16. Prehistoric Southeast Asia’s China connection

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In most of the Eurasian continent as well as in China, it took a centralized government to achieve the organization to produce bronze. However, this was not true in Southeast Asia where, as we shall see, some of the highest quality bronze in the world has been produced. The artists of Southeast Asia did not need huge amounts of bronze. Furthermore because of the peaceful nature of their society, they would certainly not have needed to protect their sources. While most cultures that produced bronze were military aristocracies, the culture of Southeast Asia produced bronze for ornamentation without centralization or militarization. Let us examine this cultural anomaly, the Southeast Asian culture, in its relation to Chinese bronze technology and then, as an extension, its cultural development.

Shang Bronze work unsurpassed

One of the primary achievements of the Shang lay in their unsurpassed bronze work.

“The bronze vessels produced by Shang artisans in a variety of distinctive forms are artistic masterpieces. They were ritual objects used for the offering of food (especially grains) and wine during the most sacred Shang ceremonies. Their production and use continued into the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (c.1027-256 BC).”1


Let us examine the origination of the bronze technique, motifs, and uses to understand about the many diverse cultural influences that fed the Shang culture. There are a few questions about bronze in the Shang dynasty? First where did their technology come from? Second where did their artistic motifs come from?

Exterior stimulus from the Middle East

The first question has some easy answers and some strange anomalies. When the Shang remains were first discovered in Anyang in the Middle Kingdom of the Yellow River, this was a relatively late period in their development. The bronze work seemed to spring up without precedent and hence needed an external influence to stimulate it. The logical stimulus was the bronze cultures of the Middle East.

Different bronze technology

There were a few immediate problems with this theory. The first problem is that the bronze technology of the Shang has virtually nothing to do with the bronze technology of Western Asia. The west used bronze earlier, but used a lost wax process for their casting. The Chinese used a complicated piece-mold process for most of their Bronze Age, only adopting the lost wax process much later.

“The fact that Chinese bronze workers used the complicated piece-mold process for most of their history suggests that the bronze industry in China developed independently from that of the West where lost-wax bronze casting had appeared by 3500 BC.”2

Indigenous development of bronze technology

Furthermore archaeologists have discovered preceding stages of Shang bronze work at Zhengzhou and Erlitou. The fact that the bronze techniques of the west and China are different combined with the discoveries of earlier bronze work invalidated the theory of western influence and shifted the thought towards indigenous development of Chinese bronze technology.

Earliest Shang bronze still quite sophisticated

However even at Erlitou3, the earliest of the Shang settlements, the bronze work, although definitely a precursor of more sophisticated bronze work to come, is already quite refined.

“The metal composition, reported to be 92 percent copper and 7 per cent tin, is not an accidental alloy but a deliberate bronze and implies all the complex metallurgical knowledge required to mine both metals and win them from their ores. Most important, the vessel has seams, which show it to have been cast from a mold made in sections … which distinguishes the technology of the Chinese Bronze Age artist from the lost-wax process used by this counterparts in the West.”4

While these early Shang bronzes set themselves apart from the bronzes of the West, they also raise other questions. For instance, how did they acquire ‘all the complex metallurgical knowledge’ necessary to create these bronzes? Of course it is easy to say that it arose from pottery-making technology as it might have in the Near East. Possibly.

Development of Bronze technology not imperial in nature

More perplexing is the growing scholarly consensus that bronze work was not wholly inspired from the imperial Shang capital but seemed to have developed in a number of centers separate from the central Shang state. This is strange only in the sense that most of the literature considers a strong central government an essential ingredient to the development of bronze technology. Also frequently the Shang dynasty is given sole credit for the bronze technology of China. While they certainly extended the technology to new heights, it doesn’t seem that they developed the technology.

“The view that bronze culture began in Honan [the province where the Shang capitals were located] and spread outwards has now been abandoned in favor of a picture of primitive metal-working communities evolving in a number of centers more or less simultaneously.”5

The Khorat Culture of Southeast Asia: 4000 - 1500 BCE

Certainly neither the Longshan nor the Yangshao cultures had bronze. While neither of these cultures had anything close to a mining technology that could evolve into Shang bronze making, a culture to the south did; a culture that the Shang were certainly in contact with.

Craft-oriented culture

Who was south? The Khorat culture of Southeast Asia. What were they like?

“Village potters at Ban Chiang, a 120-acre settlement not far from the Mekong River valley on the plateau’s northern edge, developed a range of ceramics as elegant in profile and inventive in design as any that were being produced in the urban centers of Mesopotamia or India. Other villages nearby, such as Non Nok Tha to the south, produced artifacts of similar quality. Just as ingenious were the metal workers of Khorat. By the year 2000 BC, and perhaps as much earlier as 500 years before that, they had become experts at casting tools and ornaments of bronze— in much the same manner as artisans in Mesopotamia, more than 3,000 miles to the west.”6

Preceded China by a thousand years

It seems that the Mekong River civilization was a highly developed culture based upon their crafts, specifically pottery and bronze making. This is in contrast with the military cultures normally associated with the Bronze Age. Their crafts equaled anything of the time happening anywhere in the world. The use of bronze in the Mekong delta preceded its use in China by almost a thousand years. Additionally it was some of the finest bronze work in the world at the time.

Finest bronze work of time on tools and ornamentation

“An artisan at Non Nok Tha cast a bronze blade for a digging stick, giving it a socket for attaching a handle. It was one of the world’s oldest known socketed tools. Virtually all the metal objects at Ban Chiang —ax heads, spear tips, and bracelets— were cast from bronze. And the metal produced by the Khorat smiths was of the highest quality. For durability and hardness, the optimum proportion of tin to copper is 10 percent. Most of the Khorat bronzes fall into this category, which places their creators in the metalworking vanguard of their day.”7

Their bronze work, while some of the best in the world, was focused primarily upon tools and ornamentation rather than weaponry, (the spears were primarily for hunting wild animals).

Khorat Rice growing preceded China by 2000 years

Another feature of the Khorat people of the Mekong delta was that they had a typical agrarian culture based upon rice.

“Farther south in Thailand archaeologists have found evidence of ground-stone tools, pottery, and slate knives possibly used for rice harvesting dating from perhaps as early as 6800 BC, several thousand years before agriculture appeared in China. At Non Nok Tha, a mound site in northern Thailand on the Mekong River, evidence of sedentary farming was found dating from the 4th millennium BC.”8

Hence it seems that the Mekong Delta people were harvesting rice maybe as many as 2000 years before the Chinese.

Non-centralized, no temples, no rulers, no writing

The Khorat culture of Southeast Asia was peculiar in other ways. They had no kings, no priests, no temples, and no cities. For thousands of years, they existed as small independent communities based upon trade and craft. Although their culture lasted for perhaps thousands of years, we cannot call it a civilization because there were no cities.

“Surprisingly— considering their technological skills— the Khorat people built no cities, erected no temples, appointed no rulers. They generated none of the elaborate political trappings or rigid social stratification that elsewhere marked civilized life. Instead of developing a system of writing, they seem to have been dependent on the spoken word to conduct their business and an oral tradition to recount the history of their civilization. The villagers lived simply, planting their rice and turning out their pottery and bronzes— and would continue to do so without significant change or interruption for the next 1,000 years.”9

Influence of Khorat culture on Neolithic China

Upon Southeast Asia

The Khorat culture of Southeast Asia fits the Taoist political model nearly perfectly, i.e. small self-governing units. But it was separated from China by some high relief mountains. Was there really any influence?

“[The Khorat] techniques of rice planting began to percolate throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. People speaking one of the region’s original languages, Austro-Thai, moved across the Pacific Ocean, to New Zealand, Easter Island, and points between. Their influence also spread northeast, farther in to China. The word copper in ancient Chinese was tong. There is reason to believe that the Chinese borrowed the term directly from Austro-Thai. It is likely that the Chinese adopted from the Khorat people the basic techniques of metalworking as well, perhaps sometime in the second millennium BC.”10

We see that the influence of the Khorat bronze technology is reflected by the fact that the Chinese word for copper was taken from their neighbors to the south.

Khorat influence on the Yangtze River Basin of Southern China

While the Yellow River civilizations in the north of China were heavily influenced by the nomadic cultures from the Central Asian Steppes, the inhabitants of the Yangtze River Valley in the middle of China were heavily influenced by cultures to the south. The Khorat rice culture percolated into the surrounding areas, including China. The people of the Yangtze River Valley may have learned rice planting from the Khorat civilization. The early residents of the Yangtze also had raised homes like they had in Southeast Asia. Later the Khorat metal working skills were also slowly transmitted northward. As an indication of the degree of intermixture between Southeast Asia and Southern China many early Southern Chinese folkways still persist in the north of Southeast Asia11.

Ban Chiang: Yangshao-Khorat pottery connection

While the rice growing technology was unsuitable to the Yellow River valley, there is some evidence that the Neolithic pottery motifs may have also come from Southeast Asia.12 There is a great similarity between the Southeast Asian pottery and the Yangshao pottery.

“The village of Ban Chiang, in northeastern Thailand, is the site of a large and rich Late Neolithic settlement occupied through the Bronze and Iron ages. It is famous for its ancient red-on-buff painted pottery, which resembles the pottery of the Yangshao Neolithic (5000-2500 BC) of northern China. Similar pottery was found in Bronze Age deposits at Non Nok Tha. … It is now thought that the area was settled about 4000 BC, with pottery dating back to as early as 3500 BC, bronze work between 2500 and 1500 BC, and iron implements about 1000 to 500 BC. ”13

The Ban Chiang pottery is of such high quality that it is valued highly by the international art world.

The Yangshao, maybe a mix of North and South

Because of the overlapping dates of the Khorat and Yangshao, there could easily have been a positive interaction between the two cultures: a give and take that was beneficial to both. Whether the Yangshao was an extension of the Khorat culture, or was merely influenced by it, there seems little doubt that there must have been some kind of interaction. Most likely in classical Chinese fashion, there was more of an influence than an extension. It seems that the Yangshao could have migrated south from the Central Asian Steppes and then come into contact with the southern cultures. This north-south mixture is what might have set them apart from the rest of China at this time and created the beginnings of Chinese culture and civilization. This north-south mixture is a theme that we will see repeated continually throughout Chinese history. It is this author’s opinion that this interaction is what has created the great Chinese Empire. We will explore this connection throughout the paper.

This Khorat-Yangshao connection was probably cut off by the more warlike Longshan culture that followed. Whatever the truth, the Southeast Asian Khorat culture had lots of vitality to spread from China to Easter Island and areas in between.

Influence of Southeast Asia upon the Shang

It seems that the influence of Southeast Asian culture continued through to the Shang.

Khorat Stamped pottery to Shang Bronze

As additional support for the theory of bronze technology diffusing to the Yellow River from the south, certain artistic techniques that are found on the ceramics of Southeast Asia are also found on Shang bronzes14.

“Pottery decorated by stamping or carving geometric design in the wet clay has been found in a number of Neolithic sites in the south-east … In South China, this technique persisted into the Han Dynasty and was carried thence to South-east Asia—if indeed, it had not originated there. It is very seldom found in the Neolithic pottery of North China, and its appearance on vessels at Chengchow and Anyang [the principal Shang sites] suggests that by the time of the Shang Dynasty the culture of the southern peoples was already beginning to make its influence felt.”15

It seems that the Khorat culture of Southeast Asia had some influence upon the Shang bronze designs16.

“As we have seen, south-east China had already evolved a technique for stamping designs in the wet clay, which in turn influenced bronze design.”

Stylistic similarities: Animal masks and geometry from Southeast Asia

There are even motif similarities between the Shang and the Khorat culture of Southeast Asia, which include animal masks and geometric ornamentation.

 “On the other hand, the art of carving formalized animal masks of wood or gourd is native to Southeast Asia and the Archipelago, and still practiced today. Also surviving in Southeast Asia is the technique of stamping designs in the wet clay, which survived in the Neolithic pottery of South China until well into the Iron Age, and may have contributed the repeated circle, spirals and volutes to bronze ornament.”17

Southwest China closer to Southeast Asia Bronze

Additionally recent excavations have shown that the bronze work of southern China is more closely connected with the bronze culture of Southeast Asia than with northern China.

“Materials from the South show certain characteristics rather different from those of the North. … Recent excavations in Southwest China, in the province of Yünnan, … show closer connections with the Chinese provincial bronze culture of Indo-China.”18

Serpent Dragons of Southeast Asia

Southeast Yueh: Also dragons and tigers

As Imperial China expanded into the Yangtze River Valley, artistic and technological influences percolated from the south. Southern and Central China also picked up many of the Southeast Asian symbols. The jungles of Southeast Asia with their wildlife, including tigers, serpents and crocodiles, supplied the Shang with some of their most important animal motifs. Their slithering water creatures became the Chinese dragons. The Shang bronzes are decorated with many stylized dragons and tigers.

“At a somewhat later stage [after the 2nd millennium], and especially in the Chou period, North China felt the impact of the Yueh group of peoples from the south-east and south, whose ethnic links were as much with Southeast Asia and Oceania as with China proper. They lived by the sea and on the rivers, had longboats and fought naval battles, worshipped the forces of the rain and rivers in serpents and crocodiles (‘dragons’), used bronze drums, tattooed themselves, perhaps lived in long-houses, cultivated wet rice, and decorated their pottery with stamped designs.”19

Taoist polarity of dragon and tiger.

The polarity of dragon and tiger becomes a very important theme of Taoist mythology. This indicates the southern roots of Taoism. Dragons are considered rulers of water, while tiger are considered rulers of the land. The Tiger represents the firm, unbending nature of land, while the Dragon represents the yielding but powerful nature of water. The firmness of the tiger is associated with yang, while the yielding of the dragon is associated with yin. While the tiger/dragon polarity is huge in alchemical Taoism, it is also an integral part of Chinese popular culture.

Taoist political affinities with Southeast Asia

Another aspect of Taoism that seems to derive directly from the south is their political philosophy. While the north was dependent upon centralization to control the flooding of the Yellow River, the south had always leaned towards a decentralized political structure. While north society evolved into a large militaristic government for survival, the south with its geographical barriers was able to grow up around smaller artistic communities. The south survived for thousands of years without priests, kings, temples or cities. Hence the Taoist orientation towards smaller, independent communities is aligned with the political history of Southeast Asia. Of course as soon as they were attacked, they had to militarize or go underground to survive.

Political culture not military enough to move north

While the craft technology of the Khorat people percolated north, unfortunately its political culture could not. Its culture was not military enough to survive the onslaught from the north. The Southeast Asians had a craft-oriented decentralized Neolithic20 culture that used bronze at the highest levels. Because of the relatively peaceful nature of their culture, they didn’t develop any military technology.


In summary, the Shang bronze craft emerged in a very sophisticated state. The Khorat culture of Southeast Asia had been doing bronze work for hundreds of years before the Shang. There is an abundance of evidence linking the south of China culturally with Southeast Asia. Further there are many stylistic similarities between the cultures of the Yellow River Valley and Southeast Asia that indicates extensive cultural interaction. Also the symbol of the dragon, an extremely important symbol for the Shang, the Chinese, and the Taoists, most certainly came from the south. The overall evidence indicates that the arrow of cultural influence points north rather than south during this period of prehistory.


1 Grolier 1997 Chinese archaeology: Bronze Age China

2 Treasures, p. 12

3 Erlitou may have even been the capital of the fabled Hsia dynasty. We mentioned Erlitou as a capital of the Longshan culture in the section on Nelotihic China.

4 Treasures, p. 17

5 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan, p 25

6 TimeFrame 3000-1500 BC: The Age of God-Kings, Time-Life Books, 1987, p144

7 TimeFrame 3000-1500 BC, p. 145

8 1997 Grolier Interactive Inc.: Neolithic Period, China

9 TimeFrame 3000-1500 BC, p 145

10 TimeFrame 3000-1500 BC, p. 146

11 A History of Far Eastern Art, Sherman E. Lee, Prentise Hall Abrams, 1973 p 53

12 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan, University of California Press, 1973p 38

13 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, 1997,

14 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan, p21

15 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan pp. 29-30

16 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p31

17 The Arts of China  by Michael Sullivan, University of California Press, 1973 p 38

18 A History of Far Eastern Art, p 46

19 The Arts of China  by Michael Sullivan, University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973, p24

20 The Khorat culture of Southeast Asia is called Neolithic because it was not based upon domination and social stratification, but instead upon trade and craft.


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