Yangshao and Longshan Cultures Flourish in China

Yangshao and Longshan were the first known farming cultures in what is now northern China. During their existence, settled agriculture developed, and then villages and towns were formed.

Summary of Event

Modern humans, Homo sapiens, arrived in the Yellow River (Huang He) Valley no later than 50,000 b.c.e. and survived by hunting and gathering. Early agriculture in northern China began perhaps as early as 8000 b.c.e., probably as slash-and-burn gardens in the uplands of the Yellow River Valley. Solid evidence of agriculture from Neolithic sites in northern China dates to about 5500 b.c.e. Because agriculture and bronze technology had probably existed earlier in Southeast Asia, the appearance of agriculture in the Yellow River Valley most likely resulted from the diffusion of culture from Southeast Asia through southern and central China. However, millet, the staple of early agriculture in northern China, is most likely native to the area and was probably domesticated locally.

The first fully Neolithic culture identified in what is now China was first recognized in 1921 at Yangshao (Yang-shao), in Henan (Honan) Province, from where the culture takes its name. Since the initial identification of Yangshao culture, hundreds of sites have been discovered in northern China. Yangshao culture, also called the Painted Pottery culture, was once thought to be directly ancestral to Chinese culture but is now seen as one of several Neolithic cultures that gave rise to Chinese culture. Yangshao was a step in the development of culture from total dependence on hunting and gathering to dependence on settled agriculture. Yangshao culture flourished in northern China from approximately 6000 to about 1500 b.c.e., when urban civilization began to replace it and other Neolithic cultures.

Yangshao culture developed in the semiarid environment of northern China along the loess regions of the highlands of the Yellow River Valley. The presence of the loess, a fertile windblown sand that holds moisture well, allowed the development of widespread agriculture in this semiarid climate. Yangshao sites have been found along terraces on riverbanks. Yangshao settlements were usually situated in lands above the floodplain but near enough to a river to provide a stable water source. One of the most valuable of the Yangshao sites was found at Banpo (Panp’o), near the present city of Xi’an (Hsien) in the province of Shaanxi. The site, dated at around 4000 b.c.e., consists of a small village covering roughly 2.5 acres (1 hectare). The village contained forty-five houses, with some two hundred storage pits scattered thoughout the site. People from Yangshao culture villages grew millet, the main item in their diet, and raised domestic pigs, along with sheep and goats. They supplemented their diet with hunting and fishing. The Banpo site also indicated special burial grounds for the dead, with one area containing the graves of 174 adults and 76 children. Another 37 funerary urns were also present at the site. Despite their relatively more sophisticated culture over earlier hunter-gatherers, Yangshao people still depended on tools made of stone, wood, and bone. They remained ignorant of metal until around 2000 b.c.e., when bronze technology arrived from the south.

Yangshao culture is identified by its style of pottery. Yangshao pottery was made without the benefit of a potter’s wheel. Instead, strips of red or gray clay were pressed into shape. Red clay pottery was decorated with symmetrical abstract designs in red or black and occasionally with fish and human faces. Yangshao people hardened their pottery in kilns. Evidence of Yangshao culture has been found along a vast belt in northern China, roughly following the course of the Yellow River and its tributaries. In the east, Yangshao culture later overlapped with another Neolithic culture called Longshan.

Longshan culture, the next major identifiable Neolithic culture in China, was discovered in 1928 at Longshan (Lung-shan), in Shandong (Shantung) Province. Longshan culture probably arose about one thousand years after Yangshao first appeared, around 4000 b.c.e., and existed at least through 2000 b.c.e. Longshan culture, also known as Black Pottery culture, represented a transition from slash-and-burn farming in the hills to settled agriculture on the floodplains. The exact relationship between Yangshao and Longshan cultures remains uncertain, with a basic disagreement over whether Longshan represents a later development of Yangshao or a culture that developed separately.

Villages sites from Longshan culture are usually surrounded by walls made from stamped earth. Artifacts include fine pottery made with the use of wheels. At Longshan sites, researchers have identified high-temperature kilns in which Longshan people produced their gray pottery. Although Longshan people did not paint their pottery, they did decorate it with raised or grooved rings. Like the Yangshao people, Longshan people raised millet and pigs. However, evidence supports that they had domestic oxen and dogs. Also found at Longshan sites are heat-cracked animal bones, showing the widespread practice of scapulimancy, the interpretation of cracks caused by rapid heating and cooling of animal bones. This practice evolved to scratching symbols on the bones, which became the basis for a pictographic and later ideographic writing system, which evolved into the Chinese writing system in use today. Late Longshan people had learned to make silk, which would remain an exclusively Chinese skill for millennia. Evidence of early metal technology also exists, but its links to the later bronze technology found at a site in central Henan are uncertain.

Archaeological evidence uncovered near modern Zhengzhou (Chengchou) in 1957 dates from 1900 to 1600 b.c.e. The site, surrounded by earthen walls 20 feet (6 meters) high and 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) square, might be the capital city of Yangcheng in traditional histories. One large complex, interpreted as a palace, was estimated to have taken 100,000 worker-days to build. Outside the walls were two foundries for casting bronze, indicating relatively advanced metallurgical skills. Traditional Chinese histories referred to the existence of a dynasty predating the Shang (1600-1066 b.c.e.), although no physical evidence existed until the discoveries near Zhengzhou. According to legend, the Xia (Hsia; c. 2100-1600 b.c.e.) Dynasty was founded by the legendary Yu (Yü), who personified the ideal public servant. Yu was the last of five mythical pre-Xia emperors. The five were credited with the development of fire, agriculture, animal domestication, writing, calendars, and flood control. These developments actually took place over many centuries but had all been achieved by the end of the Longshan period.

The Xia might simply be the late Longshan period, when various cultures merged. Although the existence of the Xia Dynasty has never been firmly proved, the site near Zhengzhou does show the existence of centralized control in parts of the Yellow River Valley in the late Longshan period, before the rise of the Shang Dynasty, and identifiable city-based civilization. That later Chinese historians wrote of a dynasty existing before the Shang indicates some continuity of culture from prehistoric to historic times in China.


Although other Neolithic cultures contributed to the origins of Chinese culture, Yangshao and Longshan cultures represent a linear development of human society in northern China from earlier hunting and gathering to fully settled agricultural societies. Longshan peoples developed many of the cornerstones of later Chinese civilization, including writing, veneration of ancestors, a tendency to build walls around towns, and the raising of animals such as pigs, which did not require pasturage or forage. Longshan later evolved into civilization in the Yellow River Valley, and late Longshan towns might be the basis for the perhaps mythological Xia Dynasty.

Further Reading

  • Chang, K. C. The Archeology of Ancient China. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. A thorough survey of archaeological sites and findings of human activity in China in prehistoric times. Bibliography and index.
  • Gernet, J. A History of Chinese Civilization. Translated by J. R. Foster. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A history of China, beginning with prehistoric times and focusing on the civilizations that developed. Bibliography and index.
  • Keightley, D., ed. The Origins of Chinese Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Focuses on the period at the end of the Longshan culture, when it and other neolithic cultures contributed to the development of true civilization in the Yellow River Valley. Bibliography and index.
  • Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History. New York: Longman, 2001. Designed for use in college classes, this book provides a clear description of Yangshao and Longshan cultures, with accompanying photographs. Index and suggestions for further reading.