The Yangshao Civilization in Chinese Culture

Jar decorated in spirals used for storing food, painted pottery, China, Banshan phase of Yangshao Culture, 18th-14th Century BC
Jar decorated in spirals used for storing food, painted pottery, China, Banshan phase of Yangshao Culture, 18th-14th Century BC. Getty Images/DEA/L. DE MASI

The Yangshao culture is the term for an ancient civilization that existed in what is now central China (Henan, Shanxi, and Shaanxi provinces primarily) between the years 5000 and 3000 B.C.E. It was first discovered in 1921 -- the name “Yangshao” is taken from the name of the village where it was first discovered -- but since its initial discovery, thousands of sites have been uncovered. The most important site, Banpo, was found in 1953.

Facets of the Yangshao Culture

Agriculture was of paramount importance to the Yangshao people, and they produced many crops, although millet was particularly common. They also grew vegetables (mostly root vegetables) and raised livestock including chicken, pigs, and cows. These animals were mostly not generally raised for slaughter, though, as meat was eaten only on special occasions. Understanding of animal husbandry is thought to have increased significantly during this time.

Although the Yangshao people had a primitive understanding of agriculture, they also fed themselves in part via hunting, gathering, and fishing. They accomplished this through the use of precisely-crafted stone tools including arrows, knives, and axes. They also used stone tools such as chisels in their farming work. In addition to stone, the Yangshao also cared intricate bone tools.

The Yangshao lived together in houses -- huts, really -- built in pits with wooden frames holding up mud-plastered walls and thatched millet roofs.

These houses were clustered in groups of five, and clusters of houses were arranged around a village’s central square. The perimeter of the village was a furrow, outside which were a communal kiln and cemetery.

The kiln was used for the creation of pottery, and it is this pottery that has truly impressed archaeologists.

The Yangshao were capable of making a significant variety of pottery shapes, including urns, basins, tripod containers, bottles of various shapes, and jars, many of which came with decorative covers or accessories shaped like animals. They were even capable of making complex, purely ornamental designs, like boat shapes. Yangshao pottery was also often painted with intricate designs, often in earth tones. Unlike more recent pottery cultures, it appears the Yangshao never developed pottery wheels.

One of the most famous pieces, for example, is an exquisite basin painted with a fishlike design and a human face, originally used as a burial object and perhaps indicative of a Yangshao belief in animal totems. Yangshao children seem to have been often buried in painted pottery jars.

In terms of clothing, the Yangshao people wore mostly hemp, which they wove themselves into simple shapes like loincloths and cloaks. They did also occasionally make silk and it’s possible some Yangshao villages even cultivated silkworms, but silk clothing was rare and mostly the province of the rich.

Banpo Civilization Site

The Banpo site, first discovered in 1953, is considered typical of the Yangshao culture. It consisted of a village area of about 12 acres, surrounded by a ditch (which may once have been a moat) nearly 20 feet wide.

As described above, the houses were mud and wood huts with thatched roofs, and the dead were buried in a communal cemetery.

Although it’s not clear to what extent, if at all, the Yangshao people had any sort of written language, Banpo pottery does contain a number of symbols (22 have been found so far) that are found repeatedly on different pieces of pottery. They tend to appear alone, and so almost certainly do not constitute true written language, they may be something akin to makers’ signatures, clan markings, or the marks of owners.

There is some debate as to whether the Banpo site and the Yangshao culture as a whole were matriarchal or patriarchal. The Chinese archaeologists initially investigating it reported it had been a matriarchal society, but newer research suggests that may not be the case, or that it might have been a society in the process of transferring from matriarchy to patriarchy.