This paper offers an alternative paradigm to dynastic history and state formation with which to understand the formation of Chinese civilization: cultural hegemony. It argues that an elite culture first crystallized in the early second millennium BCE at Yanshi Erlitou in Henan Province in which bronze was associated with a set of religious practices centered on ancestral offerings. It established a cultural hegemony over the Chinese continental region by the middle of the millennium (early Shang Dynasty). Archaeologically, its primary markers are bronze vessels with a common set of motifs and ritual forms. Although cultural diversity and local political authority remained, it was unlike the previous Neolithic cultures because it had no challenger in range or influence. Moreover, it anticipated the later common elite culture, which in Confucius's time was defined in terms of shared rites. Thus, we may legitimately call it an early stage of “Chinese civilization.”
Sarah Allan (email@example.com) is a Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth College.