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Redrawing the 'Dawn' of Civilizations

On September 19, 2021, the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS) held a Broadyard Workshop titled “The Origin and Development of Early Civilizations” in the Yingjie Exchange Center. The workshop gathered experts and academicians from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Peking University and Central Academy of Fine Arts to share their research results in fields including archaeology, philology and art history and discuss relevant topics in depth.

Prof. Qian Chengdan, director of PKUIAS, highlighted the distinctiveness of this workshop’s theme, the origin of civilizations. He said that as all kinds of practical problems in the contemporary world had their historical origins, we must put more effort into examining deeper issues related to civilizations, nations and identities beneath the visible phenomena and bring them into academic discussions and debates. He commented that it was delightful to see among those attending the workshop scholars across the age spectrum and, especially, a rising percentage of young researchers. He considered it a promising phenomenon as it showed that the torches in the field of early civilization studies were being passed down. He further expressed his hope that more young researchers would participate in the academic activities at the Institute and contribute to the progress of the Chinese academia.

Prof. Yan Haiying from PKU’s Department of History hosted the talks in the morning. She introduced the history, members and fields of studies of the Institute of Ancient Eastern Civilizations. During the time when it was affiliated with the School of Foreign Languages, the Institute held several large-scale international academic conferences and invited numerous well-known scholars from within the country and abroad to give talks. After its affiliation switched to the Department of History, the Institute convened multiple seminars on topics, such as hermeneutics. Currently, the Institute’s research covers fields including Assyriology, Egyptology, and art history. In the future, the Institute hopes to carry out case studies based on early theoretical discussions — especially comparative studies with early Chinese civilization — while promoting cross-disciplinary exchanges and cooperation to provide a broader vision for the development of the discipline.

Xu Hong, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who previously led the archaeological excavations of the Erlitou site, pointed out that scholars shouldn’t restrict their focus locally; rather, they should approach research topics with concepts and perspectives used in global history to facilitate research that could contribute to the construction of a global history of civilizations. Xu Hong introduced the history of archaeology in China as a discipline and stressed that the major issue in studying early Chinese civilizations was the absence of written language and supportive materials. He proposed to divide the ancient civilizations of China into three stages. Speaking metaphorically, he likened the first stage, starting from the Yangshao and Longshan cultures and concluding with the Erlitou culture, to a bright constellation of stars.  

He likened the second stage, lasting through the dynasties of Xia, Shang and Zhou until the unification of the lands under the Qin dynasty and characterized by kingdoms with a central entity surrounded by small entities, to a glorious moon surrounded by sparse stars. The final stage, stretching from the Qin and Han dynasties to the Ming and Qing dynasties, being a period of empires, he likened to a full moon lighting up the entire sky. Xu Hong contended that the Erlitou culture not only established numerous traditions and systems that later generations inherited — the hierarchical systems of rites and music (li and yue), the system of the building and architecture of palaces, the system of city planning and building and so on — but also resembled the beginning of the integration of multiple smaller civilizational entities into one interrelated civilization. From a global history perspective, the bronze civilization spread in a clear pattern, in which Erlitou was a crucial link in its eastward diffusion. Around 3700 years ago, the eastern part of Asia joined the larger system of the Eurasian bronze civilization, and ancient China thus started to become closely connected to the rest of the world. According to Xu Hong, scholars must broaden their horizons to be able to see clearly the formation process of the Chinese bronze age civilizations and early states, by which they could deepen their understanding and research.

Prof. Zheng Yan, from PKU’s School of Arts, highlighted some of the current problems in research on the prehistoric art history of China, such as current textbooks’ outdated understanding of archaeology and art history, old-fashioned concepts and the lack of historical consciousness. He argued that the structure of written works on prehistoric art history should be characterised by the following three elements. First was the expansion of the concept of art — it should not be restricted to the forms or patterns of specific artefacts, but rather expanded to cover the artefacts’ broader materiality, spatiality and visuality so as to lay emphasis on the development and morphology of the materials and techniques as well as expressive languages used in all artificial objects. Second was to give particular attention to the meaning of the origin of each artistic form and artistic language, which would help to organically connect the form, function and notion of the artefact. Third was to transcend the concept of a grand unification theory and explore the diversity of prehistoric art both in geographical regions and temporal stages. Moreover, art historians should be equipped with comparative eyes to pay attention to both research in prehistory as well as writings on early art history of other cultures and research methods in related fields such as archaeology in order to generate a more comprehensive reading of available resources.

The budding of a writing system is a crucial link in the blooming stage of ancient civilizations. Prof. Gong Yushu, of the School of Foreign Languages at PKU, talked about the origin of cuneiform writing, starting by introducing the stories in the famous legendary Sumerian account of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. In the account, it says that Enmerkar, king of Uruk, wanted to send an envoy to Aratta in the Iranian mountains. However, he realized that the messenger would not be able to recount his exact words that he would like relayed to the lord of Aratta, and thus he carved symbols on mud slabs to record his message. This legend was an example of the myth of “a hero creating the writing system” common among ancient civilizations, and it showed the three functions of the early writing systems in Mesopotamia. The first was to assist memory — writings helped people memorize the main components of the language and could be interpreted by readers according to the context, as did the early writings of Uruk, which only comprised keywords for indicative purposes. The second was to record the language — scripts were symbols that record the language and a visualization of the language. The third was to enable communication across space and time — the principal function of a writing system. Prof. Gong Yushu also mentioned other theories of how writing systems may have originated, such as the theories proposed by archaeologists that scripts are derived from tokens or shared an Indo-European origin. He pointed out that the token-origin theory challenged the theory that pictures were the precursor of scripts and suggested that physical objects may evolve into scripts. Chinese archaeologists could learn from studies on the origin of Mesopotamian scripts and discover new clues in their own research, he said.

Assistant Professor Jia Yan from PKU’s School of Arts used the clay boat unearthed in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Eridu as an introduction to her talk on how the environment in which early civilizations were born shaped the beliefs and artistic forms of people. Jia Yan pointed out that since resources in southern Mesopotamia were extremely scarce and rarely anything existed on the surface of the earth except water, mud and reeds, no artistic forms such as cave paintings, which were common in most early civilizations, could be found. However, the early art of Mesopotamia mainly took the form of clay sculptures, from which it can be concluded that Mesopotamia was a special case of having undergone “a stone age without stones.” Therefore, this clay boat represented the earliest artistic norm and form in Mesopotamia. The artefact was discovered in Eridu, the most ancient Sumerian site unearthed so far and, according to Sumerian flood myths, the first city built by humankind. According to legends, Eridu was governed by Enki, the god of water and the creator of all beings, whose figure often appears riding in boats on cylinder seals. Therefore, the original model of the clay boat — reed boats — were not only a necessary mode of transportation in ancient Sumerian life, but were also closely connected to gods, kings and temple ceremonies. Jia Yan suggested that where to draw the boundary of art was an eternal problem when studying ancient civilizations, and that we should discuss “art” in a holistic cultural or historical context and not overlook the material cultures behind it. To a certain degree, the clay boat of Eridu bears the marker of a civilization just around the time of its inception and could function as a window for us to look into the origin of Mesopotamian civilizations.

Lecturer Huang Qingjiao, from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, shared her insights into the origin of state and kingship in ancient Egypt taking the images depicting violent scenes in the predynastic Tomb 100 in Hierakonpolis as a case study. Huang Qingjiao stated that these images of violent scenes from Tomb 100 comprised a pictorial narration used by predynastic rulers to express their power and constituted a crucial link in the early stages of violent image development in ancient Egypt. As script was yet to mature in the predynastic period in Egypt, images were the main form of power expression. The early rulers’ selection of images of violence resulted in a collection of typical images such as kings capturing or defeating enemies. These images were gradually standardized and canonized with the passage of time and moved from pottery and walls onto palettes and decorative knife hilts. After the early states were formed, inscriptions were put down around the images of violence to record the kings’ military conquests and display kingship. But as ancient Egyptian scripts matured, the violent images were progressively simplified, and inscriptions became the main component of narrative records, eventually forming a characteristic visual language for the expression of Egyptian kingship.

Wen Jing, from the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, discussed the mode of how civilizations originated using the example of Nubia’s A-Group and the birth of early Egypt. Wen Jing explained that academia generally considers Egypt and Nubia followed a center-periphery mode of development, which is an Egypt-centered hypothesis and may not be historically accurate. Archaeological excavations in the area showed that during the expansion of the Egyptian Naqada culture, the A-Group in Nubia was also expanding in a south to north direction, as manifested in the dissemination of patterns on pottery. This does not match the common perception of the dissemination of civilization from Egypt to Nubia. Wen Jing argued that the people of early Egypt and A-Group in Nubia could very possibly have been in a competitive relation with complementary resources. Nubia, the most fertile area in northeast Africa, with developed agriculture, fishing and livestock farming and abundant mineral resources. The A-Group exported raw materials to Egypt in exchange for handicraft goods. However, as the A-Group lacked military capabilities, it was defeated by the violent Naqada people and vanished in history, she concluded.

In the afternoon session, Xue Jiang, a PhD candidate from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, shared his research on a Tibetan copper mirror with iron handle decorated with a yak pattern and the pattern’s dissemination route. He argued that the copper mirror collected by the Yak Museum in Tibet belonged to the same series of products as the three other Tibetan copper mirrors with a handle that have been documented. The shape and structure of these Tibetan mirrors with a handle were influenced by those from the nomadic cultures from the Central Asian steppes, whereas the pattern on their back was influenced by the patterns found on the artefacts from Majiayao Culture in Gansu and Qinghai in northwestern China; the technique was influenced by those locally used in making cave paintings. Based on the evidence, the date range of the mirror could be narrowed down to no earlier than the late Neolithic period and no later than the end of the Western Han Dynasty. The people living on the Tibetan plateau at that time had already successfully mastered the techniques to smelt and cast bronze and iron, created copper mirrors with a handle that had a shape and pattern unique to the region, and generated a novel and peculiar technique to create beads by dripping, eventually forming a style found only in copper mirrors with a handle from the Tibetan plateau, he said.

Dong Jing, from Beijing Jianhua Experimental School, talked about the merging of civilizations during the development stage of Greek and Egyptian civilizations using Thoth worship during hellenization as a case study. Thoth was the Egyptian god of writing and language as well as magic. After Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, the traditional worship of Amun in Egypt gradually faded away, and the popular worship of Thoth flourished. The organization style of the worship of Thoth manifested hellenistic features, borrowing the form of private association and association codes while still worshiping Egyptian gods and retaining traditional Egyptian holidays and celebrations. The belief in Thoth thus kept on spreading and later combined with ancient Greek philosophy to eventually have an impact on the formation of Hermeticism in the Middle Ages, hence preserving numerous elements from the ancient Egyptian civilization for thousands of years, Dong said.

During the workshop, participating experts also discussed topics including the different manifestations of Egyptian kingship, modes of origin of various civilizations, the evolution of scripts and so on. The panellists also engaged in conversations with the audience members.