Virtually everything else was lost. In contrast to the civilizations of Mesopotamia, which fell but were replaced by new civilizations that preserved and built on the achievements of their predecessors, much of what the Harappan peoples had accomplished had to be redone by later civilized peoples. The cities of the Indus civilization were destroyed and comparable urban centers did not reappear in South Asia for hundreds or, by some scholars’ reckoning, thousands of years.
Their remarkably advanced standards for the measurement of distance and weight ceased to be used. Their system of writing was forgotten, and when rediscovered, it was celebrated as an intriguing but very dead language from the past. Harappan skills in community planning, sewage control, and engineering were meaningless to the nomadic peoples who took control of their homelands. The Harappan penchant for standardization, discipline, and state control was profoundly challenged b y the brawling, independent-minded warriors who supplanted them as masters of the Indian subcontinent.
THE LEGACY OF ASIA’S FIRST CIVILIZATIONS – AN ANALYSIS
by R. A. Guisepi
In their size, complexity, and longevity, the first civilizations to develop in South Asia and China match and in some respects surpass the earliest civilizations that arose in Mesopotamia and Egypt. But the long-term impact of the Harappan civilization of the Indus basin and the Shang-Zhou civilization in north China was strikingly different. The loess zone and north China plain where the Shang and Zhou empires took hold became the center of a continuous civilization that was to last into the 20th century A.D., and, many historians would argue, to the present day.
Though regions farther south, such as the Yangtze basin, would in some time periods enjoy political, economic, and cultural predominance within China, the capital and center of Chinese civilization repeatedly returned to the Yellow River area and the north China plain. The Indus valley proved capable of nurturing a civilization that endured for over a thousand years. But when Harappa collapsed, the plains of the Indus were bypassed in favor of the far more lush and extensive lands in the basin of the Ganges River network to the east. Though the Indus would later serve, for much shorter time spans, as the seat of empires, the core areas of successive Indian civilization were far to the east and south.
The contrast between the fate of the original geographical centers of Indian and Chinese civilizations is paralleled by the legacy of the civilizations themselves. Harappa was destroyed and it disappeared from history for thousands of years. Though the peoples who built the Indus complex left their mark on subsequent Indian culture, they did not pass on the fundamental patterns of civilized life that had evolved. Their mother goddess and the dancing god of fertility endured, and some of their symbols, such as the swastika and lingam (usually stone, phallic images), were prominent in later artistic and religious traditions. Harappan tanks or public bathing ponds remain a central feature of Indian cities, particularly in the south.
Their techniques of growing rice and cotton were preserved by cultivating peoples fleeing nomadic invaders, and were later taken up by the newly arrived Indo-Aryan tribes.
Virtually everything else was lost. In contrast to the civilizations of Mesopotamia, which fell but were replaced by new civilizations that preserved and built on the achievements of their predecessors, much of what the Harappan peoples had accomplished had to be redone by later civilized peoples. The cities of the Indus civilization were destroyed and comparable urban centers did not reappear in South Asia for hundreds or, by some scholars’ reckoning, thousands of years. Their remarkably advanced standards for the measurement of distance and weight ceased to be used. Their system of writing was forgotten, and when rediscovered, it was celebrated as an intriguing but very dead language from the past. Harappan skills in community planning, sewage control, and engineering were meaningless to the nomadic peoples who took control of their homelands. The Harappan penchant for standardization, discipline, and state control was profoundly challenged b y the brawling, independent-minded warriors who supplanted them as masters of the Indian subcontinent.
In contrast to the civilization of the Indus valley, the original civilization of China has survived nomadic incursions and natural catastrophes and profoundly influenced the course of all Chinese history. Shang irrigation and dike systems and millet and wheat cultivation provided the basis upon which subsequent dynasties innovated and expanded. Shang and Zhou walled towns and villages surrounded with stamped earth have persisted as the redominant patterns of settlement throughout Chinese history. The founders of the Shang and Zhou dynasty have been revered by scholar and peasant alike as philosopher-kings who ought to be emulated by leaders at all levels. The Shang and Zhou worship of Heaven and their ancestral veneration have remained central to Chinese religious belief and practice for thousands of years. The concept of the Mandate of Heaven has been pivotal in Chinese political thinking and organization.
Above all, the system of writing that developed in connection with Shang oracles developed into the key means of communication between the elites of the many peoples who lived in the core regions of Chinese civilization. The scholar-bureaucrats who both developed this written language and profited the most from it soon emerged as the dominant force in Chinese culture and society. Chinese characters provided the basis for the educational system and bureaucracy that were to hold Chinese civilization together through thousands of years of invasions and political crises. In contrast to India, many of the key ingredients of China’s early civilizations have remained central throughout Chinese history. This persistence has made for a continuity of identity that is unique to the Chinese people.
It has also meant that China, like the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, was one of the great sources of civilizing influences in human history as a whole. Though the area affected by ideas and institutions developed in China was less extensive than that to which the peoples of Mesopotamia bequeathed writing, law, and their other great achievements, contacts with the Chinese led to the spread of civilization to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Writing and political organization were two areas in which the earliest formulations of Chinese civilization vitally affected other peoples.
In later periods Chinese thought and other modes of cultural expression such as art, architecture, and etiquette also strongly influenced the growth of civilized life.
China’s technological innovation was to have an impact on civilized development on a global scale comparable to that of early Mesopotamia.
Beginning with the increasingly sophisticated irrigation systems, the Chinese have devised a remarkable share of humankind’s basic machines and engineering principles. In the Shang-Zhou era they also pioneered key manufacturing processes such as sericulture – the manufacture of silk cloth through the domestication of silkworms.
The reasons for the differing legacies of India and China are numerous and complex. But critical to the disappearance of the first and the resilience of the second were different patterns of interaction between the sedentary peoples who built the early civilizations and the nomadic herders who challenged them. In the Indian case, the nomadic threat was remote, perhaps nonexistent for centuries. The Harappan peoples were deficient in military technology and organization. When combined with natural calamities, the waves of warlike nomads migrating into the Indus region proved too much for the Harappan peoples to resist or absorb. The gap between the nomads’ herding culture and the urban, agriculture-based Harappan civilization was too great to be bridged. Conflict between them may well have proven fatal to a civilization long in decline.
The loess regions of northern China were open to invasions or migrations on the part of the nomadic herding peoples who lived to the north and west. Peoples from these areas were moving almost continuously into the core zones of Chinese civilization. The constant threat the nomads posed forced the peoples of the north China plain to develop the defenses and military technology essential to defending against nomadic raids or bids for lasting conquest. Contrasting cultures and ways of life enhanced the sense of identity of the cultivating peoples.
The obvious nomadic presence prodded these same peoples to unite under strong rulers against the outsiders who did not share Chinese culture. Constant interaction with the nomads led the Shang peoples to develop a culture that was malleable and receptive to outside influences, social structures, and political systems. Nomadic energies reinvigorated and enriched the kingdom of the Shang and Zhou, in contrast to India where they proved catastrophic for the relatively isolated and unprepared peoples of Harappa.
The spread of the Aryan pastoralists into the hills and plains of northern and eastern India between 1500 and 500 B.C. and the establishment and decline of the Zhou kingdom in the latter half of the same time span marked key transition phases in the development of civilization in India and China.
But in each case a very different sort of transition occurred. Like Mesopotamia, the well-watered Indus valley had given rise to one of humankind’s earliest civilizations. In contrast to the succession of more limited civilized centers that arose in Mesopotamia, Harappa extended over the largest territory of any of the first civilizations, and it existed without interruption for over a millennium. Its longevity invites comparison with Egypt. But Egypt proved more able than either Harappa or individual Mesopotamian civilizations to absorb massive invasions of nomadic peoples.
Faced with major climatic shifts, the Harappans proved unable to also withstand the steady and prolonged pressure of the Aryan incursions. Thus, the dominance of these invaders in the Harappan core regions and much of the rest of northern India by 1000 B.C. meant the end of subcontinent’s first civilization.
The Zhou conquest and later the slow disintegration of the Zhou dynasty represented a continuation rather than a break in the development of civilization in China. Though civilization arose later in China than in the other three original centers in the Eastern Hemisphere, like the others it emerged independently and resulted in a distinctive pattern of development. In its capacity to endure, China resembled Egypt more than Mesopotamia or Harappa. Perhaps as a result, the Chinese proved the most adept at absorbing and assimilating outside invaders while preserving their own sense of identity and their basic beliefs and institutions.
The Chinese both originated and perpetuated these key ingredients for thousands of years. The conquering Zhou did not destroy Chinese society and culture; they were assimilated by them so thoroughly that they became Chinese. Thus, though the Zhou period brought major changes in the nature and direction of civilized development in China, fundamental themes and patterns persisted from the Shang era, and the Zhou rulers strove to conserve and build upon the achievements of their predecessors.
1 Indus Valley Civilisation: The Genesis of Pakistan! 2. Mehrgarh: The Lost Civilisation [in 4 parts] 3. Origin of Civilisation 4.The Indus Civilisation- “Boring No More”
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