Issue H991 of 9 May 1999

The Chinese Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project

by Qi Ming
Associate Professor at Beijing Institute of Finance & Trade Management
Author of The Ancient Civilization of China, 2 vols, 1990-1997 (in Chinese)

[A note by the Editorial Board
It has to be noted that both the Editorial Board as well as scholars around the world may not agree with the characterizations of this article on the theory, continuity and value or influence of civilizations. Nevertheless, the project seems to be extremely important.]

The project consists of nine research tasks and 40 special research subjects involving history, archaeology, documentology, historical geography, epigraphy, astronomy, calendrical calculation, dating techniques. Its aim is to determine the dates of the three Chinese dynasties - the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou.
The ancient Chinese civilization is not only one of the four great civilizations, but also the only one that passes down into today. It was formed in the period of the three Dynasties, which makes it worth studying. Generally, the earliest Chinese date acknowledged is as late as 841 BCE, late in the Western Zhou Dynasty, and therefore, a full and clear chronological table of the Three Dynasties had to be produced.
Examining the literary sources with the records about the astronomy and calendar in the Three Dynasties, investigating archaeological sites and remains, and observing astronomical phenomena, are the main research approaches to carry out the Project.
The main research achievements obtained up to now include:
I. The Dengfeng Wangchenggang Site and the Yanshi Erlitou Site habe been checked and supplemented newly. The Wadian Site has been proven the best site for estimating the beginning of the Xia.
II. The Huayuanzhuang Site has been discovered. The excavation of the Caoyanzhuang Site is on-going. The investigation of an ancient city Cixianggou can determine the demarcation between the Xia and the Shang.
III. The investigation of the Shang city sites at Yanshi, Zhengzhou, Xiaoshuangqiao (outside Zhengzhou) and at Anyang have produced results. The date of King Wu conquering King Zhou has been inferred.
IV. The Fengxi Site proves the capitals founded by King Wen and King Wu. The Beijing Liulihe Site was the capital of Yan, granted by King Wu of the Western Zhou.
The bronzes unearthed from 17 tombs of Jin Marquises at the Tianma-Quchun Site have provided scientific basis for the working out the Western Zhou calendar and the chronological table of the Western Zhou kings.

A bronze vessel of the Shang & Zhou periods

When year 2000 is around the corner, more than 170 China's scholars led by four chief scientists will be working hard, trying their best to complete a great project whose accomplishment is, no doubt, important both to China and to the world.

The project consists of nine research tasks and 40 special research subjects involving in many subjects, such as history, archaeology, documentation, historical geography, epigraphy, astronomy, calendrical calculation, dating techniques. Its aim is combining humanities and social sciences with natural scientists to carry out a multidisciplinary research on the ancient Chinese history, mainly on the chronology of the Three Dynasties - The Xia, Shang and Zhou. In a word, it is to determine their dates, judging when the Three Dynasties began and ended. The final achievement of the project will be a chronological table, with ample scientific evidence.

As a major scientific research project in China, its official name is The Xia-Shang-and-Zhou Chronology Project. It began on March 16, 1996, and its object is to work out the chronological table of the Three Dynasties.

The Magnificence of the Project

Having splendid cultural tradition, China is well known for her long history. The Three Dynasties was the crucial period when the Chinese civilization first flourished, and the ancient Chinese culture was formed and founded.

Ancient world civilizations can be divided into two kinds: original and not original. The former have their own independent origin and are formed through the progress of their own development, have influenced others, but have not been influenced principally by others. The Chinese civilization belongs to the former. It influenced the Japanese civilization that was an important part of human civilization. Although it was characteristic and different from the Chinese, it could not have been formed without the influence and motive force from China.

According to the strict demarcation, Chinese civilization is one of the four great civilizations: Egyptian/Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, Indian, Chinese. The ancient Chinese civilization is significant not only because of its origin, but also because of its continuance. Among the four great civilizations mentioned above, only the Chinese has been going continually into today, while the ancient Egyptian civilization has broken off already and even the Greek and Roman has passed down off and on during their winding courses to today. The contribution it gave to the world is unique.

But when studying and researching this ancient Chinese civilization of five thousand years, people would find it difficult not having some chronological tables as for Egypt or India as a research basis. The earliest Chinese date acknowledged by now is 841B.C., the first year of the Gonghe Era, late in the Western Zhou Dynasty. The first year of the Gonghe Era is taken as the beginning of China's chronicle only because in Shi Ji (Historical Records) by Sima Qian there is a chronological table (Shi Er Zhu Hou Nian Biao Sh, Chronology of the Twelve Massals). It starts with the first year of the Gonghe Era, and records from then all the great historical events year by year, clearly and with no doubt. It can be traced from today to 841 BCE, without any gaps or omissions. The natural phenomena since 841 BCE recorded in literary texts, like solar eclipse, can stand the test, while the ones before 841 BCE are out of question.

Then, weren't there dates before the first year of the Gonghe Era? In fact there were ones in literary texts. Sima Qian once read a lot of them and in Shi Ji he admitted that there were many official documents already existed since the time of Yellow Emperor. He read them but put them away because he thought they were contradictory and he could not seek unity of them.

Hence many scholars, domestic and foreign, have doubts on the ancient Chinese history, especially in modern times, wondering whether China truly has five-thousand-year history and whether the history can be acknowledged if it has no clear dates.

The situation becomes serious at present. As usual, outside China, various books of comprehensive history and voluminous historical works have a chronological table of world history attached to them, in which China usually appears very late. That is to say a long period of Chinese history is rejected.

As a contrast, discovered following the emergence and development of archaeology gradually since the 17th or 18th century, the ancient civilizations of Egypt and India are acknowledged in spite of their comparatively lack of literary citation. The reason is that although they were not documented as clear and full as of China, the study and development of archaeology and epigraphy have established a chronological system for them.

It is a pity that China has not got this kind of authenticity. The tables of ancient Chinese history used are different or blur, not satisfactory for research on the traditional culture in ancient time. So it is necessary to build a chronological system, better and acknowledged, in favor of ancient Chinese chronology, with modern research means. It is the pillar of establishing China's five-thousand-year history without which nothing can be explained.

The Research Approaches of the Project

The approaches for accomplishment of the Project are quite scientific. Besides humanities, the means and advantages of natural sciences will be used to carry out the research work, which can be done in many new ways.

1. Examining the Records of Astronomy and Calendar
The research work should be done as following:

First, all literary with the information about astronomical phenomena in the Xia, Shang and Zhou, including oracle bone inscriptions will be examined carefully, judging their authenticity and value, by the means of epigraphy, archaeology, history and documentology. For instance, besides Shang Shu, Zuo Zhuan recorded the Zhong Kang Solar Eclipse. We need to test the two books to see whether they are true, to what extent they can be believable, what the relations between the records in them are, whether the records can be used in dating, and to what extent can be used. Evaluation will be done astronomically and calendrially. With the help of computers, absolute figures will be got. In accordance with them a chronological table will be produced.

2. Investigating of Sites and Remains

Excavating systematically the sites and remains found already, making the periodization of them closely with the methods of archaeology (stratigraphy and typology), and taking numerous samples from the successive cultural strata as extensively as possible. Then test them with the method 14C dating---the conventional method---and the accelerator mass-spectrometry (AMS) analysis which is the only testing technique for dating the period of Xia, Shang and Zhou. This method has never thought or done by the predecessors before. For both methods, sample preparation is the same.

The test should be performed in the following way: first, take a bit of less than one gram from the edge of an oracle bone with characters, then put it into an instrument for 14C dating after conditioning. Yet oracle bones are precious historical relics. No one dares to damage them. To saw a piece of oracle bone to be tested is impossible, for it is a kind of criminal offense and is not allowed in China. Fortunately, with the permission from the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, the Ministry of Culture, the two Academies and the State Education Commission, the above mentioned test can be done on condition that the piece taken away should be so tiny that even specialists will not find any difference after restoration. The obstacle is that results may not be as accurate as desired because tortoises' life is so long that the precision of 14C dating on tortoises' shell may be affected. Up to now more than 200 samples have been dated.

The radiocarbon dates can change into absolute ages after being dendrochronologically calibrated. They can be transferred into calendar years. Currently the precision of 14C dating in China is +20 years. It is accurate enough for historical research. The level of +50 or +60 years is meaningless for solving questions of historical dates.

Now the data coming out of the parallel working, of examining the records and of investigating the sites, will be systematized and adjusted in equilibrium, with the historical and archaeological inference together. The results will be compiled into a chronological table that will present dates from Zhou King Wu conquering Shang King Zhou to the late Western Zhou Dynasty (the first year of the Gong He Era), i.e., from Zhou King Wu to Zhou King Li, giving every king a relatively accurate date in inference. They are Wu, Cheng, Kang, Zhao, Mu, Gong, Yi, Xiao, Yi and Li. The nine kings in the late Shang, Wuding, Zugeng, Zujia, Linxin, Kangding, Wuyi, Wending, Diyi and Dixin (Shang King Zhou), will have a inferential date, which can't be said accurately, but rather in a complete and clear cut way.

Since the records about each king are different, the dates given to him are different, some are accurate; some are not. For instance, the dates of Wuding are rather accurate, because his dates can be inferred from the records of solar and lunar eclipses in his time. Zujia is not in the same situation. The dates of the last three kings can be rather accurate. It is more difficult and even the most difficult to date the time before Wuding. A framework of each king's reign in the early Shang and in the Xia Dynasty can be worked out with evidence and accuracy.

3.Observing Astronomical Phenomena

In the time of Western Jin Emperor Wu, a book unearthed was called Zhu Shu Ji Nian but was lost later. The believable part of it was called Gu Ben Zhu Shu Ji Nian (GuBamboo Annals). It indicated a "Double dawn at Zheng place in the first year of King Yi's reign." According to the book, it happened in Hua County, Shaanxi Province. Because it happened in the beginning of King Yi reign, historical officer recorded it, considering it a sign for disasters. Some years ago, some Chinese and overseas scholars provided an explanation that it was a kind of solar eclipse, total solar eclipse, happening when the sun rising. When the sun began shining under the horizon the eclipse influenced it a little. When the day broke the eclipse covered the full sun and the day got dark. When the sun rose higher the eclipse finished, and the day broke again. It could be explained by natural science. Many scholars calculated the date of it, without practical proof. Whether the total solar eclipse could make day break for two times, whether it could impress upon people deeply and whether it was worth recording need further proof.

On the 9th of March 1997 there was a total solar eclipse. The best place to observe it was Mohe, Heilongjiang, but since the eclipse began after the daybreak for a long time due to Mohe's longitude, the "double dawn" can't be seen there. The best place to observe "double dawn" was Tacheng City, Xinjiang, where scholars from Shaanxi Observatory and from Xibei University worked in 20 posts built for observation. Even though the eclipse observed there was not total, but 80 or 90 percent only, the scene was reported to be breathtaking and impressive. It was bright when the sun rising. Suddenly it turned dark. The clouds in the sky became blood red. Later it was bright again. About 30 persons wrote to us, describing the eclipse they saw in detail.

Calculating the date of the "double dawn" in Zhu Shu Ji Nian with modern astronomical instruments, the time is considered April 21, 899 BCE, the first year of Zhou King Yi.

The Research Achievement Obtained until Now
The Project goes rather smoothly. The main results obtained are as following:
1.About the Date of the Xia Dynasty

Wadian Site, at Yu County, Henan Province is the best site of the late Henan Longshan Culture before the Erlitou Culture. Being very rich in accumulation, and not being well excavated before, researchers are paying great attention to it now. With well-organized systematical materials from the late Henan Longshan Culture to the Erlitou Culture, Wadian acts as a very good beginning for estimating the start of the Xia. In Henan, Dengfeng Wangchenggang Site and Yanshi Erlitou Site are also checked and supplemented newly.

2. About the Demarcation between the Xia and the Shang

The demarcation between the Xia and the Shang can be determined from the investigation of an ancient city Cixianggou at Yanshi, Henan. The city, whose location and time were the same with that of Xibo the capital of Shang Tang according to the records in Chinese classics, was built in the early Shang. It has become a common understanding that the date of this city can be taken as a reference to mark the beginning of the Shang Dynasty.

One of the milestones is the Chinese scholars managed to fix the date of the city wall's building despite all the difficulties. The city takes the same building form as Beijing with two cities overlapping, the inner one is smaller and older than the outer. In the small city a site of palace is found, taking the pattern of Siheyuan (quadrangle) with a central axle. As a great discovery in architectural history, it proves that this kind of building style appeared as early as the early Shang. Now the excavation is keep going on. If the starting point of the city's time can be defined more precisely, then the line of the demarcation between the Xia and the Shang can be drawn more accurately.

At Huayuanzhuang in the north bank of Huanshui, Yinxu, a site as big as 150m2 was discovered while the excavation of another site in Xingtai, Hebei Province is also undergoing.

3. About the Shang Dynasty

The investigation of the Shang itself begins from the Shang city sites at Yanshi, Zhengzhou, Xiaoshuangqiao (outside Zhengzhou) and Anyang. The Xiaoshuangqiao Site is as old as the late ones among the Zhengzhou Sites, while the Anyang Yinxu Site belongs to the late Shang. Then the Shang Sites can be arranged in good order with clear periodizations. At Yinxu attention is drawn to find the date of Pangeng moving the capital to Yin, the date of the first period, the fourth period, and the date of destruction of Yinxu---- King Wu conquering King Zhou.

Concerning the late Shang, the tangible result got recently is calculating the lunar eclipses in the time of Wuding. The oracle bone inscriptions with the records of the lunar eclipses are named The Inscriptions of Group Bin, according to which the oracle bones are arranged in order. The periodizations of at least five of the inscriptions exhibit consistency with the astronomical calculations. The results got from two different subjects being the same show that they are objective. In so doing, the calendrical reign dates of Wuding can be defined. This date is later than what has been inferred before, which will therefore influence the induction of the date of King Wu conquering King Zhou. Some other solar eclipses and lunar eclipses recorded in oracle bone inscriptions are under calculation. The results are expected to be as good as the results mentioned above. The calendrical reign dates of the last two or three kings in the late Shang are under calculation, too. Breakthroughs are just round the corner.

4. About the Western Zhou Dynasty

Among the achievements, the best one is finding Zongzhou in the Fengxi Site, Chang'an County in the suburbs of Xian, Shaanxi. Fengxi, another name of Haojing, was recorded in ancient books as Zongzhou, the capital of the Western Zhou. After 40-year excavation, a very famous ash pit labeled H18 is found. It is a memorable place where two different cultures--predynastic Zhou and the early Zhou-combined together. Among the mixed relics unearthed from the two cultures there are a lot of samples rich in carbon. It will be useful to research on determining the dates of the relics as well as the pit which is a basis for dividing the Shang and Zhou. The predynastic Zhou Culture existed in the late Shang, which had strong influence on the early Zhou Culture. The Fengxi Site was the capital established by both King Wen and King Wu. After dating the samples selected in H18, scholars came to the conclusion that King Wu conquering King Zhou happened during 1045 BCE to 1020 BCE.

The Beijing Liulihe Site is located at Liulihe, Doudian, Fangshang. It was Yan's capital, as granted by King Wu of the Western Zhou. An ash pit was found there, with a lot of potsherd and oracle bone inscriptions. By comparing the remains unearthed from Liulihe and Shang's sites, scholars hold the opinion that it belonged to the Shang dynasty. Again, the opinion can be tested by 14C dating. This is the first time that oracle bone inscrsiptions have been found at Liulihe, the third historical site excavated at Beijing following Baifu and Zhenjiangyeng. On one of the oracle bones unearthed in Ash Pit 108 there are two characters Chengzhou. Chengzhou was built in the early Zhou during the King Cheng reign, thus it implies that the early Liulihe Culture existed in the early Zhou, but not in the Shang.

At Tianma-Quchun Site, Shanxi Province, many bronzes were unearthed from 17 tombs burying eight Jin Marquises and their wives. Their dates range from the mid-Western Zhou to the early Spring and Autumn Period. Being arranged in order of their shapes, decorative patterns, styles of calligraphy and writing forms, they are parallel with the series of the Jin kings recorded in classics. They can serve as sample patterns of each period, further richening the Western Zhou bronzes.

Among thousands of Western Zhou bronzes, 60 with full inscriptions of year, month, the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, and phase of the moon are picked out, such as Jin Hou Su Zhong, Jing Fang Ding. They provide scientific basis for working out the Western Zhou calendar and the chronological table of the Western Zhou kings.

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