Loess Plateau: Birthplace of Ancient Chinese Civilization

Loess has not only shaped the Loess Plateau but also nurtured and nourished China’s “yellow civilization.” The Loess Plateau is the birthplace of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River is the mother river of China, and yellow is the skin color of the Chinese. Mysteriously, China is bound with the color yellow. “Yellow civilization” refers to China’s agricultural civilization rooted on the Loess Plateau and originating from the Yellow River region. On this vast land of loess, relative seclusion, and stability, the forefathers of the Chinese were keen on farming activities, nurturing a great civilization of agriculture.

Where is the Loess Plateau?

Located at the heart of China, a little bit to the north, the Loess Plateau reaches as far as the Riyue Mountain to the west, Taihang Mountain to the east, the Great Wall to the north, and Qinling Mountain to the south. It covers as many as five provinces and two autonomous regions, including Qinghai, Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Henan. Besides some rock mountains, this vast region is covered with a boundless stretch of loess. 70% of the world’s loess concentrates on China’s Loess Plateau.

Where did so much loess come to the Loess Plateau? From the 19th century onward, people have been debating it for over a century. After exhausting many hypotheses, scholars eventually focus on two theories, one air-borne theory, and the other water-borne theory.

Where did the loess on the Loess Plateau come from?

As of the 1960s, with the development of the loess study, the air-borne theory has been widely accepted as the answer to the question “Where did the loess on the Loess Plateau come from? ” Proof of the air-borne theory is listed below.

  • Loess on the Loess Plateau has layers of ancient soil.
  • Mineral components of the loess are highly consistent, and they differ greatly from those of the underneath rock layer.
  • Just like winter snow on earth, the loess is evenly distributed on the uneven plateau.
  • Loess is adjacent to the desert and as it is further away from the desert, the grains of loess grow smaller.

The aforementioned evidence echoes the features of primary loess. Sand-storm in today’s northern areas of China has further confirmed this air-borne theory, which makes it quite plausible.

What are the features of loess?

Based upon its cause of formation, loess can be divided into two types, primary loess or simply loess, and secondary loess. Primary loess is carried away by the wind, whereas secondary loess by water, including rain, flood, etc. Unlike primary loess, secondary loess is characterized as having bedding, sand, and even small grit. More specifically, the primary and secondary loess features can be shown in the chart below.

Features of Primary and Secondary Loess

Why is the Loess Plateau important?

In terms of geography, the Loess Plateau is literally at the heart of China. In history, it was one of the most important origins of Chinese civilization; in politics, economy, and culture, it was also the place where the core of China is positioned. From the Xia Dynasty, the first slave state in China, till the demise of the Tang Dynasty in 907, the Loess Plateau had reigned as the center of politics and economy of different empires and dynasties for three thousand years. In particular, Xi’an city used to be the capital of 13 dynasties, among which four of them, namely Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang boast themselves as the most powerful four in Chinese history.

In 1920, on the Loess Plateau, French missionary Emile Licent, also known as Sang Zhihua, discovered a Paleolithic tool made out of silica core by ancient Chinese in prehistory. Since then, China has unearthed about 200 Paleolithic sites and over 7,000 Neolithic sites, most of which center on the Loess Plateau. This particular phenomenon has aroused people’s interest. At the beginning of human civilization, why did our ancestors settle on the barren land of the Loess Plateau?

At that time, the climate of the Loess Plateau was mild and humid, favorable for agriculture. Besides, as a secluded area, the Loess Plateau provided its inhabitants with vast lands to grow crops without being harassed by outside warfare and disturbance. Moreover, the features of the loess discussed before also made this plateau an ideal place for farming. For starters, the porous and loose loess made it easy to store rainwater during dry seasons and to till the land; secondly, in ancient times, people could work on the Loess Plateau with the most primitive tools, given the fact that few rocks were found in the loess; thirdly, being rich in as many as over 60kinds of minerals, the Loess Plateau was quite fertile to be farming land.

What is the relationship between the Loess Plateau and Agricultural Civilization?

In prehistory, people lived on fruits gathered from nature and on fish and animals hunted in the wilderness. Once a place was exhausted in food and natural resources, people had to move elsewhere, usually heading towards places with lush grass and drinkable water. As a result, they led quite an unstable life. However, with the emergence of primitive agriculture, ancient people began to witness a major transformation of their life.

In farming activities, by observing the growth of crops and feeling the power of nature, people gradually formed their own unique understanding of medical ethics, i.e. allowing nature to take its course and uniting heaven and man. Following this order, people can stay healthy and be free from illnesses and pains. All these can be obtained by humans themselves rather than some heavenly power. Gradually, ancient traditional Chinese medicine or TCM (中医) came into being.

Most of the herbs in TCM are related to agriculture. That is actually the back story of Shennong’s tasting hundreds of herbs (神农尝百草). Moreover, in Zhang Zhongjing’s Treatise on Febrile Diseases, Chinese date and wheat are listed as medicines. Take Gansu province as an example, the local Chinese herbs astragalus(黄芪) and angelica(当归) are actually closely linked to crops.

Not far away from the historical site of Nanzuo (南佐), there is a place called Qinglongzui (青龙咀). It is believed to be the birthplace of Qibo, the most distinguished Chinese physician in ancient times. Qinglongzui, now belonging to Qingcheng county (庆城县), Qingyang city (庆阳市) of Gansu province, used to be called Beidi (北地) in ancient times. It is said that when Emperor Huang visited Beidi, he called on Qibo. And their conversation was documented and compiled into a medical classic entitled Huangdi Neijing, the earliest and most complete medical record with written history.

Huangdi Neijing is not only a book on medicine but also one regarding the philosophy of life. Reportedly, Emperor Huang drew his inspiration for state management from this book. Under the guidance of this book and its ideas, Emperor Huang set up laws and rules for his people to follow and promote the development of agriculture. All these endeavors prompted the development and prosperity of Emperor Huang’s tribe and its expansion to the east.

Why are the Han people referred to as “descendants of Emperors Yan and Huang”?

Throughout the 4,000 years of history with written records, China has seen three major episodes of ethnic integration (民族融合). As a result, China now is one big family with Han people and all the other 55 ethnic minorities. In the process of ethnic integration, the Loess Plateau has also played an essential role.

1) First ethnic integration: the birth of the Huaxia nation

A series of archaeological discoveries is sound evidence for scholars to believe that the legendary Emperor Yan and Emperor Huang and their tribes came from the Loess Plateau in Northwestern China, the birthplace of Chinese civilization. A number of Yangshao cultural sites (仰韶文化遗址)are scattered across the Loess Plateau, which coincides with the scope of Emperor Yan’s and Emperor Huang’s tribes according to historical records.

At the end of Longshan Culture (a late Neolithic culture 4,000 years ago), Emperor Yan’s and Emperor Huang’s tribes came about respectively in the southern part of the Loess Plateau. Later on, Emperor Huang led his own tribe, defeated Emperor Yan’s and Chi You’s tribes, and established his alliance with Emperor Yan and made Xuanyuanqiu (轩辕丘) his capital in the southeastern part of the Loess Plateau, which is called Xinzheng city (新郑市) in Henan province today.

A series of conflicts and integration took place between the Yan-Huang confederacy and its neighboring tribes. Until Emperor Qin’s time, the political center of China had remained on the Loess Plateau in Xianyang city (咸阳城). The building of the Qin Empire declared the completion of China’s first ethnic integration with the Huaxia nation as its core and the Han people called “descendants of Emperors Yan and Huang.”

2) Second ethnic integration: the formation of the Han nationality

After conquering the whole nation, to tighten his grip on the empire, Emperor Qin Shi Huang started to promote the system of prefectures and counties (郡县制) under his reign. Besides, the Qin Dynasty also standardized measurement, language, public transits, etc., which were faithfully carried on by its later replacement. During the Western Han Dynasty (西汉), with the military victory against northwestern nomads, a great deal of inland population was garrisoned at borders, turning the former nomad-occupied grassland into newly-developed agricultural areas in the north and south of the Loess Plateau.

In areas of culture and ideology, Emperor Wu of Han resolutely worshiped Confucianism to the exclusion of other schools and philosophy, so as to reinforce his absolute monarchy. By taking in its neighboring tribes, the Eastern Han Dynasty (东汉) expanded the Huaxia nation to the Han nation. “Han” in today’s Han nationality actually derives from the dynasty of Han.

3) Third ethnic integration: the five dynasties till the Qing Dynasty

During the Qing Dynasty, like anywhere else in China, on the Loess Plateau, Manchu (满族) people could be found in cities big or small. In border regions, Manchu military officials and personnel were garrisoned, too. Consequently, some Manchu people found their way to integrate with the Han people. The result was history. The third and last ethnic integration of China was completed at the end of the Qing Dynasty.

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