Asia's First Civilizations - India And China
Author: Stearns, Peter N.
Like Sumer, Egypt, and other early civilizations in the Middle East,
civilizations first developed in East and South Asia in the vicinity of great
river systems. When irrigated by the massive spring floods of the Yellow
River, the rich soil of the North China plain proved a superb basis for what
has been the largest and most enduring civilization in human history.
Civilization first developed in the Indus River valley in present-day Pakistan
in the middle of the 3d millennium B.C., more than a thousand years earlier
than it did in China. In fact, the civilization of the Indus valley, usually
called Harappan after its chief city, rivals Sumer and Egypt as humanity's
oldest. But like Sumer and its successor civilizations in the Middle East,
Harappan civilization was unable to survive natural catastrophes and nomadic
invasions. In contrast to the civilization of the Shang rulers in China around
1500 B.C., Harappa vanished from history. Until the mid-19th century it was
"lost" or forgotten, even by the peoples who lived in the vicinity of its
sand-covered ruins. Important elements of Harappan society were transmitted to
later civilizations in the Indian subcontinent. But unlike the Shang kingdom,
Harappa did not survive to be the core and geographical center from which a
unified and continuous civilization developed like that found in China. The
difference in the fate of these two great civilizations provides one of the
key questions in dealing with the history of civilized societies: What factors
permitted some civilizations to endure for millennia while others rose and
fell within a few centuries?
Between about 1500 and 1000 B.C., as the great cities of the Indus region
crumbled into ruins, nomadic Aryan invaders from central Asia moved into the
fertile Indus plains and pushed into the Ganges River valleys to the east. It
took these unruly, warlike peoples many centuries to build a civilization that
rivaled that of the Harappans. The Aryans concentrated on assaulting Harappan
settlements and different Aryan tribal groups. As peoples who depended
primarily on great herds of cattle to provide their subsistence, they had
little use for the great irrigation works and advanced agricultural technology
of the Indus valley peoples. Though they conserved some Harappan beliefs and
symbols, the Aryan invaders did little to restore or replace the great cities
and engineering systems of the peoples they had supplanted.
Eventually, however, many of the Aryan groups began to settle down, and
increasingly they relied on farming to support their communities. By about 700
B.C., their priests had begun to orally record the sacred hymns and ritual
incantations that had long been central to Aryan culture. In the following
centuries, strong warrior leaders built tribunal units into larger kingdoms.
The emergence of priestly and warrior elites signaled the beginning of a new
pattern of civilization in South Asia. By the 6th century B.C., the renewal of
civilized life in India was marked by the emergence of great world religions,
such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and a renewal of trade, urban life, and
splendid artistic and architectural achievements.
The early development of civilization in China combined the successive
phases of advancement of Mesopotamian history with the continuity of Egyptian
civilization. Civilization in China coalesced around 1500 B.C. Chinese
civilization emerged gradually out of Neolithic farming and potterymaking
cultures that had long been present in the Yellow River region of East Asia.
The establishment of the Shang kingdom at this point in time gave political
expression to a combination of civilizing trends. The appearance of a
distinctive and increasingly specialized elite supported by the peasant
majority of the Chinese people, the growth of towns and the first cities, the
spread of trade, and the formulation of a written language all indicated that
a major civilization was emerging in China.
Though the political dominance of the Shang came to an end in 1122 under
the new royal house of the Zhou, civilized development in China was enriched
and extended as the Chinese people migrated east and south from their original
Yellow River heartland. By the end of the Zhou era, which would last
officially until 256 B.C., many of the central elements in Chinese
civilization, one of humankind's oldest, were firmly established. Some of
those elements have persisted to the present day.