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Shanxi displays the earliest and most complex layers of China’s history. For thousands of years, it set the stage where different cultures met and mixed, which helped make the “diversity in unity” of Chinese culture

By Zhang Yue Updated Jan.1

Pictured is a lacquer painting on a screen unearthed from a tomb during the Northern Wei kingdom (386-534), Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, Shanxi Province

The torrential rainfall in early October in Shanxi Province put the spotlight on the lesser-developed region in China’s northwest. Shanxi hit the headlines. An important outcome was the realization that the province is home to unnumbered ancient buildings and many are not listed for national or provincial protection. After the rainfall and flooding, some are now at risk of collapse.  

The historical value of Shanxi is not only found in the ancient buildings on its land. The annals of history describe the unique role that Shanxi played in defining Chinese culture for 5,000 years.  

Shanxi’s role has been overlooked for so long due to the standing of its sibling provinces. To the west is Shaanxi Province, which served as the political of China for millennia, going back 3,000 years. Shaanxi’s capital city, now called Xi’an, was the capital of four important dynasties: the Western Zhou (1046-771 BCE), the Qin (221-206 BCE), the Western Han (206 BCE-8 CE) and the Tang (618-907). In the mid and late 11th century BCE, the Western Zhou set up a political system and ritualistic society which became the foundation of Confucianism. In 221 BCE, the Qin became China’s first imperial dynasty, and the system it created lasted more than 2,000 years, right up to the early 20th century. The Qin capital included part of today’s Xi’an and nearby Xianyang. The Western Han and the Tang further built on these foundations, themselves becoming two powerful dynasties.  

Shanxi’s southern neighbor Henan Province is the icon of a dominant Chinese culture called zhongyuan. Literally meaning “the central plain,” zhongyuan refers to the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, one of the major cradles of Chinese civilization. The concept of zhongyuan goes far beyond its geographic boundaries. It symbolizes the core of agriculture-based Chinese culture, and the center of the ancient Chinese world. This is where Confucius was born, and where he developed his philosophy. Historically, every ruler attempted to control the zhongyuan and adopt zhongyuan culture and Confucianism to legitimize their claim and keep their reign safe from attack. Shanxi is part of the zhongyuan cultural sphere, but Henan, especially the Luoyang area in the west of the province, has long been regarded as its center.  
Earliest China 
Proud locals may be heard to repeat, “In Shaanxi you’ll find 3,000 years of China’s history, while in Shanxi you’ll see 5,000 years of China’s history.” The process of the birth and development of Chinese civilization is described by Chinese historians as “diversity in unity.” Different local cultures began to develop along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, and an agricultural society developed. Early tribes made contact with each other, and about 4,000 years ago, the zhongyuan area became a dominant cultural society in the region.  

Two Neolithic cultures have been crucial for the growth of zhongyuan culture. One is the Yangshao culture in the middle reaches of the Yellow River, circa 5,000-3,000 BCE, and the other is the Longshan Culture which dates to around 2,500-2,100 BCE. Many ancient relics from these two crucial cultures have been unearthed in Shanxi’s south.  

A hundred years ago, in October 1921, Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson, a mining advisor to the Chinese government, led a team to excavate a site in Yangshao Village, Henan Province. This excavation not only was the first archaeological discovery of a Neolithic culture in China, but also marked the beginning of modern archaeological research in China. The Yangshao culture is characterized by colored pottery. In the following decades, thousands of similar relics have been found in about 10 provinces. Most are in Shanxi, Henan and Shaanxi. An exhibition of Yangshao artifacts in Sanmenxia, Henan to mark the centennial of the Yangshao discovery opened on October 17, with 300 exhibits from the three provinces, including 94 pottery artifacts, as well as bone and jade items. The Yangshao culture is the longest-lasting prehistoric culture to leave evidence of its existence in China.  

While the development of cultures stagnated or declined in other parts of China, the Longshan culture along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River continued to grow, and finally rose to be the center of Chinese culture in the prehistoric period. States emerged. It set the stage for the later times of Yao, Shun and Yu the Great – who were said to be legendary proto-emperors, similar to China’s versions of King Arthur.  

The first site of the Longshan culture was found in Longshan, Shandong Province in 1928. Sixty years later, the footprints of a big city were unearthed in Taosi Village, southern Shanxi Province. It turned out to be one of the largest sites of the Longshan culture. Estimated at 2.8 million square meters, it dates to between 2,300 and 1,900 BCE. Each part of the city provided different functions. Such a city shows that the concept of a state had taken shape. In addition, tools for astronomical observation were discovered. Astronomical observations were conducted in ancient China for calendar making and land measuring, which were symbols of the sovereign power. One of the interpretations of the inscription on a pottery pot is “Yao,” purported to be a tribal leader. Many historians believe Taosi was the site of the capital of the Yao, thus representing the earliest China. 

According to some ancient Chinese books, the three legendary leaders of the major tribal alliances, Yao, Shun and Yu the Great, were all based in today’s Shanxi. Even earlier than that, two big tribes were supposed to have fought each other. One was led by the mythological Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor, and the other was led by Yandi, or Emperor Yan. They made an alliance after the battle, and both Huangdi and Yandi are revered as the ancestors of the Han Chinese. It was said that southern Shanxi was controlled by Huangdi and was the battlefield between the two tribes. Tales of these leaders, from Huangdi to Yu the Great, in ancient historical records and legends, are not confirmed by modern academic research. But they helped construct Chinese people’s recognition of their history, culture and identity.  

Cultures Meet 
Thanks to its special geographic position, Shanxi is the land where the cultures of northern ethnic groups and the zhongyuan mingled or met in conflict.  

The Hu line, also known as the Tengcheng-Heihe line, stretches diagonally across China from the Yunnan-Myanmar border in the southwest, right up to the border with Russia at Heihe, Heilongjiang Province in the northeast. Identified by Chinese demographer Hu Huanyong in 1935, it demarcates a population density boundary where 94 percent of the country’s population lives east of the line, in warmer and wetter conditions better suited for agriculture. It also coincides with the 400-millimeter isohyet – a line of equal average precipitation. Land to the south and east of the line is agriculture intensive, while the region to the northwest mostly supports grazing. The section of the isohyet in Shanxi is further south than in other sections. In addition, the Yin Mountains to the north of Shanxi do not provide a sufficiently strong shield to repel invaders. These geographic and climatic conditions made it possible for northern nomadic tribes to march to the south.  

In 200 BCE, founder of the Han dynasty Liu Bang led his army in battle against a joint attack force led by his rebellious general Han Xin and the Hun. But the Hun troops besieged him at Mount Baideng near today’s Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi. One of his officials, Chen Ping, proposed bribing the wife of the Hun chief Modu. The woman told her husband that more Han troops were coming and the Hun army was not strong enough to resist the enemy. The Hun chief Modu let Liu Bang go after seven days. In the following years, the Han had to send women of the royal family and treasures to the Hun chiefs to keep the peace. Even during this “marriage for peace” period, the Hun invaded the border areas from time to time. It was not until 81 years after the siege that the Han completely defeated the Hun.  

In the 4th century BCE, China was in the Warring States Period (475 BCE-221 BCE), which preceded the first dynasty, the Qin. It was a time when seven powers fought each another for supremacy. One of them, the Zhao Kingdom, controlled part of today’s Shanxi and Hebei provinces and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. In 325 BCE, 15-year-old King Wuling ascended the Zhao throne. His kingdom was struggling under attacks from other powers and northern ethnic nomads. Fourteen years later, King Wuling learned from the northern ethnic nomads how to build a powerful army. He ordered his people to wear similar clothes to the northern ethnic groups with short sleeves, long pants and leather boots. These clothes were much better on battlefields than the wide robes with long sleeves that zhongyuan people wore. Zhao dignitaries resisted the policy, especially the king’s uncle, who resented absorbing lessons from their enemies. The king visited his uncle and persuaded him. The change was successful, and the Zhao got stronger.  

More than 800 years later, an ethnic leader issued the opposite order. In the late fifth century, Tuoba Hong, known as Emperor Xiaowen of the Xianbei ethnic regime of the Northern Wei (386- 534), ordered everyone in his kingdom to wear Han clothes.  

Starting in the early fourth century, several ethnic regimes controlled China’s north. The strongest was the Northern Wei kingdom of the Xianbei nomads. In 398, they moved their capital to today’s Datong in Shanxi from today’s Inner Mongolia. The site of their palace is on the national protection list.  

Earlier Northern Wei emperors tried to accept Confucian culture to ease the tension between the Xianbei and Han peoples in the lands conquered by the Northern Wei. Many Han scholars served the Northern Wei. The third emperor of the dynasty, Tuoba Tao, even built a hall in Tatong to enshrine Confucius, where he often worshiped Confucius and the children of Xianbei and Han dignitaries studied Confucian classics. Agriculture was also restored and developed. The Northern Wei rose and defeated other ethnic regimes and united the north.  

A sweeping reform on practicing Confucian governance and culture in the Northern Wei took place during the reign of the sixth emperor Tuoba Hong, who was raised by his grandmother, Empress Dowager Feng. Tuoba Hong ascended to the throne at age 5, so the power was in the hands of Feng. She adopted the political and economic system of the zhongyuan regimes. After she died in Datong, 24-year-old Tuoba Hong gained power and took over the reform.  

The reform always faced strong resistance from Xianbei dignitaries. In 493, Tuoba Hong ordered his officials to march south with him to attack the Han regimes and unite China. After a tough month-long trek on muddy roads in constant rainfall, they arrived in Luoyang in Henan. The Xianbei officials did not want to continue the journey and petitioned to stop the march. Tuoba Hong pretended to be angry and asked his officials to choose between continuing the trek or settling in Luoyang. Most chose to settle. Indeed, it was Tuoba Hong’s plan to move the capital from Datong to Luoyang so he could push forward the adoption of Confucian rule.  

The relocation was completed the next year. Tongba Hong then held a sacrificial rite in today’s Qufu, Shandong Province, the hometown of Confucius, an official demonstration that Confucianism was the orthodox ideology of the Northern Wei and that they were the legitimate rulers.  

The north of Shanxi, including Datong, was controlled by the Liao kingdom (916-1125) which was established by Khitans in the early 10th century. Datong was the western hub of the Liao, the subsequent Jin kingdom (1115-1234) and the later Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368). All were ethnic regimes. In the late 10th century, Xiao Chuo, a Liao empress, held power.  

A popular TV series in 2020, The Legend of Xiao Chuo, depicted how she promoted reforms similar to the Northern Wei with the support of her husband, her son and Han Derang, a Han man with whom she had been in love since they were young. There is no confirmation in official historical records that Xiao and Han were in love, but there are records of the reforms they sponsored. For example, the Liao adopted the imperial exam system, which was started in the Sui Dynasty (581-618) about 400 years earlier. Agriculture was also encouraged under Liao rule. 

In the mid-11th century, a Liao royal Buddhist temple called Huayan was built in Datong. The complex covered 66,000 square meters. It was destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly during successive ethnic and Han dynasties, including the Jin, Yuan, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911).  

In the 1960s, the temple became one of the first ancient sites on China’s national cultural heritage protection list. Huayan Temple combines the construction styles of the Liao with the earlier Tang and Song dynasties. Its main halls face east as the Liao worshiped the Sun, while Han buildings normally face south. The pagoda is a fully wooden structure which used the very strong mortise and tenon joints. The earliest such joint structure found so far dates back 6,000 to 7,000 years ago in today’s Zhejiang Province.  

With recent severe weather damaging the remnants of Shanxi’s historical society, observers are now turning to how to better preserve and promote the culture that stems from this land. Further damage to the old buildings would be a great loss to China’s historical record. 

Archaeologists excavate a palace at the Taosi Village archaeological site, Xiangfen County, Linfen, Shanxi Province, 2018