The Neolithic period, which began in China around 10,000 B.C. and concluded with the introduction of metallurgy about 8,000 years later, was characterized by the development of settled communities that relied primarily on farming and domesticated animals rather than hunting and gathering. In China, as in other areas of the world, Neolithic settlements grew up along the main river systems. Those that dominate the geography of China are the Yellow (central and northern China) and the Yangzi (southern and eastern China).
A distinctly Chinese artistic tradition can be traced to the middle of the Neolithic period, about 4000 B.C. Two groups of artifacts provide the earliest surviving evidence of this tradition. It is now thought that these cultures developed their own traditions for the most part independently, creating distinctive kinds of architecture and types of burial customs, but with some communication and cultural exchange between them.
The first group of artifacts is the painted pottery found at numerous sites along the Yellow River basin, extending from Gansu Province in northwestern China (L.1996.55.6) to Henan Province in central China. The culture that emerged in the central plain was known as Yangshao. A related culture that emerged in the northwest is classified into three categories, the Banshan, Majiayao, and Machang, each categorized by the types of pottery produced. Yangshao painted pottery was formed by stacking coils of clay into the desired shape and then smoothing the surfaces with paddles and scrapers. Pottery containers found in graves, as opposed to those excavated from the remains of dwellings, are often painted with red and black pigments (1992.165.8). This practice demonstrates the early use of the brush for linear compositions and the suggestion of movement, establishing an ancient origin for this fundamental artistic interest in Chinese history.
The second group of Neolithic artifacts consists of pottery and jade carvings (2009.176) from the eastern seaboard and the lower reaches of the Yangzi River in the south, representing the Hemudu (near Hangzhou), the Dawenkou and later the Longshan (in Shandong Province), and the Liangzhu (1986.112) (Hangzhou and Shanghai region). The gray and black pottery of eastern China is notable for its distinctive shapes, which differed from those made in the central regions and included the tripod, which was to remain a prominent vessel form in the subsequent Bronze Age. While some pottery items made in the east were painted (possibly in response to examples imported from central China), potters along the coast also used the techniques of burnishing and incising. These same craftsmen are credited with developing the potter’s wheel in China.
Of all aspects of the Neolithic cultures in eastern China, the use of jade made the most lasting contribution to Chinese civilization. Polished stone implements were common to all Neolithic settlements. Stones to be fashioned into tools and ornaments were chosen for their harness and strength to withstand impact and for their appearance. Nephrite, or true jade, is a tough and attractive stone. In the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, particularly in the areas near Lake Tai, where the stone occurs naturally, jade was worked extensively, especially during the last Neolithic phase, the Liangzhu, which flourished in the second half of the third millennium B.C. Liangzhu jade artifacts are made with astonishing precision and care, especially as jade is too hard to “carve” with a knife but must be abraded with coarse sands in a laborious process. The extraordinarily fine lines of the incised decoration and the high gloss of the polished surfaces were technical feats requiring the highest level of skill and patience. Few of the jades in archaeological excavations show signs of wear. They are generally found in burials of privileged persons carefully arranged around the body. Jade axes and other tools transcended their original function and became objects of great social and aesthetic significance.