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China's Delayed Civilization
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Author:  brandrinn [ Mon Aug 22, 2011 10:16 pm ]
Post subject:  China's Delayed Civilization

So I've been reading about the neolithic at the library while I'm avoiding school work. I keep running into an interesting question about China. By all accounts, agriculture started there very early, perhaps as early as 8000 BC, and certainly no later than 7000 BC. This is roughly comparable to the Near East. But then something weird happens. Specifically, nothing happens. In Meso-America, in Mesopotamia, in Ethiopia, nowhere in the world did it take so long for civilization to get under way once people invented agriculture. It usually only takes three or four thousand years to get towns, for example. That's just the average, of course it won't be the same everywhere. But in China we don't have any evidence of towns before about 2000 BC, and real cities don't pop up until the Shang dynasty! Here's a civilization that's a good two and a half millennia behind Mesopotamia, even though they started about the same time. And it gets even weirder. Even though they hadn't gotten around to inventing states or cities or anything like that, they still invented bronze around 2800 BC. No other civilization anywhere developed bronze (on their own, that is) with no urbanization and no archaeologically visible polities above the level of a chiefdom. It's bizarre! Some of you may be thinking that I'm making something out of nothing, that anything can happen in any order on any time table, but that's just not born out by the data elsewhere in the world. And how did China manage to come out ahead by the beginning of the common era, after such a massive disadvantage? It's quite a conundrum.

Author:  Salmoneus [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 6:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization

I've got two suggestions.

First, there's more randomnity in this than you think. We just don't have enough examples to draw really powerful statistical conclusions. And you're ignoring one: Papua has had agriculture for quite a while now, but has never developed civilisation, even when it was in contact with other civilisations.

Second, if there are specific factors, I'd suggest that crop yields may be a big one. In Ye Olden Days, China was a wheat-and-millet culture. Wheat and millet are not particularly well-suited to the Chinese climate, which meant that a) overall yields were a fraction of what they were in, say, Greece, and b) nowhere were there yields as high and as concentrated as they were in the Nile Delta, or in Mesopotamia. Less food, and less concentrated food = fewer cities.

Iirc, the big change (adoption of rice, which allowed population densities up to ten times higher than millet) came during the Han Dynasty, so it doesn't entirely explain why they had come good by then. but perhaps there's no mystery there: eventually their low-density crop did yield large populations and urbanisation, it just took a lot longer than higher-density crops did elsewhere.

----

A bigger objection might be: how sure are you of your pattern that you think China breaks? North America took 5000 years to develop the rudiments of civilisation, and arguably never developed cities. Papua New Guinea has had agriculture for 9000 years - towns developed eventually, but never cities. Central America - more than 5000 years from agriculture to the first known civilisation. Peru took less than 4000 years it now seems - but that first civilisation appears to have been a dead end, with continuous civilisation needing another 2000 years. Egyptian agriculture never produced civilisation - it died out and was later replaced by mesopotamian agriculture. Ethiopian civilisation developed only under contact with other civilisations.

Remember also: records so long ago are scant and rely on luck in finding them. Maybe we haven't found the earlier Chinese towns. Or maybe chinese towns just didn't leave such obvious marks - in many places it's only the big projects, the canals and the earthworks and so on, that are the surviving signs of early towns. Maybe chinese towns just didn't have convenient ring-ditches around them and burnt the wood of their houses when the houses fell down.

-----

A final suggestion: russia famously had no towns for a long time. Or it did, obviously, but they were extremely rare: it had a few big trading cities, and everyone else lived in a network of small villages - far more densely packed than european villages, but without the bigger towns that europe had. It may simply be that certain terrains and climates tend to favour dense populations and other terrains and climates tend to favour spread-out populations.

Author:  Ollock [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 6:36 am ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization

Really? I had never heard about there being no evidence for towns before 2000 BC in China. I'm quite sure they had the beginnings of writing before that time (oracle bone script). One thing to consider is that they may have built their homes at that time from materials that were not preserved well. A similar effect seems to occur far earlier with tool making -- Homo erectus left numerous tools in other regions, but none in Asia, so archaeologists have theorized that they made tools from wood or other materials instead. The same could occur with towns, probably their houses were built of wood or bamboo, which rotted away and left no trace, especially in places where later settlements were built on top of the old ones.

Author:  brandrinn [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 11:21 am ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  brandrinn [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 11:43 am ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  Ollock [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 2:30 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  brandrinn [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 2:58 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  HandsomeRob [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 9:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization

I always thought that one factor leading to "civilization" was a dry climate. In the middle east, egypt, and pakistan a great deal of central planning was required in order to irrigate - and this was perhaps a driving factor towards civilization. In China, no worries, it would rain on your field. So no need for a central authority regulating water supply.

For what its worth.

Author:  Aurora Rossa [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 10:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  brandrinn [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 10:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  Thomas Winwood [ Tue Aug 23, 2011 11:45 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  Ollock [ Wed Aug 24, 2011 6:04 am ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  brandrinn [ Wed Aug 24, 2011 9:43 am ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  Torco [ Wed Aug 24, 2011 11:59 am ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization

Hidraulic Empires? What about the Early civilizations that are not that well known? the Indus valley is hardly arid, nor is mexico, where the Olmecs and the Zapotecs developped. The genesis of complex states and other civilizatory structures doesn't seem correlated with aridness of terrain for me, outside a certain range: its likely the deep amazon basin isn't amicable to development of agriculture and states, and its even more likely that the deep Sahara isn't either. *buuuut* no, I don't see hydraulic empires.

Author:  HandsomeRob [ Wed Aug 24, 2011 1:15 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  Torco [ Wed Aug 24, 2011 1:48 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization

point taken, which leaves mesoamericans. Mesoamerican civilization is the only one that can be considered to have evolved independently from the others [there's evidence of contact between china india, india and persia, persia and egypt, egypt and greece -duh- and greece and everywhere else that isn't mesoamerica] hell, the rigveda is written with letters invented by lebanese people.

This impedes the conclusion that different civs emerge from different climates of development... sooo yeah, I don't see it as a factor beyond, perhaps, that eurasian cereals are better at semiarid grassland, while corn, cassava and cotton are better at semitropical climate... though that might be reversing the thing; maybe mesoamericans domesticated corn because they were already semitropical dudes.

Author:  brandrinn [ Wed Aug 24, 2011 8:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


Author:  TaylorS [ Wed Aug 24, 2011 8:46 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization

China was slower to develop than Mesopotamia because there was less geographical containment of the population.

The big trigger for the development of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt was the desertification of Arabia and the Sahara around 4000BC, when your survival depends on irrigation from rivers it is much harder to run away from developing state hierarchies.

The ancient Yellow River valley was much different, agriculture there was rain-watered and instead of a rather sudden centralization there was a slow but steady centralization from about 4000BC to when true bureaucratic states emerged around 500BC. The Shang and Zhou kings were not really monarchs as we understand the term, they were the "sacral kings" presiding over a loose agglomeration of tribal elites.

Author:  brandrinn [ Wed Aug 24, 2011 9:07 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization

But the Sumerians were already practicing irrigation by 5000 BC.

And the neolithic Chinese also practiced some irrigation and wet-paddy rice cultivation.

Author:  Gojera [ Thu Sep 01, 2011 3:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization

The hydraulic engineering theory has a lot of merit, and not merely as a correlate to aridity.

So in Sumeria, the official histories are rife with stories about kings building irrigation ditches, political disputes over irrigation ditches, invaders destroying irrigation ditches. You look at pictures of these places, and today they're arid deserts in which agriculture would be impossible without irrigation. OTOH Sumeria proper was centered on the marshy southern region of Mesopotamia, although the later Akkadian and Assyrian power centers were in the more arid north.

Mesoamerica is not arid, but hydraulic engineering was vital to the agricultural economy as a way of maintaining soil fertility in weathered, nutrient-poor soils. So, one of the theories for why Classical Maya civilization supported higher-than-expected population densities was that they used a system somewhat different than contemporary milpa agriculture: they would use raised fields separated by canals, which were raised and fertilized by vegetation and rich sediment harvested from the canals. The system in the Aztec region similarly used aquatic vegetation and sediment to increase agricultural output, albeit in a different way.

IIRC in China, agriculture began in the north with millet, and wheat came later (from the Middle East?). Rice came from the south, and rice agriculture is dominant in southern China while wheat agriculture is dominant in northern China. Maybe there's a nutritional explanation: rice produces more calories IIRC, but wheat has more protein. There's a pretty significant difference between south and north in Chinese history: Chinese civilization colonized the south long after the dynastic eras began, and the Chinese empires didn't fully integrate southern and western China until Ming and Qing times.

Author:  Ollock [ Thu Sep 01, 2011 4:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: China's Delayed Civilization


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