Chinese History/Paleolithic sites

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Although Paleolithic China does not directly influence the culture and other works of art during imperial China, it is still interesting to discuss China in that period of time. There are already numerous findings of paleolithic sites in China, which the number is still increasing to this date. This chapter will talk about the content found in the sites and the connections between paleolithic and neolithic China. But first, let's understand what Paleolithic is and enjoy some myths surrounding ancient China.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

A descriptive drawing of a stone tool used in various ways during the Paleolithic.

The Paleolithic, also known as the Old Stone Age, is a period when, as the name suggests, humans developed and used tools made of stones, which extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins c. 3.3 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene. Still, the range of the period is abstract. Discoveries made around the world expanded our knowledge on what Paleolithic was like. Stone tools such as projectile points, engraving tools, knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools are found while their bone made counterparts are also discovered in Africa. Humans also made tools out of leather and other organic materials; however, since those organic materials can be easily decomposed by organisms, these have not survived to any great degree. Humans lived in small groups and their societies resembles the hunting-gathering society model most. Agriculture would not be discovered until the mythological appearance of Huang Di and Yan Di in ancient China who would then teach their followers the art of agriculture.

This triangle pointed tool, excavated at Shanxi Province, China, was made from a large flake of a type of metamorphic rock with the back shaped into a sharp ridge and was used to dig up plant and tree roots.

Technology[edit | edit source]

Technology Purpose Notes
Stone tools cutting and chopping tools, digging implements, flaking cores, the use in traps, a purely ritual significance the purposes of the tools are still debated
Fire provide protection against predators, provide heat for survival the use of fire only became common in societies in the Middle Stone Age
Rafts travel over large bodies of water to look for new land to colonize the Yangtze, Yellow River, and the Taiwan Strait are examples of bodies of water in China
Advanced stone tools produce sharper and more effective spears and other similar tools harpoons are invented

Creation Mythologies[edit | edit source]

There are stories that revolve around mythological individuals or substances that lead to the creation or improvement of lives in ancient China around this period. This sections will focus on various mythological stories to give us a relatively comprehensive understanding of Chinese culture. This is also a great opportunity to find how different dynasties of people view prehistoric China differently.

The words Tao Te Ching in lesser seal script

Different people have their own views on how the Earth is created. In contemporary society, we believe that the universe was created through the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. However, due to technological limitations, people in ancient China did not have access to telescopes and other equipment. Instead, they created their own versions through folklore, their experience, ideologies, and imaginations, which greatly influenced Chinese culture.

Tao Te Ching (道德經)[edit | edit source]

Tao Te Ching, traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC (during the Spring and Autumn Period) sage Laozi, is a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism. In his piece, he stated that

There was something featureless yet complete, born before heaven and earth; Silent—amorphous—it stood alone and unchanging. We may regard it as the mother of heaven and earth. Commonly styled "The Way."

The Way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures. The myriad creatures bear yin on their back and embrace yang in their bosoms. They neutralize these vapors and thereby achieve harmony. (道生一,一生二,二生三,三生萬物。萬物負陰而抱陽,沖氣以為和)

As the quotes suggest, Taoism focuses strongly on the balance between yin and yang. Taoism will then become one of the major philosophies in Chinese culture.

The contents of LiSao - one of the many sections of Chu Ci.

Chu Ci (楚辭)[edit | edit source]

Chu Ci, traditionally attributed mainly to Qu Yuan and Song Yu from the Warring States period, though contains a lament of politics in the Chu kingdom, has a piece dedicated to mythologies: Heavenly Questions. According to legend, Qu Yuan wrote this piece in verse after being exiled from the royal court of Chu and viewing various scenes depicted on temple murals.

Who passed down the story of the far-off, ancient beginning of things? How can we be sure what it was like before the sky above and the earth below had taken shape? Since none could penetrate that murk when darkness and light were yet undivided, how do we know about the chaos of insubstantial forms? What manner of things are the darkness and light? How did Yin and Yang come together, and how did they originate and transform all things that are by their commingling? Whose compass measured out the ninefold heavens? Whose work was this, and how did he accomplish it? Where were the circling cords fastened, and where was the sky's pole fixed? Where did the Eight Pillars meet the sky, and why were they too short for it in the south-east? Where do the nine fields of heaven extend to and where do they join each other? The ins and outs of their edges must be very many: who knows their number? How does heaven coordinate its motions? Where are the Twelve Houses divided? How do the sun and the moon hold to their courses and the fixed stars keep their places? (曰:遂古之初,誰傳道之?上下未形,何由考之?冥昭瞢闇,誰能極之?馮翼惟像,何以識之?明明闇闇,惟時何爲?陰陽三合,何本何化?圜則九重,孰營度之?惟茲何功,孰初作之?斡維焉系,天極焉加?八柱何當,東南何虧?九天之際,安放安屬?隅隈多有,誰知其數?天何所沓?十二焉分?日月安屬?列星安陳?)

Through his depiction of the murals, he effectively described the creation of the world using questions. However, after some further reading, we can see that there is no "start" of creation stated. From the "formless expanse" the primeval element of misty vapor emerges spontaneously as a creative force, which is organically constructed as a set of binary forces in opposition to each other-upper and lower spheres, darkness and light, Yin and Yang – whose mysterious transformations bring about the ordering of the universe."

Chu Ci is considered as one of the most important works of art because of the beautiful use of rhymes and diction. This piece in particular reflected the passion and desperation of Qu Yuan when he encountered the temple murals. In the later parts of this piece, he would continue his delicately arranged questions on more mythologies.

Nüwa (女媧補天)[edit | edit source]

One of many depictions of the godly Nüwa in Tomb of the Four Spirits in Jilin province, China.

Nüwa is the mother goddess of Chinese mythology, the sister and wife of Fuxi, the emperor-god. In Chinese mythology, she is credited to repairing the Pillar of Heaven and creating humans. Interestingly, in Chu Ci, the author also questioned her ability to do such godly tasks. The story Nüwa's heroic actions was recorded in Huainanzi, an ancient Chinese text that consists of a collection of essays that resulted from a series of scholarly debates held at the court of Liu An during the Warring States Period:

Going back to more ancient times, the four [of 8] pillars were broken; the nine provinces were in tatters. Heaven did not completely cover [the earth]; Earth did not hold up [Heaven] all the way around [its circumference]. Fires blazed out of control and could not be extinguished; water flooded in great expanses and would not recede. Ferocious animals ate blameless people; predatory birds snatched the elderly and the weak. Thereupon, Nüwa smelted together five-colored stones in order to patch up the azure sky, cut off the legs of the great turtle to set them up as the four pillars, killed the black dragon to provide relief for Ji Province, and piled up reeds and cinders to stop the surging waters. The azure sky was patched; the four pillars were set up; the surging waters were drained; the province of Ji was tranquil; crafty vermin died off; blameless people [preserved their] lives. Bearing the square [nine] provinces on her back and embracing Heaven, [Fuxi and Nüwa established] the harmony of spring and the yang of summer, the slaughtering of autumn and the restraint of winter...The Yellow Emperor produced yin and yang. Shang Pian produced ears and eyes; Sang Lin produced shoulders and arms. Nüwa used these to carry out the seventy transformations.

Note that the Yellow Emperor, Shang Pian, and Sang Lin were all obscure mythic divinities, which we will discuss in later chapters.

The image of Pangu from Sancai Tuhui, a leishu encyclopedia featuring illustrations of subjects in the three worlds of heaven, earth, and humanity.

Pangu (盤古開天闢地)[edit | edit source]

The first writer to record the myth of Pangu was Xu Zheng during the Three Kingdoms period. It is one of the more popular creation myths among people. It is recorded that:

Heaven and earth were in chaos like a chicken's egg, and Pangu was born in the middle of it. In eighteen thousand years Heaven and the earth opened and unfolded. The limpid that was Yang became the heavens, the turbid that was Yin became the earth. Pangu lived within them, and in one day he went through nine transformations, becoming more divine than Heaven and wiser than earth. Each day the heavens rose ten feet higher, each day the earth grew ten feet thicker, and each day Pangu grew ten feet taller. And so it was that in eighteen thousand years the heavens reached their fullest height, earth reached its lowest depth, and Pangu became fully grown. Afterwards, there was the Three Sovereign Divinities. Numbers began with one, were established with three, perfected by five, multiplied with seven, and fixed with nine. That is why Heaven is ninety thousand leagues from earth...When the firstborn, Pangu, was approaching death, his body was transformed. His breath became the wind and clouds; his voice became peals of thunder. His left eye became the sun; his right eye became the moon. His four limbs and five extremities became the four cardinal points and the five peaks. His blood and semen became water and rivers. His muscles and veins became the earth's arteries; his flesh became fields and land. His hair and beard became the stars; his bodily hair became plants and trees. His teeth and bones became metal and rock; his vital marrow became pearls and jade. His sweat and bodily fluids became streaming rain. All the mites on his body were touched by the wind and evolved into the black-haired people.

There are more stories that the ancient Chinese believed that existed "far far ago". We will discuss it more in later chapters.

Paleolithic Sites in China[edit | edit source]