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Understanding Chinese Civilization from Cultural Relics

By Li Qun Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2023-11-14

At a meeting on cultural inheritance and development on June 2, 2023, President Xi Jinping summarized with penetrating insight the distinctive features of Chinese civilization and elucidated the significance of the “two integrations” (integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s specific realities and the best of its traditional culture), which explain the development laws underlying Chinese civilization. This reflects the new heights the Communist Party of China (CPC) has attained in its understanding of the path, theory, and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, in its confidence in Chinese history and culture, and in its consciousness of promoting cultural innovation while carrying forward the traditional Chinese culture.

Upholding consistency and adhering to the path of socialist cultural development

Chinese civilization is the only great civilization in the world to have continuously developed to the present day and to have done so as a country. Archaeological discoveries have produced evidence of millions of years of humanity, ten thousand years of culture, and more than five thousand years of civilization in China.

Important projects such as the Program to Trace the Origins of Chinese Civilization and the Chinese Archaeology Project have revealed that Chinese civilization has undergone various spatial, temporal, dynastic, and social changes and further more it forms an unbroken thread and has increasingly flourished over time.

Elements of Chinese civilization, including agricultural practices, jade ornaments, and the construction practices of capital cities clearly display inherited cultural attributes.

The earliest discoveries of food cultivation in China date to over 10,000 years ago, including rice cultivation at Xianren Cave in Jiangxi Province, Shangshan in Zhejiang Province, and Yuchanyan in Hunan Province as well as millet cultivation at Donghulin in Beijing, which indicates the pattern of rice cultivation in south China and millet cultivation in the north. Approximately 5,000 years ago, millet and rice cultivation were the dominant economic activities of north and south China, respectively. The Liangzhu culture that flourished around the Taihu Lake in the Yangtze River Delta established an early state and civilized society based around rice farming. The farming traditions that were developed during the Neolithic Age formed the cornerstone of subsequent agrarian societies and civilizations. The traditional values of agrarian civilization of respecting nature, focusing on sustainability, emphasizing unity, and valuing honesty became the cultural genes of the Chinese nation. Successive dynasties have attached great importance to agricultural production, and cultural relics and heritage such as the Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People (Qi Min Yao Shu), written during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces first cultivated during the Tang Dynasty, the Poems and Paintings about Ploughing and Weaving (Geng Zhi Tu) from the Southern Song Dynasty, and the Temple of Agriculture used during the Ming and Qing dynasties are all testament to China’s agrarian civilization, and China’s dietary habits and solar calendar derived from it still shape the daily lives of Chinese people today.

The earliest surviving jade artifacts in China, dating to approximately 9,000 years ago, were unearthed at Xiaonanshan in Heilongjiang Province. They include various types of jade jewelry, which are the earliest known examples of the mineral’s use as a precious object and a symbol of beauty. Approximately 5,500 years ago, society grew more complex, and jade objects in the Hongshan, Shijiahe, and Liangzhu cultures became endowed with transcendental significance. During the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, the concept of using jade objects to “venerate heaven and earth” gradually developed, and jade became an important part of ritual traditions. Subsequently, Confucius extolled the virtues of wearing jade: “The quality of jade corresponds to a gentleman’s virtue,” “A gentleman is never not to wear jade without a proper reason.” These views were perpetuated for generations among scholars and bureaucrats, causing jade to become a symbol of virtue. In the Sui and Tang dynasties, there was a growing trend toward ornamental use of jade, and a secular aesthetic became popular, creating a broad social appeal that perpetuated the use of jade for millennia.

Late Neolithic urban sites such as the ancient cities of Liangzhu, Taosi, and Shimao all consisted of palace areas, inner cities, and outer towns typical of imperial cities. The ancient city of Erlitou developed these traditions between the Xia and Western Zhou dynasties. During the Han and Wei dynasties, the urban layout consisting of an inner and outer city became more pronounced, as planning became more rigorous, and cities with a defined central axis appeared. The Sui city of Daxing, later renamed Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty, was a model ancient capital, with the palace and imperial city sitting along the central axis of Zhuque Street and a symmetrical distribution of streets to the east and west, forming a neat and orderly checkerboard layout. Throughout the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, a symmetrical urban layout based around a central axis was a recurring design principle of capital cities. This could be seen during the Ming and Qing dynasties in the design of Beijing, with the central axis running from Yongding Gate in the south to the Bell Tower and Drum Tower in the north and connecting the outer town, inner city, imperial palace, and Forbidden City along a major cultural corridor. The traditional concepts of harmony between humanity and nature, etiquette and order, and balance and congruity embodied in the central axis design continue to influence the development of modern Chinese cities.

These archaeological achievements and cultural relics reflect the cultural identity and vibrancy that have allowed Chinese civilization to develop, respond to challenges, and break fresh ground. The deep sentiment of the Chinese people toward their homeland and their profound sense of history have laid a foundation for advocating unity, which has become the ethos underpinning the Chinese nation’s rejuvenation following a plethora of trials and tribulations.


The photos show several artifacts on display at the Chinese Archaeological Museum: 1. Neolithic pottery portrait of a human face; 2. Neolithic pottery flask with characters in red pigment; 3. Neolithic painted pottery plate decorated with a dragon design; 4. Dragon-shaped turquoise artifact of the Xia Dynasty unearthed at the Erlitou site in Henan Province; 5. Ivory vase of the Shang Dynasty; 6. Bronze wine vessel of the Zhou Dynasty. Each exquisite artifact provides a vivid glimpse into the arduous and pioneering journey undertaken by our nation’s ancestors. CHINESE ACADEMY OF HISTORY

The consistency of Chinese civilization fundamentally dictates that the Chinese people must follow their own path. Its continuous development over several millennia and ability to endure successive difficulties are the basis of China’s cultural confidence and strength. China created a magnificent Chinese civilization, and it will adhere to the development of a socialist culture with Chinese characteristics and of a modern Chinese civilization.

Encouraging innovation and promoting the creative transformation and innovative development of traditional Chinese culture

Chinese civilization encourages reform and innovation, with a combination of understated wisdom and unbridled vitality. Based on the spirit of innovation of seeking continuous improvement on a daily and ongoing basis, the Chinese nation has created its own material, cultural, and political civilization, becoming the most prosperous and powerful civilization in the world for an extended period of history. Major archaeological discoveries in China testify to the innovations achieved throughout the history of Chinese civilization and their role in supporting progress. Agricultural technology, the “four great inventions” (compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing), lacquer, silk, porcelain, iron and steel making, the administrative system of prefectures and counties, and the imperial examination system are all unique innovations of ancient Chinese civilization.

Pottery was humankind’s first great initiative to change the properties of materials, and it opened the door to further inventions. The earliest pottery discovered by Chinese archaeologists, dating to approximately 20,000 years ago, was found at Xianren Cave in Wannian County, Jiangxi Province. The invention of the fast wheel and improvements in firing techniques approximately 6,000 years ago enabled the creation of thinner yet stronger as well as more beautiful pottery. Pottery of the Yangshao culture, with its imaginative and exquisite designs, marked the zenith of prehistoric painted pottery making, which facilitated exchanges between regions of Chinese civilization. The Longshan culture used carburization to produce black “eggshell” pottery that was “black like paint, bright as a mirror, thin as paper, and hard as porcelain,” and it was regarded as the most exquisite product of the world’s various civilizations 4,000 years ago. The Shang Dynasty developed the use of kaolinite for pottery ware and the technique to produce a glazing effect, leading to the emergence of primitive porcelain alongside traditional pottery. Subsequent improvements in kiln structure along with glazing techniques led to the production of green, white, and “blue and white glazed and painted” porcelain, pushing porcelain making to new heights.


Painted pottery basin from the Yangshao culture unearthed at the Suyang relics site in Luoyang, Henan Province. In February 2023, new discoveries were made at the Suyang site, including a semi-annular defensive trench dating back to the early Yangshao culture about 6,000 years ago. The manually dug trench is meticulous in design and structure, reflecting the powerful and orderly social organizational capacity and technical expertise of that time. It is a concrete manifestation of increasing social complexity during the Yangshao period. (File photo) XINHUA

The Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties were important periods of innovation and change for Chinese civilization. Yuelu Academy was one of four major ancient Chinese academies. The famous scholar Zhang Shi was a leading teacher at the academy, and the Southern Song Dynasty philosopher Zhu Xi and the Ming Dynasty philosopher Wang Yangming both lectured there, which was known far and wide. Neo-Confucianism developed Confucianism based on the philosophical concepts of “investigating matters to acquire knowledge” and “the unity of knowledge and action.” This period was also a time of innovation in literature and art, with Song poetry and Yuan operas reaching new heights, art works such as Along the River During the Qingming Festival and Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains pushing the boundaries of painting, and the emergence of the first vernacular novels and operas. 

The rectangular sheng (measuring vessel) is physical evidence of Chinese statesman Shang Yang’s famous reform to unify weights and measures in ancient China, reflecting the development of ancient Chinese institutions. This social change, which took place during the Warring States Period unleashed positive social factors that promoted the growth of the Qin state and provided a foundation for the unification of China. The Liye Qin Slips discovered at Longshan in Hunan Province record local administrative operations during the Qin Dynasty. The innovative administrative system of prefectures and counties implemented at the time greatly strengthened the central government’s vertical management over localities, enabling allocations of important strategic resources and promoting social stability under a unified state. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the rankings of candidates who sat the imperial examinations were announced at Changjinglou in the city of Taiyuan in Shanxi Province. The development of the civil service examination system during the Sui and Tang dynasties expanded the social foundation for cultivating, selecting, and employing talented individuals and ensured the stable operation of the national and social governance system for many centuries.

The originality of Chinese civilization determines that the Chinese nation upholds tradition without clinging to the past and respects ancient wisdom without reverting to archaic thinking. It also determines our nation’s fearless character of facing new challenges head-on and embracing new things.

Maintaining unity and forging a strong sense of community among the Chinese nation

The long tradition of striving for great unity in Chinese civilization has resulted in unity amid diversity as well as unity based on centralism. The pursuit of inward cohesion is both the premise and result of the consistency of Chinese civilization. Numerous archaeological findings have demonstrated how the Chinese nation and civilization formed and developed a pattern of unity amidst diversity and integrated the concepts of family and nation. 

The prehistoric period laid the foundations for the development of unity amid diversity for the Chinese civilization, with various regions of China interacting with and influencing each other as early as 8,000 years ago. Cultural interactions between the Yellow River Basin, the Yangtze River Basin, and the Xiliao River Basin increased around 6,000 years ago with the proliferation of the colored pottery of the Miaodigou culture, the northward advancement of the Liangzhu culture, and the westward spread of the Dawenkou culture. Approximately 3,800 years ago, Erlitou and other cultures in the Central Plains region developed and eventually merged into a unified multi-ethnic state during the Qin and Han dynasties.

A recent achievement of the Chinese Archaeology Project was an important discovery in sacrificial pits at the Sanxingdui archaeological site located in Guanghan County, Sichuan Province. The unearthed bronze zun (wine vessel), lei (urn-shaped vessel), and bu (jar-shaped vessel) are products from a Bronze Age culture during the Shang Dynasty. The mold casting and welding techniques used to make the artifacts at Sanxingdui were the same as those used at that time in the Central Plains, reflecting the unity amid diversity of Chinese civilization and the mutual influence between the ancient kingdom of Shu and cultures in the Central Plains. Archaeological findings in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region have centered around the core cities of the Protectorate of the Western Region and the Beiting Protectorate established during the Han and Tang dynasties, respectively. More than 10 city sites and other military and urban facilities have been gradually surveyed and excavated to determine the evolution and layout of the cities of Shichengzi and Beiting. Excavated objects provide evidence that kingdoms in the Central Plains extended their administration to the Western Region and that Xinjiang has been an inseparable territory of China since ancient times. The World Heritage Site of Putuo Zongcheng Temple in Chengde, Hebei Province contains stone tablets titled “Record of the Order of the Emperor Regarding the Return of the Torghuts” and “Record of Solicitude for the Torghut Tribe” stone tablets, whose inscriptions record the journey of the Mongolian Torghut tribe back to their homeland after more than 140 years of hardship, demonstrating patriotic feelings of indivisible nationhood. 

The unity of Chinese civilization determines that its various ethnic cultures come together to create a cohesive whole and remain tightly knit even in the face of major setbacks. It determines the Chinese people’s common belief that China’s territorial integrity must always be preserved, the nation must never be allowed to descend into turmoil, our ethnic groups must always remain united, and our civilization must never be interrupted. It further determines that national unity will always sit at the heart of China’s core interests and that a strong and unified country is vital for the future of all our people. The unity of the Chinese nation amid diversity is a valuable legacy of our ancestors and a huge advantage for China’s development. 

Ensuring inclusiveness and creating a new model of human progress

Chinese civilization has never attempted to replace multiculturalism with monoculturalism; rather, it has brought together diverse cultures to form a common culture capable of resolving conflicts and forging consensus. Chinese civilization has benefited from this open and inclusive attitude since ancient times. 

Exchanges between, and the mixing of, ethnic groups in China led to the development and growth of a unified multi-ethnic country. The enfeoffment system implemented during the Zhou Dynasty facilitated the integration of ethnic groups including the Haidai, Yanliao, and Jianghan into the Central Plains civilization. The Qin and Han dynasties created an integrated, unified multi-ethnic state structure. During the Western Han Dynasty, the Nanyue kingdom in southern China adopted the etiquette, technology, and culture of the Central Plains, integrating the region into the Chinese family. Four tombs of Northern Wei emperors were built at Mangshan in the northern suburbs of Luoyang, and Emperor Xiaowen’s relocation of the capital to Luoyang and his policy of sinicization epitomized the migrations and integration of ethnic groups during the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern dynasties. The layout of the Shangdu (Upper Capital) ruins in Inner Mongolia of the Yuan Dynasty, consisting of a palace, imperial city, and an outer city, is the same as that of ancient cities in the Central Plains. The Qing Dynasty adopted the same system for building capitals and palaces as the preceding Ming Dynasty, and its political system and culture had many inherited and adapted attributes, indicating that the nomadic tribes admired, adopted, and modified the farming culture of the Central Plains. This is evidence that Chinese cultural identity transcended regions, bloodlines, and religious beliefs, and that it integrated diverse ethnic groups with significant differences into a pluralistic and united Chinese nation. 

A Xinjiang-themed exhibition titled “Mixing and Convergence” held at the National Museum in Beijing in June 2023 included a brocade armband with the embroidered message “Five stars rising in the East is a propitious sign for the Middle Kingdom,” a bronze mirror bearing the inscription “Wishing you a successful career,” and an early annotated copy of The Analects of Confucius, which all reflect the diffusion of the culture of the Central Plains to Xinjiang as well as the close connections and cultural similarities between the two regions. Exhibits such as a gold medallion with a tiger motif, a gold mask with ruby inlays, and a pottery drinking vessel in the shape of a man’s smiling face and an ox’s head all reflect the acceptance and absorption of cultural aspects of various ethnic groups by Chinese civilization. A long corridor of cultural exchanges running from the Central Plains through Xinjiang to Central and West Asia existed long before the Silk Road. At the end of the Neolithic Age, bronze smelting, crops such as wheat and barley, and livestock such as goats and sheep were all introduced to China, which had a profound impact on future generations. Cultural exchanges between China and the rest of the world reached new heights during the Han and Tang dynasties, with China exporting silk, porcelain, and printing far and wide, while fruit and vegetables such as watermelons, grapes, and carrots as well as gold- and silver-making techniques and religions were imported into China. The Hejia Village hoard in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province amply demonstrates the cultural exchanges that were taking place between China and foreign countries. Here, gold and silver artifacts that integrate decorations and designs associated with the Sasanian Empire in Persia and the northern steppe cultures were discovered, indicating that gold and silver art during the Tang Dynasty blended Chinese and foreign cultural elements. The magnificent Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang on the Silk Road are a treasure trove of Buddhist art that has survived for thousands of years. The grottoes, together with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Mount Wutai, the Yungang Grottoes, Mount Qingcheng, and the ancient building complex in the Wudang Mountains, reflect China’s multireligious culture. 


Bronze divinity statue with bird’s claws. Housed in the newly inaugurated Sanxingdui Museum in Guanghan City, Sichuan Province, the statue integrates the typical features of the Sanxingdui culture and the Xia and Shang dynasties, while also bearing traces of the Liangzhu, Yangshao, and Shijiahe cultures. As an artistic masterpiece of our Sanxingdui ancestors, it offers a shining example of cross-regional cultural exchanges and integration in China and the Chinese civilization’s unity amid diversity. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER WANG XI 

Quanzhou: Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan China was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in July 2021. Quanzhou was a major center of global maritime trade and one of the starting points of the Maritime Silk Road, making it a hub of cultural exchange and integration. The Islamic Tombs are the oldest and best-preserved Islamic site, and Qingjing Mosque is one of the earliest surviving Islamic temples, in China. The Manichaean statue at Cao’an is the only preserved stone statue of the founder of Manichaeism in the world. The Confucian Temple, Zhenwu Temple, Tianhou Palace, Statue of Laozi, and Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou are historical relics of Confucianism and Daoism, which were indigenous to China, as well as of the sinicization of the non-indigenous religion of Buddhism. The serial sites of cultural heritage represent various religions and cultures and have an enduring charm, providing historical evidence of the harmonious coexistence and mixing of multiple cultures in ancient Quanzhou. 


Animal head-shaped agate cup with a gold tip from the Tang Dynasty on display at the Shaanxi History Museum. The cup is similar in design to a type of wine vessel that originated in ancient Greece known as a rhyton. Widely popular in Central and West Asia, rhytons steadily spread eastward along the Silk Road before arriving in China. The cup is evidence of more than 2,000 years of economic and cultural exchanges between China and other countries along the Silk Road. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER LI YIBO

The inclusiveness of Chinese civilization determines the Chinese nation’s historical orientation toward communication, exchange, and integration, as well as the harmonious existence of diverse religious beliefs in China. It also defines the willingness of Chinese culture to embrace and draw on other cultures. 

Advocating peace and promoting the building of a global community of shared future

Chinese civilization has perpetuated the concepts of peace, friendship, and harmony for more than 5,000 years as well as advocated the establishment of a world in which the collective and the individual are united in a moral order and others are put before oneself. Work to preserve our cultural heritage must support the building of a global community of shared future; uphold equality, mutual learning, dialogue, and inclusiveness between civilizations; and promote the common human values enshrined in Chinese culture. 

From the political sentiment of “seeking harmony between all nations” in The Book of Documents to the idea in The Analects of Confucius that a man of virtue should cultivate “harmony without uniformity,” the concept that “harmony is to be prized” is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. The Chinese people have always held peace in high esteem, which is closely related to our rich heritage as an agricultural civilization. It is evident from the archaeological remains of the Yangshao and Liangzhu cultures that agriculture was the mainstay of economic society in early Chinese civilization. This means that our ancient ancestors did not rely on pillaging; rather, farming and weaving were the primary means of making a living in ancient Chinese society, which cultivated among the Chinese a humble simplicity and inclination for industriousness, harmony, and coexistence. Despite brief periods of chaos caused by war throughout history, these tended to lead to stable dynasties characterized by great unity, such as the prosperous Sui and Tang dynasties, which arose out of the division and fragmentation of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, and the thriving Northern Song Dynasty, which followed the disorder of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. Thus, the pursuit of national peace and personal comfort is born of a yearning for peace and stability. Construction of the Great Wall began in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, and it was extended and reinforced by the Qin, Han, Sui, and Ming dynasties. It was a defensive installation of the kingdoms of the Central Plains, as the Chinese nation does not have a tradition of outward aggression and expansion. Gunpowder, one of China’s “four great inventions,” was created by alchemists and first used to make fireworks. The overland and maritime routes of the Silk Road were developed to promote trade and cultural exchanges, which is in stark contrast to the colonial plunder and competition for maritime supremacy of Western nations in modern times. The discovered Nanhai No.1 shipwrecks, the No.2 shipwrecks at Yangtze River Estuary, and the No.1 and No.2 shipwrecks of the Nanhai Northwest Continental Slope were all commercial vessels, loaded mainly with porcelain. They stand as further evidence that the Silk Road was a conduit for economic and cultural exchanges as well as the intermingling of ideas.  

The peaceful nature of Chinese civilization determines that China will always work to safeguard world peace, contribute to global development, and preserve international order. It determines that China will continue to promote exchange and mutual learning among civilizations without seeking cultural hegemony, and it will never impose its values and political system on others. It also determines that China will remain committed to cooperation as opposed to confrontation, and it will never engage in partisanism. China will implement the Global Civilizations Initiative and expand international cooperation on cultural heritage. We will collect and refine the defining symbols and best elements of Chinese culture and display them to the world, extend the reach and appeal of Chinese civilization, and make unique contributions to deepening exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations and promoting the building of a global community of shared future. 

Li Qun is Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism and Commissioner of the National Cultural Heritage Administration.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 17, 2023)