Taosi. The first capital of China

ethnic china

Taosi. The first capital of China

Taosi is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in China in the past decades. Located in the southern part of Shanxi province, is possibly the first urban center emerged in China. The excavation of the ancient city of Taosi, which disappeared around the year 2000 BC, is showing historians that it is at least one, possibly the most important, of the Chinese cities in the period immediately preceding the establishment of the first dynasties.

It is considered that Taosi belongs to the last period of the Longshan Culture, but many of the aspects that characterized the China of the following centuries are already present in Taosi, or sometimes its evolution is discovered inside its walls. Although in some cases the evidence may seem a little forced, Nu He discovers in Taosi an urban structure similar to the one pointed out by the Chinese classics almost 2000 years later, with structures for the worship of the Heaven (in the south), the Earth (in the north) and the other elements that later will make the Bagua popular, symbols of the boar’s tusks related to the war, and even a chamber where ice could have been made following the techniques mentioned in the Book of Songs.

The importance of Taosi is so great, that the prestigious Chinese publication Kaogu (Archaeology) has called it «The beginning of China».

Archaeological Remains

Its archaeological remains show a strongly centralized political organization. A capital surrounded by imposing walls, secondary city-sized centers near it, and a group of small and medium sized settlements throughout the territory. In the capital of Taosi have been identified some structures that are a vivid testimony of its greatness, as walled enclosures made of rammed earth 8 meters wide, which protected an urban area of twenty-eight square kilometers. This discovery has made Taosi the largest walled city known in prehistoric China (Pankenier 2013: 19).

The urban area includes large rammed earth platforms, large buildings, roads, a large cemetery, storage warehouses and a craft production area (Zhu 2013: 173).  The palace was built in a central location, situated in a noble area clearly separated from other sections of the city. There was also a craft production area, with buildings for different products, which were supervised by specific officials. The most interesting thing was that there was a ritual area with a wall around it to avoid the presence of the common people.

More than 1,300 tombs have also been found, including those of the chiefs of the early period, which point to the emergence of a kingdom of considerable size with powerful commercial contacts (Pankenier 2013: 18).

First characters in Taosi

Even more sensational has been the discovery of brush-written glyphs reminiscent of the oracular bone writing of the Shang Dynasty half a millennium later, which has led to speculation about the possible contemporary use of writing on perishable materials that have not survived. A theory already proposed based on the etymology of some characters, such as 册 or 扁, which in their most archaic forms are clearly pictographs of bound bamboo tablets. A bone hoe seems to be engraved with a glyph that researchers believe would be an archaic form of chen 辰, which means cultivation, which could have been used in agricultural rituals.

Masters in Astronomy

The most important elements of the ritual area were the facilities of the observatory, since the issuing of the calendar was the duty of the king, and the astronomers of the observatory gave him precise data.  The platform could have been used to observe the rising Sun, and it could have had both ritual and astronomical functions, both a sacrificial altar and a solar observation platform. The observatory is aligned with 13 columns, some of them exactly 1 degree apart to accurately measure the day, using its sunrise.

This indicates that the people of Taosi also achieved great mastery in astronomy. Perhaps they worshipped the sun, as they recognized and observed the changing seasons and tracked the planetary movements in the sky. It is possible that the precise observation of the planetary conjunction that took place in Taosi gave rise to the concept of the influence of heavens on human affairs and the relationship of the planetary conjunction to political change, developed later in the concept of the Mandate of Heaven.

More recently, the scientific character of the solar observations made at Taosi is supported by the discovery in a royal tomb of a lacquered «rule of the shadow» whose graduations seem to correspond to the length of the Sun’s shadow cast by a gnome of standard length on the dates indicated by the openings in the wall of the terrace… the rule of the shadow indicates the monopoly of the ritual observation of the sunrise by the Taosi elite, no doubt for reasons of control and prestige

Taosi and the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age kingdoms

Taosi shows all the cultural characteristics that will be seen later in Erlitou, but a little less developed. Around 2100 BC it became the largest city of the Longshan culture so it seems the most plausible candidate to show the transition from the time when the territory of China was organized around a series of Neolithic chiefdoms to that of the first kingdoms.

Furthermore, it is known that the conquering elite of Taosi brought with them a completely new cultural ensemble, emblematic of the Longshan cultures further east: extensive palaces, rich burials, wheel pottery, and shaping technology, etc., which give evidence of commercial contacts with distant cultures such as Liangzhu 800 miles to the southeast.

Was Taosi the capital of Emperor Yao?

Several factors-date, place, cultural level-have led some Chinese scholars to identify Taosi as the capital of the hero of pre-dynastic culture, Emperor Yao. Emperor Yao is the first of the Three Emperors, Yao, Shun, Yu, that classical Chinese history places at the beginning of historical times, being Yu, the third of them, the one that would give rise to the Xia dynasty, the first dynasty. The cultural developments related to this emperor may well have corresponded with what Taosi shows us.

Taosi and the use of livestock

On an economic level, in Taosi there are also some activities that could mark a transition between the Neolithic times and the first dynasties. There is an area destined exclusively for the industrial production of stone tools, vessels, and bone processing. The growing importance of livestock in the zoological record began at sites such as Taosi and Zhoujiazhuang, making these sites important for examining changes in the social and economic role of livestock in ancient China (Brunson 2015).

 Because in Taosi and other related sites, it is seen that after 2000 BC, livestock were frequently involved in ritual practices. Examples of this are the dozens of bovine oracle bones that have been found. This suggests that cattle were associated with rituals linked to elite ancestor worship and methods of legitimizing claims to power and authority. But there are also signs that these bones were often used to make a wide variety of tools.

References

Brunson, Katherine. Craft Specialization and Animal Products at the Longshan Period Sites of Taosi and Zhoujiazhuang, Shanxi Province, China. University of California, Los Angeles 2015. Thesis.

Lu Peng, Katherine Brunson, Yuan Jing y Li Zhipeng. Zooarchaeological and Genetic Evidence for the Origins of Domestic Cattle in Ancient China. Asian Perspectives, Vol. 56. 2017.

Nu He. Taosi: An archaeological example of urbanization as a political center in prehistoric China, Archaeological Research in Asia, Volume 14, 2018.

Pankenier, D.W. Astrology and Cosmology in Early China. Cambridge University Press. 2013.

Shanghai Archaeology Forum. Taosi: the beginning of “China” and “Central Plain”.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Taosi. The first capital of China," in Ethnic China, 15 enero 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/taosi-the-first-capital-of-china/.

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