still fragmented and far from clear.

Yangshao culture (ca. 4800–ca. 3000 B.C.)

The Yangshao archaeological culture is well known for its painted pottery. It consisted of hundreds of settlements along the Yellow River and Wei River regions, and stretched across the northwestern plains from Shaanxi province in central China to Gansu province in the west. Material finds discovered at Yangshao culture sites include a variety of earthenware shards and vessels, many of which were decorated with painted designs. The paint used to decorate these pots is a fluid mixture of the same clay material as the pottery with added mineral pigments. By about 3000 B.C., the painted decoration begin to show undulating lines, fluid contours, and tapered endings, which indicate the use of a flexible brushlike tool. Wide-mouth bowls and basins with flat bottoms were commonly built by stacking coiled strips of rolled clay that were then smoothed before firing. This technique produced vessels characterized by a gently swelling silhouette with the upper register of the body slightly contracted below an everted rim. Such wares were used in daily life and for burial purposes.

Yangshao culture in central China can be divided into two main phases: Banpo (ca. 4800–ca. 4300 B.C.) and Miaodigou (ca. 4000–ca. 3500 B.C.). The archaeological site at Banpo was located just east of modern-day Xi’an in Shaanxi province. Banpo was discovered in 1953 and excavated between 1954 to 1957. Little is known about the daily lives of the people at Banpo, but excavations have uncovered a settlement covering around 50,000 square feet that included dwelling areas, subterranean storage pits, pens for holding livestock, several pottery kilns, and cemetery areas. The settlement was also located above a stream that provided a reliable water source, and terraces were built to prevent flooding.

The Miaodigou phase is named after a site in northwestern Henan province. The type of ceramic produced in this phase was commonly decorated with painted black lines, dots, leaf-like shapes, and roundels. This decorative vocabulary appears to be the basis for designs on later Miajiayao culture pottery.

Majiayao culture (ca. 3800–ca. 2000 B.C.)

Majiayao culture sites are distributed from Shaanxi province westward along the Wei River to Lanzhou, Gansu province, and along the upper reaches of the Yellow River and into Qinghai province. Phases of Majiayao culture included Majiayao (ca. 3100–ca. 2700 B.C.), Banshan (ca. 2600–ca. 2300 B.C.), and Machang (ca. 2200–ca. 2000 B.C.).

Majiayao phase pottery typically has a red-buff earthenware body with a smoothed surface often finished with black painted decoration, including complicated running-spiral designs with two to four arms. Majiayao pots vary greatly in shape, ranging from bowls to jars with tall necks.

The Banshan phase has a narrower range of pottery shapes and designs. Its large earthenware pots and urns often have designs in black and maroon-red paint on their shoulders. This use of two colors is a chief distinction between Banshan and Majiayao painted pottery.

Dawenkou culture (ca. 4300–ca. 2400 B.C.)

Dawenkou culture takes its name from the archaeological site near the town of Dawenkouzhen in Shandong province. Dawenkou sites have been found along the eastern coast of China in the lower Yellow River valley region in Shandong and northern Jiangsu provinces, and in its later stage extends west into Henan province. Radiocarbon analysis indicates a long period of cultural activity from around 4300–2400 B.C. that is commonly divided into three phases:

Early Dawenkou, ca. 4300–ca. 3500 B.C.

Middle Dawenkou, ca. 3500–ca. 2800 B.C.

Late Dawenkou, ca. 2800–ca. 2400 B.C.

Tombs of various sizes have been excavated at Dawenkou sites, and range from sparsely equipped small burials to large tombs with up to about 180 objects. Artifacts found in the tombs include ceramic vessels, stone tools, jade ornaments, turtleshells, extracted human teeth, dog sacrifices, and pig skulls. The ceramics produced included earthenware vessels colored white, black, red, gray, brown, and yellow, whose types and their shapes changed considerably over the course of the Dawenkou period. The ceramics generally have a smooth finish, and often have been burnished, and they can be decorated with paint, carved, openwork, stamped, or applique designs. In addition, the selection of the clays for particular vessels was often tailored to its purpose. Carefully washed fine clays were reserved for delicate ritual wares, while clay with fine– or coarse–grained sand were often used for heavier utilitarian wares.

Qijia culture (ca. 2200–ca. 1800 B.C.)

The Qijia archaeological culture was discovered in 1923 by the Swedish archaeologist and geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874–1960) along the Tao River in Gansu province, but it was only recognized in 1924 and named after a site at Qijiaping, Guanghe county, Gansu. Qijia succeeded Majiayao culture at the end of the third millennium B.C. at sites in three main geographic zones: Eastern Gansu, Middle Gansu, and Western Gansu/Eastern Qinghai. In addition, Qijia sites were also found in Ningxia province and Inner Mongolia. Cold-hammered and cast metal utensils and mirrors have also been found at Qijia sites, showing that Qijia culture was in a transitional stage between Neolithic and Bronze Age development.

Qijia pottery featured unpainted vessels with flat bottoms, and bodies of an orange-yellow or red-brown clay. Common Qijia vessel types include one- and two-handled jars, and large-mouth jars. The distinctive broad, arched, strap handles and rivet-like details characteristic of Qijia ceramics are imitative of sheet-metal work, and suggests the existence of metal vessels at this time. There were also examples of Qijia painted pottery, especially in Western Gansu and Eastern Qinghai.

Longshan culture (ca. 2600–ca. 2000 B.C.)

The term "Longshan culture" is a general reference to several regional culture centers. In the lower Yellow River basin in northeastern China, the Dawenkou culture was succeeded by Shandong Longshan (ca. 2400–ca. 2000 B.C.). The Middle Yellow River region saw Yangshao culture gradually being replaced by the regional cultures of Shaanxi Longshan (ca. 2300–ca. 2000 B.C.), Henan Longshan (ca. 2600–ca. 2000 B.C.), and Taosi Longshan (ca. 2500–ca. 1900 B.C.). A strong connection to Longshan pottery is also apparent in Liangzhu culture (ca. 3300–ca. 2200 B.C.) in the lower Yangzi River basin in southeast China in the production of unpainted pottery, gui tripod ewers, pierced-stem bowl vessels, and thinly–potted black and gray wares using a reduced–oxygen firing process.

In the Shandong peninsula up until the fifth millennium B.C., ceramic techniques and decoration were similar to other areas. While nearby white wares continued to be produced, a unique potting tradition developed in Shandong by the early fourth millennium B.C. Feather–light wares emphasizing the beauty of the vessel shape were created with extremely thin bodies, and by the third millennium B.C., painted ceramic decoration had all but disappeared. Fast-speed potters' wheels appear to have been first used by Shandong potters. They allowed vessels of eggshell thinness to be produced that may be some the finest earthenware pottery ever made. The overall impression of lightness was sometimes further enhanced with pierced openwork designs. Unattainable with the use of an oxidation firing process, the thinness of the earthenware body was strengthened through the use of a reduced–oxygen firing and carbonization process that produced a completely black surface that was sometimes burnished. Delicate thin blackware stemcups, jars, and vases were found at Shandong Longshan sites but did not seem to have been produced by the Longshan cultures located in the Middle Yellow River region.

Further readings

Regina Krahl, Dawn of the Yellow Earth: Ancient Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection (New York: China Institute Gallery, 2000).

Suzanne G. Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, revised ed. (New York, 1975), pp. 1–19.

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Anonymous, Chinese
Jar with spiral decoration
China, Neolithic period, Majiayao culture, Banshan phase, ca. 2600 - ca. 2300 B.C.
Red earthenware with painted decoration
h. 37.0, diam. 53.0 cm.
Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund