Xia Dynasty Culture
Characteristics of Erlitou Arts and Archeological Discoveries.

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Bronze Wine Drinking Vessel
Xia Dynasty art (2100-1600 BCE)
Ancient pottery of the Erlitou culture.

Xia Dynasty Culture (c.2100-1600 BCE)
History and Characteristics


Xia Arts and Culture
Erlitou Culture (2100-1500)
History of Archeological Discoveries at Erlitou
Later Chinese Dynasties

Additional Resources

- Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE)
- Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE)
- Han Dynasty art (206 BCE - 220 CE)

Black Pottery Goblet
Black eggshell pottery (c.2000 BCE)
Excavated at Jiaoxian, 1975.

For dates of early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For movements and periods,
see: History of Art.

Xia Arts and Culture

An important stage in Chinese art - a stage described in ancient historical chronicles, like the Bamboo Annals, Classic of History and Records of the Grand Historian - the Xia Dynasty is now accepted as China's first dynasty. Although authoritative archeological evidence is still lacking, and we are dependent on traditional chronology, combined with information from the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, for dates, the Xia Dynasty is believed to have featured 17 emperors and lasted almost five centuries, ruling China between approximately 2100 and 1700 BCE. It served as a bridge between late Neolithic art in China and the beginnings of recorded history represented by the long era of Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE).

Up until the Xia Dynasty Chinese artifacts mainly comprised forms of pottery, already of great sophistication, and items worked from bone, ivory or stone. Xia Dynasty culture is best known for its bronze making (including the piece-mold casting technique), goldsmithing and other metalwork. Chinese pottery as well as jade carving, other forms of sculpture like ivory carving, sericulture, Chinese lacquerware, were also important exemplars of Xia culture. The first forms of calligraphy emerged during the final years of the dynasty.

See also: Characteristics of Traditional Chinese art.


Erlitou Culture (2100-1500)

Located throughout Henan and Shanxi Province, and later Shaanxi and Hubei provinces, the Erlitou culture - discovered in 1959 by Xu Xusheng, - has been identified by several Chinese archeologists as the site of the legendary Xia Dynasty (c.2100-1700 BCE). The town of Erlitou in Yanshi, on the northern bank of the Luohe River, Henan Province, was famous for its bronze smelting workshops and its status as the centre of Erlitou Culture ceremonial bronzes. In fact, research shows that Erlitou was the largest community in China (possibly in the whole of East Asia) around 2000 BCE, with the earliest known palace building complex, the earliest known series of ritualistic bronze vessels and the earliest known bronze casting workshop.

Note: For more about the historical background to Erlitou culture, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present). For other contemporaneous art forms, see: Asian art (from 38,000 BCE).

History of Archeological Discoveries at Erlitou

In 1959, archeologists uncovered two palaces in Erlitou, located at "No.1" and "No.2" sites. They were believed to be the earliest large-scale palaces in China, dating back to roughly 1875-1575 BCE. More recently, in 1979, the remains of an even larger and more complex structure have been unearthed underneath site "No.2", dating back to c.1975 BCE: that is, about a century earlier. As the construction of this third palace clearly predates the Shangs by at least 300 years, its discovery seems to confirm that it belongs to the Xia culture.

In some of the courtyards of No.3 site, scientists discovered a series of tombs, all paved with cinnabar, which were found to discover a number of unique, never previously seen, objects including bronze containers, jades, lacquerware and white pottery as well as glazed ceramic art decorated with turquoise and seashells. Sadly, no examples of Chinese painting were discovered

In 2011, Chinese archeologists at Erlitou unearthed the remains of what appears to be an imperial palace - carbon-dated to approximately 1700 BCE, adding further weight to the supposed existence of the Xia Dynasty and the central role played by Erlitou in its development. However, according to Dr. Xu Hong, director of the Erlitou Archeological Team at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, doubts remain as to whether the palace was built by the Xia or the Shang, or another people altogether. The issue reflects the wider question - was Erlitou culture made up of Xia culture to begin with, then later Shang culture, or was it exclusively Xia?

Note: To see the influence of Neolithic Chinese culture on China's nearest neighbour, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards).

Later Chinese Dynasties

Later arts and culture of China are traditionally divided, as follows:

- Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-589 CE)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)
- Tang Dynasty art (618-906)
- Song Dynasty art (960-1279)
- Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368)
- Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644)
- Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911)

For more about other early eastern civilizations, see: Japanese Art.

• For more about ancient Chinese culture, see: Homepage.

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