Ancient culture of the lower yangtze river and ancient japan

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AN, Zhimin
This article was first presented in "Xu Fu’s Search – Zuohe Meeting of Friendship between Japan and China", April 29, 1989, organized by Zuohe City, Japan. For present publication, the author made needed amendments, adding references and figures. (Xu Fu was the leader of a group of people sent by Qin Shi Huang to look for the legendary place of longevity on the sea).
(KAOGU (Archaeology), no. 4, p. 375-384, 1990; translated and interpreted by W. Tsao, Ph.D., March 14, 2000; edited by Bryan Gordon)

China and Japan, two East Asian countries separated by the East China Sea, have had continuous cultural exchange since ancient time. The Palaeolithic and Neolithic, pottery and agricultural growth, and bronze and metalware import to the Japanese islands all originated in ancient Chinese mainland culture. Ice Age land bridges created by lower East China Sea levels were major routes for transport and cultural exchange(1) until the Shengwen (Jomon) period when sea level rose and island-mainland cultural contact relied on sea routes.

It is generally recognized ancient Chinese culture spread to Japan on five routes(2): (1) from Siberia via Hokkaido to north Japan; (2) via Korea and across Tsushima or Korean Strait; (3) from Chinese east coast across the East China Sea to Kyushu; (4) from Taiwan via Ryukyu Islands to Kyushu; and (5) from South Pacific via South China Sea Islands to Manchuria (Fig. 1). Scholars from various schools of thought have different explanations, but the South China Sea was a major route for cultural exchange from an archaeological point of view. This occurs in rice agriculture, balustrade-style construction, jue-shaped ear rings (circle with small section removed), lacquerware, ge-shaped large earthenware pots, yinwen pottery, circularly-arranged tribal houses and mound-shaped graves in Japan like those of lower Yangtze basin culture.

Fig. 1. Five import routes of ancient Japanese culture

China is one origin of world agriculture having two regions. The first is the yellow soil region centered in the Yellow River basin where dry weather is suitable for drought-resistant millet and sorghum. The second is the large area south of the Qinling and Huai River, where weather is warm and humid due to many lakes and streams and suitable for rice cultivation. As it is obvious ancient crops were limited by natural conditions, historic China saw the growth of farming and irrigation, allowing northward movement of rice cultivation, but an inability to replace north China’s drought-resistant crops. Besides documented data, West Zhou Dynasty carbonized rice grains in the Donghai Xian Jiaozhuang site near Lianyun city(3) indicate rice was cultivated ca. the 10th century BC along the north Huai River near the East China Sea.

Ancient carbonized rice and its marks, including Xia (O. sativa) and Keng (O. japonica), occur in >60 Yangtze basin sites and the area south. Of them, the oldest is in the lower Yangtze basin, ca. 5000-2000 BC, while those in Fujian, Taiwan, Guangdong and Yunnan date 2100-1200 BC. In comparison, rice remains of uncertain variety and date occur in only six north China sites, while millet and sorghum are in >30 sites, indicating north China was not a centre of rice agriculture(4).

It is more or less unanimously accepted that Japanese rice cultivation originated in China, its import route in three possible areas, north, middle or south China(5). The north China route from Hebei and Liaoning by land, or from Shandong by sea via the Korean Peninsula to Japan, was generally believed to be the main route. As it lacks solid evidence of early rice, it was an unlikely starting point for eastbound rice. Currently, the middle China route from lower Yangtze basin via East China Sea to Korea and Japan, is favored in the 10th century BC Late Shengwen period, and developed further in the Misheng (Yayoi) period(6). Besides rice, the origin of the Japanese stone ax, stone ben (Fig. 2, 1-4), crescent-shaped harvesting knife and other stone and wood cultivation tools are traceable to the lower Yangtze basin. Many Chinese Neolithic sha(7) (ploughshares) and chu(8) (hoes) (Fig. 3) also occur in Misheng remains (Fig. 2, 5-15). The muji (wooden slipper), the earliest of its kind in the world from the Ningbo Cihu site, Zhejiang, is also in Misheng culture, but smaller and more delicate than the so-called (Japanese) tianxiatuo (wooden slippers worn by rice paddy farmers). Evidently, close cultivation ties exist between lower Yangtze basin and ancient Japan.

As geography and weather in Japan’s Kyushu area resemble the lower Yangtze basin, Kyushu easily accepted and developed rice agriculture.

Fig. 2. Japanese Misheng culture stone and wood cultivation tools (with handles)

1 - 4, 9 & 10, from Litienyuan, Nagasaki; 5 & 7, from Anmen, Osaka; 6, from Guapo, Osaka; 8, from Tanggu, Nara; 11, from Lubushan, Fukuoka; 12, from Tusheng, Zuohe; 13, from Chishang, Osaka; 14, from Naso, Mishima; 15, from Dazonghunan Zihe

Fig. 3. Wood hoe excavated from Hemudu second level

Balustrade-style construction is an ancient style popular in lower Yangtze basin and is still used in certain areas of Yunnan province. But, aside from wood foundations, its actual construction did not occur in any excavated site. Clay and bronze model houses with long ridge, short eaves and floor on wood foundations(9) in the Qingjiang Yingpanli and Jinning Shizaishan sites in Jiangxi and Yunnan (Fig. 4) represent typical balustrade-style construction. It was ideal in living quarters as well as storage in areas of warm and humid weather.
This construction also occurred in ancient Japan. Pictures on bronze bells and Misheng culture sherds; copper mirrors and the middle ridge of ancient graves resemble those of the lower Yangtze basin, especially (Japanese) qieqizao style rooves with long ridges and short eaves, further signs of cultural exchange between China and Japan.

Fig. 4. Japanese balustrade-style construction

1, from bronze bell; 2 & 4, from sherd; 3, from sherd; 5, from copper mirror in ancient grave; 6, from sherd
Fig. 5. Bronze model of balustrade-style construction excavated from Shizaishan, China

Representative early (Japanese) Shengwen culture jue-shaped earrings and lacquerware originated in China.
As >140 jue-shaped earrings occur in many 5000-year-old Hemudu culture sites in lower Yangtze basin, but are rare in north China (only two 2000-year-old Longshan pieces in Shandong and Henan), their origin is in lower Yangtze basin(10).
The earliest Chinese lacquerware, a bowl with wooden inner mold, was found in the Hemudu site in Zhejiang(11). Other remains are a lacquer-smeared wooden piece12) and broken wooden mold lacquer bowl in the Yudun site in Jiangsu, lacquer cup with colored paintings and jade décor from the Yuyao Fanshan graveyard in Zhejiang(13) and 5000-2000 BC Liangzhu culture black pottery painted with lacquer flowers(14). Lacquerware and pottery covered with Japanese Shengwen culture lacquer was well developed. Black pottery excavated from Tangjing Caidian site has lacquer marks(15) very like the Chinese Liangzhu culture.
The use of jue earrings and lacquerware in Japan suggest the East China Sea-Japan route was already established. In addition, early Shengwen gourd remains drift to Japan by currents, according to botanists (16). In fact, their remains are in Hemudu(17), Luojiajiao(18), Shuitianban(19), etc., implying their cultivation and sea transport to Japan.
Ancient representative Chinese remains like the ge-shaped earthenware pot and yinwen pottery occur in Japan from cultural exchange.
The ge-shaped earthenware pot (with three supporting legs or tripod) occurs first in 2000 BC Longshan culture and remained as the major cooking ware until the Shang Dynasty. Japanese finds are 6 ge zu(20) (actual tripods) from Dafen and Miyazaki County sites and 2 intact ge-shaped pots in Qinsen County(21) and Jinjin sites(22). They resemble East Zhou Dynasty ones but differ from those in northeast China (Fig. 6). As this ware is absent in Korea, sea import to Japan is supported. Two major types of semi-complex ge-shaped pottery are in Jiangsu and Zhejiang; a Shang-Zhou type very like that in Yellow basin and another with lower Yangtze basin traits like round shoulders and plain surface with odd geometric marks. Ge-pottery from the Japanese Jinjin site resembles that of the lower Yangtze basin, but with Shengwen traits, indicating that it was either a Japanese imitation or there were close cultural ties. Geometrically engraved pottery is a lower Yangtze cultural trait popular in Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The shape and engraving of a yinwen pottery urn(23) in Japanese Fujiang, Nagasaki, resembles that of lower Yangtze culture and differs from Shengwen culture. The Jinjin and Fujiang pottery was obviously made in Japan but its shape originated in China.
Almost contemporaneous with pottery are Japanese finds of an East Zhou type copper sword(24), indicating pre-Qin Dynasty cultural exchange.

Fig. 6. Ge-shaped pottery excavated from Jinjin site in Qinsen county

Before the Zuohe Meeting, I visited the Jiyekeli excavation in Zuohe County(25). The largest most important Misheng culture remain, it is 500x2200 m and encircled by inner and outer protection ditches. Its louguan (watchtower), chengzha (city fence), dige (balustrade-style construction) and dazhuozong (grave mound) indicate it was recorded in China in Wei History - the Biography of Wo People (or Japanese). The Wo guo luan (or Japanese national chaos) is seen in rigorous defense construction and arrow-pierced corpses in graves. Excavation just began, making it foreseeable there are advantages to Misheng cultural research when additional evidence becomes available.
Two deep analogies occur in visiting Jiyekeli: (1) living quarters between round inner and outer ditches like the 4000 BC Yangshao period Xian Banpo(26) and Lintong Jiangzai(27) sites in Shaanxi, and in 5000 BC Mongolia(28). They occur not only in north China, but in the lower Yangtze basin in the Dingsadi Neolithic site in Jiangsu(29) and Wu Dynasty old city(30). In Korea, they began in the 4-7th centuries(31). Such Misheng period encircled living quarters closely relate to the lower Yangtze basin; (2) grave mounds give a clue to old burial ceremony origins, a style undiscovered in north China or Korea, but like lower Yangtze basin grave mounds, traceable to Neolithic Liangzhu culture(32) and becoming popular in the Zhou Dynasty(33). They are hilltop mounds, their soil from the surrounding area and, like those from Gulong and Yongning sites in Jiangsu, with one to several graves or earthenware jars instead of coffins (34). An interesting story is in chapter 197 of the book Tai Ping Guang Ji (Collection of Stories and Legends from Han to Song Dynasties): “In Tienjian 5th year (506 AD), an earthenware jar with cone-shaped top and flat bottom, measuring 5 chi high and 4 chi diameter, was found on south Danyang Mountain. Although a sword and several china pieces were in the jar, nobody knew its use. Scholar Shen Yue said: ‘This is a Dongyi (Japanese) urn used instead of a coffin. It is quite short, requiring a body to be buried sitting’. The Jiangyou zanshi reports Emperor Wu was very impressed”. If true, it may prove a lower Yangtze basin custom of burying adults in earthenware jars, with a definite influence on Misheng culture.
The Misheng culture centering in north Kyushu was based on Shengwen culture under mainland cultural influence, with a rice agriculture catalyst. During its growth, cultural elements from various sources were imported via different routes, with lower Yangtze basin influence on Jiyekeli remains seen in encircled ditches and grave mounds.
According to historic documents, many canoes occur in ancient lower Yangtze basin sites(35) and Japan, with ship building and use very advanced in East Zhou period Wu and Yue states.
Modern experience suggests the impossibility of crossing the dashing sea by canoe, raft or simple wooden boat, but the Sea of Japan current helps. The Tsushima Current forms from a warm south current flowing through Taiwan Strait past the Ryukyu Islands and through Korean Strait. It turns northeast along the Japanese west coast, eventually diminishing in Tsugaru and Uchiura Straits. When shipbuilding was primitive, currents aided direct voyage from Jiangsu and Zhejiang across the East China Sea to Japan. This was also the major route for trade and exchanging ambassadors. In 1944, some people took a little more than 20 hours sailing from Shanghai to Tangjin city in Japan(36), proving currents aid the voyage. As much archaeological phenomena cannot be explained, it is reasonable to believe this route was used in ancient times. Of course, these exchanges were not incidental, but resulted from many attempts.
In conclusion, Japan has been recorded in ancient Chinese documents since Qin Dynasty. Some geographic knowledge attaches to what Confucius said, “if my way of thinking is unacceptable to people in China, I will sail across the sea”. The terms Penglai, Fangzhang and Yingzhou used to describe Japan in Chinese literature, and the legendary story of Xu Fu crossing the sea must have historical basis, with archaeological data providing new evidence indicating long cultural exchange via the sea. I believe it will enhance related research if archaeologists from both countries collaborate.


(1) Sanyuan Zhuuangjie. Research on Ancient Japanese Clayware, 1974.

(2) Tongko Luokong. A Japanese Article, 1971
(3) Nan Bo. The ancient Donghai Jiaozhuang Site in Jiangsu. Cultural Relics, no.8, 1975.
(4) An Zhimin. Chinese Prehistoric Agriculture. J. Archaeology, no. 4, 1988.
(5) An Zhimin. Effect of Prehistoric Culture of the Lower Yangtze River on Ancient Japan. Kaogu, no. 5, 1984.
(6) See (5).
(7) See Kaogu, no. 4, 1974.
(8) See J. Archaeology, no. 1, 1978.
(9) An Zhimin. Archaeological Research of Balustrade-style Construction. J. Archaeology, no. 2, 1963.
(10) See (5)
(11) Hemudu Archaeological Team. Main Achievements of the Second Excavation of the Hemudu Site. Cultural Relics, no. 5, 1980.
(12) Wu Su. Report on the Neolithic Site in Yudun. Kaogu, no. 4 1978.
(13) Zhejiang Provincial Archaeology Team. Report on the Excavation of the Burial Site in Yuhon Fanshan, Zhejiang. Cultural Relics, no. 1, 1988.
(14) Exhibition of Nanjing Museum. 1981.
(15) Tangjin City Educational Committee. A Japanese Article, 1982.
(16) Zhongxi Hongcun. Plant Seeds in Archaeology. Report of Early Shengwen Culture, 1983.
(17) Department of Nature. Zhejiang Provincial Museum. Research on the Identification of Plants and Animal in Hemudu Site. J. Archaeology, no. 1, 1978.
(18) Luojiajiao Archaeology Team. Report on the Excavation of Luojiajiao Site. J. Zhejiang Cultural Archaeology, 1981.
(19) Zhejiang. Custody committee of Cultural Items. Report on the Excavation of Shuitianban Site. J. Archaeology, no. 2, 1960.
(20) Hechuan Guangfu. Effect of Mainland Culture on Late Shengwen Culture. Historic Education, Vol. 9, no. 3, 1961.
(21) Xitien Zhengji. Effect of Ancient Culture on Neolithic Culture in North Ouyu. Collective Publication of Xitien Zhengji, no. 1, 1980.
(22) Singu Wu and Gongtien Kongbo. Three-legged Ge-shaped Pot Excavated from Jinjin Site. J. of Archaeology, Vol. 71, no. 2.
(23) Japanese Zhaori Daily News, no. 3237, 1984.
(24) Zuohe City Museum. Discovery of Ancient History - Remains Unearthed from Kyushu, 1989.
(25) The Jiyekeli Kingdom. Zuohe News, 1989.
(26) Department of Archaeological Research, Chinese Institute of Science and Xian Banpo Museum, Xian. Banpo, 1963.
(27) Excavation Report of a Neolithic Site. Banpo Museum, Jiangzai, 1988.
(28) Excavation Report on the Mongolian Xinlongwa Site. Department of Archaeological Research, Chinese Institute of Social Science. Kaogu, no. 10, 1985.
(29) Wu Yongqin. A Neolithic Cultural Site discovered in Juyong County, Jiangsu. Chinese Cultural News, no. 20, 1989,
(30) Ni Zhenkuai. Copperware excavated from Yancheng. Cultural Relics, no. 4, 1959.
(31) The Formation of Jiyekeli Kingdom. West Japan News, May 13, 1989.
(32) See (13)
(33) Xiao Menglong. Discussion of the Wu Mound Graves. Collective Thesis in Anthropology, 1986.
(34) Nanjing Museum. Report on Grave Mounds excavated from Gulong and Yongning sites in Jiangsu. J. Cultural Information, no. 6, 1982.
(35) Lin Huadong. Study on Boats of Wu and Yue. Southeast Culture, no. 2, 1987.
(36) Sen Haoyi. Ancient Culture Awakes, 1984.

Directory: ~bgordon -> Rice -> papers
papers -> Expansion of chinese paddy rice to the yunnan-guizhou plateau
papers -> Several problems concerning the origin of civilization a discussion with prof. An zhimin tong, Enzheng
papers -> Biological control one of the fine traditions of ancient chinese agricultural techniques
papers -> Exploration of the origin of keng rice (japonica) in china tang, Shengxiang
papers -> Liangzhu culture and rice production
papers -> MalayaN cultivated rice and its expansion – part four
papers -> The war between wu and yue states caused rice to spread east
papers -> Huanan is the centre of origin of Chinese rice cultivation
papers -> Population increase and forest destruction in different chinese dynasties, and their relation to apiculture
papers -> Early neolithic culture in north china

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