The Liangzhu Culture entered its prime about 4000 ~ 5000 years ago, but suddenly disappeared from the Taihu Lake area about 4200 years ago when it reached the peak. There are almost no traces of the splendid culture created by the Liangzhu people in the following years ever found in this area. Thus, the “disappearance” became a mystery of ages.
I. The Gap between the Liangzhu Culture and the Maqiao Culture
In the Taihu Lake area, the stratums show very clearly that the Maqiao Culture stacks on the Liangzhu Culture. But such a sequence could hardly be proved by the excavated objects. The difference between the two is very big.
The Liangzhu Culture had extremely fine jades but the Maqiao Culture had almost none. While small bronze objects was found in the Maqiao Culture, but not any indication of bronze application seen in the Liangzhu Culture.
The Liangzhu stone wares were finely polished while the Maqiao ones were roughly made. The numerous stone arrowheads and net-pendants of the Maqiao Culture contrast sharply with the advanced stone farm implements of the Liangzhu Culture, indicating the different proportion of fishing-hunting and farming in their economic life.
The difference in the two cultures’ potteries is even largely. In Liangzhu potteries, the grayish black pottery is in a predominant position, and the red sandy pottery is only the supplementary. Among the Maqiao pottery, however, the grayish black pottery, different from the Liangzhu ones in shape, is only one of the third. The other two—the red sandy pottery and impressed pottery with geometric patterns share almost the same proportion. The Liangzhu potteries were mostly made with wheels, while the Maqiao ones were made by the “coiling clay rope” method.
On the whole, the Maqiao Culture lagged the Liangzhu Culture in craftsmanship though it used bronzes already. As there are no systematical excavations of Maqiao tombs and residential sites so far, our understanding of the Maqiao Culture is limited. Anyhow, there seems no possibility that the Maqiao Culture developed directly from the Liangzhu Culture according to the typology comparison of the findings of the two cultures.
Although the Maqiao Culture’s stratum stacks on the Liangzhu Culture’s, no Maqiao Culture elements have ever been found in the Laingzhu Culture yet. There are even not any declining traces of the Liangzhu Culture and no indication of its transition to the Maqiao Culture seen in excavations. There should be a cultural layer between the Liangzhu and Maqiao cultures.
II. Cause for the Break between the Liangzhu Culture and the Maqiao Culture
The existence of the break indicates that the Liangzhu Culture suddenly disappeared from the Taihu Lake area at its prime about 4200 ~ 4000 years ago. There were few human beings living here in the following hundreds of years until the Shang dynasty when a group of people of different cultural background came and settled here, creating the Maqiao Culture.
Why could this phenomenon occur? It is hard to imagine that a large group of people living on a land of several hundred square kilometers suddenly died out like dinosaurs. The only reasonable explanation of it could be that the entire tribe moved away. Then, what were the forces of this massive migration? Some evidences show that where was an abnormal period of frequent natural disasters about 2000 B.C., when the annual average temperature was around 5℃ lower than the Liangzhu Culture’s prime and earthquakes occurred frequently. Meanwhile, the worsening of the world climate, the formation of the Sahara Desert and the flood myths all over the world, including Jingwei Filling the Sea, Nu Wa Mending the Sky, all appeared in this period.
During that period, what changes took place in the Taihu Lake area? There is no written record, but archaeologists have found the Liangzhu stratum was generally covered by a layer of silt or peat of tens to a hundred centimeters in thickness. Such a thick silt or peat must be formed by a long-term flooding instead of merely one flood. Parts of the area became land later and parts remain as lakes today, e.g. Furong Lake, Yangcheng Lake, Jiuli Lake, Dianshan Lake, Chenmu Marsh, etc. From the bottom of all these places including the Taihu Lake, Liangzhu Culture remains have been unearthed. Therefrom, we deduced that the long-term flooding is the real cause for the existence of the cultural break in the low and flat river and sea side Taihu Lake area.
III. Migration Down to the South and Up to the North
Where did the Liangzhu people migrate? We have discovered that approximately at the time of Liangzhu Culture disappearing from the Taihu Lake area, lots of Liangzhu Culture elements suddenly appeared in both the Shixia Culture in Lingnan in south and the Taoshi type of the Longshan Culture in the Central Plains, which provide clues of Liangzhu people’s migration.
The Shixia Culture, an aboriginal culture in north Guangdong, had its own unique objects and customs. In its late period tombs, however, something unusual suddenly appeared, such as the Gui pot with three pouched legs, stone handled Yue axe, stone stepped Ben adze, jade Cong, jade Bi disc, jade rings, jade pedants and jade awl-shaped object, containing no elements of inherent local culture. Instead, these objects are almost the same with pieces of the Liangzhu Culture both in material and process and in shape and decoration. It is hard to imagine that this phenomenon was the result of commodity or cultural exchanges as North Guangdong is nearly 1000 kilometers away from the Taihu Lake area. And it seems no need for the Shixia people to make copy of Liangzhu jade Cong and Bi disc because the objects had no practical meaning to the Shixia people who held different customs and beliefs from the Liangzhu people. So these things could only be brought by the Liangzhu migrants. However, buried with both Liangzhu and Shixia objects in Shixia local customs, the tomb occupants could hardly be the Liangzhu migrants. Perhaps, it was those Liangzhu migrants were too week and soon assimilated by the local aborigines to carry on their culture that caused the Liangzhu Culture elements disappear like a flash in the pan in the south.
However, the case in the Central Plains was completely different. The Liangzhu migrants failed to rebuild their own culture in the Central Plains either, but Liangzhu cultural elements were left in the Longshan Culture, especially the Taoshi type of the Central Plains. Furthermore, these elements deeply affected the Chinese culture and became an important component of the Chinese civilization.
The Liangzhu stoneware manufacturing was more advanced than that of the Central Plains at that time. Along with the northward migration of the Liangzhu people, many Liangzhu stoneware appeared in the Central Plains.
Flat and perforated stone Yue axes were common in the Liangzhu Culture, but very rare in the Yangshao and Longshan cultures in the Central Plains, where there were only thick and heavy stone axes with no holes. In Taoshi type tombs of this period, however, many exquisite stone Yue axe were found.
The Yue axe with an inner part was the most advanced form of its kind, unique to the Liangzhu Culture. However, jade Yue axes with inner parts were also excavated from Shixia and late Taoshi type tombs.
Stone ploughs, originated from the late Songze Culture and prevailing in the Liangzhu Culture as a new type of farm tool commonly adopted in Zhejiang area, were also introduced into the Central Plains with the northward migration of the Liangzhu people. A late Henan Longshan stone plough was unearthed from the Xiaopangao Site at Mengjin. Although there were few stone ploughs found in the Central Plains, plowing agriculture got a great development there later. On the contrary, the primitive life of burning straws and water weeds and watering lands returned in the south of the Yangtze River then.
There is a trisquare-shaped stoneware called stone weeding hoe, triangle plough-shaped object or V-shaped stone knife commonly seen in the Liangzhu Culture. It has not been found in other cultures except the Taoshi type sites.
Limited by mineral resources, polishing technology, aesthetic standards and other facts, the Yangshao and Longshan cultures had few jade objects. But in the Taoshi type, many large jade objects, including Congs, Yue axes, ring and comb, of obvious Liangzhu styles suddenly appeared.
As jade Cong was unique to the Liangzhu Culture, those unearthed from the Shixia, Dawenkou and Taoshi type cultures were evidently the “imported” wares. After the Liangzhu Culture, there were no more jade Congs in the Taihu Lake area, but a quite few in the Erlitou, Shang and Zhou cultures in the Central Plains. The Rites of Zhou Dynasty even listed jade Cong as a ritual object for Earth worship. Obviously, this Liangzhu Culture element was absorbed and integrated into the Central Plains culture. However, no jade Congs of any period from the Central Plains carry the Liangzhu animal mask designs. The Central Plains people filtered the part of religious faith of other culture in absorption and retained the form of the object which stands for a foreign tribe’s ideology. Thus it survived and developed in the Central Plains. This indicates that those Liangzhu migrants to the Central Plains at that time were far more powerful than those down to the south. After large quantities of jade objects appeared in the Taoshi type, the jade culture seemed to be rooted in the Central Plains, becoming an integral part of the Chinese civilization. The custom of Liangzhu funerary jades was inherited by the Han Chinese, too.
It is interesting that the Central Plains people at that time filtered the animal mask design on the Liangzhu jade Cong, but used similar designs on the Shang ritual bronzes (and even on the Erlitou jades). Researchers unanimously believe that the animal mask designs on the Shang bronzes were originated from that on the Liangzhu jade Congs. That the idols of the Liangzhu people could be developed into a main motif of the Shang ritual bronzes shows the deep influence of the Liangzhu Culture on the Central Plains culture.
Also, we found the facts that plates with three tile-shaped legs, a typical object of the Erlitou Culture, could not be seen in its local Longshan Culture in Henan, but frequently in the Liangzhu Culture; and tubular-eared Hu pots, a typical object of the Liangzhu Culture, did not exist in its local Maqiao Culture but in the Erlitou Culture. In addition to that, such Shang pottery and bronze vessels as Zun, Gui, Zhi, Hu and Gong could all find their origins in the Liangzhu Culture, which however have not been discovered in other areas’ new cultures of the time.
Apart from the manufacturing of stoneware, jades and potteries, technologies of silk reeling and well digging of the Liangzhu Culture appeared in the Central Plains as well.
Weaving appeared very early in the Central Plains and its impressed traces has been seen on Banpo potteries, but in legendary stories it was Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor, who invented the sericulture and silk making. According to archaeological excavations, silk making in the Taihu Lake area may appear in the Majiabang Culture and was very developed in the Liangzhu Culture. So, it was just at the time when Liangzhu Culture disappeared from the Taihu Lake area, silk making was invented in the Central Plains as told by legendary stories.
The Taihu Lake area is a low-lying plain. It suffered floods from rains and droughts from no rain since there were no man-built river networks here before the Tang Dynasty. So, well drilling emerged very early in this area, and was especially developed in the Liangzhu Culture. In the central Plains, however, almost all the Neolithic sites were located on terraces beside gxcrivers; there seemed no need for wells. It was not until the late Longshan Culture, when the Liangzhu Culture disappeared in the Taihu Late area, many wells suddenly appeared. But, it is very hard to believe that the local people could have such advanced well drilling techniques at the beginning in the Central Plains.
There are too channels from the bank of the Taihu Lake to Lingnan, one going down south via the Jinqu Basin and the valleys between the mountains in south Jiangxi where objects with Liangzhu Culture elements, e.g. the Ding tripods with fin-shaped legs, stepped Ben adzes, stone Yue axes, etc., have been discovered in such sites as the Shanyawei Site in Jiangshan, Quzhou, the Shilipu Site and Shuangxikou Site in Kaihua; the other going upstream and then down south via the Boyang Lake Plain and the Ganjiang River Valley Plain. At Xuejiagang in Qianshan, Anhui province, a few objects with the elements of the Liangzhu Culture like chisel-shaped ding tripods with flat legs, Ding tripods with flat legs, high-neck and short-spout Gui pots and black pottery cups with high handles were unearthed and at Zhengjiayou, Jing’an, Anhui, 10 Liangzhu style tombs with Liangzhu potteries have been found. Lacking sufficient archaeological data in this regard, the route of the Liangzhu people’s southward migration is hard to be described in detail.
The original look of the history might be like this:
About 4200 years ago, the sharp changes in climate and relief brought about large-scale floods to the low-lying Taihu Lake Plain which became wet land, and the people there had to move away for life in the following several hundreds of years, so, naturally, the Liangzhu ancestors were forced to migrate as a whole. One branch of them went down south to the North Guangdong and was integrated into the Shixia Culture; and the main body went up north across rivers to the Central Plains and was integrated into the Han culture. The advanced techniques and culture they brought along with them became an important part of the Chinese civilization.
IV. The Liangzhu Culture’s Contribution to the Chinese Civilization
The formation of the Chinese civilization is the first peak in the history of the Chinese cultural development. Formed up in the Central Plains, it was, by no means, a product of the Central Plains culture, but an outcome of the great integration of Neolithic cultures from different areas into the Central Plains.
According to the existing data, at the time when the main part of the Liangzhu Culture moved northward around 4000 years ago, the lower Xiajiadian Culture in west Liaoning migrated to the south, the Longshan Culture in Shandong to the west, a part of the Central Plains people down to the south and the Yan and Huang tribes originally from northwest to the Central Plains. Thus, people from different areas conflicted seriously with each other while they met in the Central Plains, e.g. the Zhulu Fighting between the Yan-Huang and the Chiyou, the Banquan Fighting between the Yan and the Huang, the Struggle for power between the Gonggong and the Zhuanxu, the Fighting between the Yao-Shun-Yu and the Sanmiao, and so on, as recorded in historical documents.
It is in the background of such a multi-origin integration that the Chinese civilization was brought up. People from different areas, the Liangzhu people in particular, made their huge contribution to the forming of the Chinese civilization.
In terms of material culture, the Liangzhu jades affected deeply the late Chinese jade culture; the Liangzhu stone Yue axe and stepped stone Ben adzes were both the most advanced among the like implements of the time; later bronze Ben adzes replaced the stone ones, and bronze Yue axes carried on their stone predecessors’ function as well as shape. Besides, some elements of the Liangzhu potteries were absorbed and carried on by the Central Plains’ people.
In terms of technologies, the Liangzhu people’s jade carving, silk reeling, carpentry, paint work, well drilling, plowing, etc were all further developed in the Central Plains.
In terms of ideology, the Liangzhu people’s customs of burying the deceased with jades, building high terraces for the noble tombs to separate the nobles from the civilians, adoration of animal-masked divine, sorcery of burning firewood in sacrifice, their aesthetic tastes and conception of value were all injected into the Chinese civilization.
Of course, other cultures did contribute a lot to the Chinese civilization, but still we can claim that the Liangzhu Culture is also an important origin of the Chinese civilization.