The bull and the political development of Neolithic China

ethnic china

The bull and the political development of Neolithic China

Since the history of the penetration of domestic cattle in China goes parallel to that of the political concentration that gave rise to the first cities and later to the first states, that slow penetration of the animal considered as a symbol of imperial power, could have been due to the absence in China at that time of the desire for domination that gave rise to the first empires. When the desire of domination became apparent, first in cities like Taosi, and later in Erlitou and the other centers of power that led to the establishment of the Shang dynasty, the bull also became a symbol of imperial power, using its bones in rituals that emphasized communication with gods and spirits and their sacrifice, as well as the ritual consumption of its flesh in vessels decorated with bovine motifs, in the most important activity of the worship of these deities. 

The archaeological panorama in which only occasionally are discovered remains of oxen in human environments, changes towards the year 2000 BC, when the presence of bovine becomes more and more frequent, replacing the pig as the most common animal of sacrifice, and increasing the use of its bones in the oracles. These become evident in places like Taosi and Zhoujiazhuang, which have become key points for understanding the social and economic evolution of the last phases of Neolithic China.

Taosi is the first Chinese city. Its discovery in the last decades of the 20th century and its later study is helping to understand how China was just before the beginning of the first dynasties. Among its remains we can highlight the great wall of pressed loess that surrounded the whole settlement, the observatory, which shows the importance that astronomical knowledge had in the development of Chinese society, and the cemetery with more than 1500 tombs. Many of the conceptions that were held about ancient China have been modified after the discovery of Taosi, which we could call the last city in China before the beginning of history, because in Taosi certainly has been discovered the seed of many of the cultural characteristics of later China.

In the aspect that concerns us, in Taosi we see an intensification of the relationship between men and bulls, with many more bovine bones used for divination and many more objects made from bones or other parts of bovine corpses. At the same time that the bull gains ritual and symbolic importance, they acquire an increasing economic importance. The use of their bones, tendons and skin, their milk, their drawing force and their manure for fuel, made cattle grazing a profitable enterprise that radically changed the way people used animals (Brunson 2015:22).

Thus, the increase in political power symbolized by the bull was accompanied by economic development resulting from the use of its body and labour. This meant that the possession of large numbers of animals considered sacred supported positions of power, while developing the bovine economy, which could have been one of the driving forces behind the specialization of tasks that characterizes cities.

Given that at the end of each sacrifice the meat was distributed among those present, the intensification of the ritual use of oxen was accompanied by an increase in their economic use, since people found themselves with greater availability of meat for consumption, more bones and skin to be used in the artisan industries, more milk used as food, and more dung as fertilizer, etc. In short, the greater use of bovines as sacrificial animals brought the presence of new tools and the increase of raw material, transformed into objects of consumption and rituals. 

For that reason it can be affirmed that from the civilizing explosion that is discovered in Taosi towards year 2000 a.n.e., the economic, political, religious and cultural development of China had as trigger the presence of bovines in the society, situation that is detected in the archaeological remains, with a conspicuous increase of the number and variety of bovine remains, and with its division in two clearly differentiated contexts: the rituals and the industrial or economic ones.

This dual development of the human-bovine relationship with the ritual and economic aspects continued to be the driving force behind China’s political and economic development for almost 1,000 years. In Taosi there was an entire district of the city dedicated to industrial production, with workshops specialized in the manufacture of objects of daily use or luxury. In Erlitou, the first site associated with the first Xia Dynasty, a workshop was discovered in which the raw material was bones from domestic cattle, as well as remains of their use in religious sacrifices. And its importance grew with the development of imperial society, for: «In the Erligang periods and at the end of the Shang dynasty, cattle were the main species used to make hairpins and other bone artifacts in huge workshops in the cities where mass production took place. Cattle breeding had become an important element of the Shang economy, and their meat and bones were moved around in complex systems of supply and redistribution» (Lu 2017).

At this time, later mythology places a series of mythical deities and kings, which often have a clear relationship with the oxen, which will be discussed later, which could perhaps be called «the horned kings of China.

Cite this article as: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The bull and the political development of Neolithic China," in Ethnic China, 21 enero 2021,
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