The author of Early China: A Social and Cultural History occasionally engages in asides which analogize his own domain of study to other societies and histories. In the process, he illustrates how China is in some ways nonpareil.
When discussing the emergence of philosophical thinking during the Spring and Autumn Period there is a connection made to the same process occurring in India and Greece. It is suggested that during this period the memories of the older Bronze Age world were fading, and in the chaos, new ideas and strictures were arising. The problem is that in fact there is no analogy between the Chinese recollection of their own past, and that of India and Greece.
Homer and Hesiod both lived in the period after the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted from about 1100 to 800 BC. Though the oral history did preserve important fragments of knowledge from the Mycenaean period (e.g., the importance of the Argolid and the distinctive boar’s head helmets), enough was forgotten that the Greeks were not entirely clear that the citadels constructed during the Mycenaean period were in fact constructions of their ancestors. The loss of literacy meant there was no institutional connection to the past, and when Linear B was deciphered most archaeologists were surprised that it was an archaic form of Greek.
For India, the connections are even more tenuous and vague. The Mycenaeans seem to have created a synthetic civilization, repurposing Minoan high culture toward their own ends. But, they were also clearly Greek, with many of their gods being the same gods that we recognize from the Classical era. In Early China the author implies that the people of 6th century India may have had some memory of the Indus Valley Civilization. Though it is likely some elements of culture were passed down from that period, no institutional memory seems to have persisted, in large part because of the likely cultural shock of the arrival of Indo-Aryans around 1500 BC.
The contrast with China here is strong. In Early China the author talks about the Doubting Antiquity School, which was skeptical of the veracity of Chinese historical memory before the Qin period 2,300 years ago. Today, due to archaeology, analysis of inscriptions on bronze vessels, as well as the famous oracle bones, it is clear that historians such as Sima Qian had access to cultural memory that went back at least 1,000 years. The Shang dynasty, once thought to be legend, clearly existed. Names of kings retrieved from the oracle bones matche those provided by classical sources, including their sequence of reigns.
We know that in 1046 the Zhou defeated the Shang. Because of a planetary alignment anomaly the month and date are even remembered.
Which brings us to the Erlitou culture. This archaeological culture flourished in broadly the same region as the Shang dynasty polity, but earlier. The author of Early China contends that this was likely the Xia dynasty. Though we will never be able to validate this in all likelihood, as there are no known forms of writing from this society, we can assume just as with the Shang the legends of the Xia probably have some basis in fact (eventually ancient DNA will accept or reject demographic continuity).
Though I’m not sure where I read it, though probably John King Fairbanks’ book, it has been asserted that China from the Han dynasty down to fall of the Imperial system in 1912 exhibited such a strong cultural continuity that an official in the Former Han might find the bureaucracy of 1900 comprehensible. But wait, there’s more here. As outlined in Early China many of the broad outlines of Han culture which crystallized under the Qin-Han, actually date back to the Zhou dynasty of 1000 BC. The Shang even earlier clearly prefigure the importance of ancestor worship in Chinese culture.
The contrast with the other end of Eurasia is stark. A book like 1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed has a hyperbolic title which totally ignores the fact that that date passed without much tumult in East Asia, where the Shang were ascendant on the plains of the Yellow river. In fact, the curious thing to observe is that the periodic phases of political disunity and cultural turmoil never resulted in a sharp and distinct rupture in Chinese self-identity. Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 outlines the argument that the difference between Rome and the post-Roman polities assembled by the Germans is that the latter lost control of taxation and so dissolved the bureaucratic state. The mature and more self-confident Europe of the High Middle Ages was very different from Classical Rome. It was created de novo. In contrast, Song China was not that different from Han China.
Perhaps a better analogy would be with the Byzantine Empire. Though it is hard to justify it being much of an “Empire” by 1100, in 1000 AD it was a powerful and expansive state, pushing into the Levant. Though very different from the Classical Empire, the Byzantines did engage in extensive preservation of that heritage (most of the humanistic works of the Greeks are preserved thanks to the efforts of 10th century Byzantine copyists). But Byzantium was eventually swallowed by the Turks. The institutional continuity with the ancient world of the West disappeared.
Some of the reviewers of Early China: A Social and Cultural History complained that there was too much discussion of Shang dynasty floor plans. That’s fair enough, but the sections on the Western Zhou and the Spring and Autumn are the meat of the book. I could have done without the precis on the Han, as that is covered extensively elsewhere. But this book definitely is an essential update to the scholarship on the roots of Chinese civilization.