Origins of the Teochew People - Archaeological Evidences (Part 2): Our Ancient Ties with the Hokkiens

Jaopeng (饒平, Raoping) is the eastern-most county of Teochew. Served by its own waterway, the Huanggang River (黃岡河), it is separated by hilly terrain the Teochew region’s primary Han River drainage area on one side, and Zhangzhou’s Zhao'an (詔安, or Jiou-ang in Teochew) county on the other. Although the Guangdong-Fujian provincial border further demarcates Jaopeng from Zhao'an, this line is more imaginary than real as there is little dissimilarity between language and culture of both sides.

Because of its isolation, Jaopeng rarely received the outside attention that it did in 1974 when workers from the Guangdong Provincial Museum and local county cultural department discovered two prehistoric cemeteries, one immediately after another on the midstream of the Huanggang River.

Breakthrough Finds

The first site consisted of a group of 16 burials arranged along the contours of Tazijinshan (塔仔金山, or Tazijin Hill) at Qiaotou village, Fubin town (浮濱鎮橋頭村). The burials differed in size, but were, without exception, oriented towards the same direction. At the same time, the smallest burials that were shallow and measured about 1.2m in length and 0.6m in breadth, were located close to the foot of the hill, whilst the biggest, which was 4.2m long, 2.9m wide and 3.6m deep, sat on the summit. Like other seven mid-sized ones, this focal burial was divided into two layers by an encircling a ledge.

Even though no skeletal remains came to light, all the burials were found to contain at least one grave good each. The biggest burial alone yielded 36 objects, many of seemingly great prestige value. They included 16 pieces of pottery zun (尊) - a type of vase-like ritual wine vessel, as well as three stone ge (戈), or dagger-axe pole weapon that is often confused as halberd.

Dou  (豆, tall-stemmed saucer) (above) and hu (壶, pear-shaped pot) found in 1974 in Tazijinshan , Jaopeng (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The second site was a smaller group of five burials at Dingdapushan (頂大埔山, or Dingdapu Hill) at Shentu village, Lianrao town (聯饒鎮深塗村). Like the Tazijinshan assemblage, the items found here were chiefly stone tools and pottery vessels, along with decorative accessories. However, there was additional surprise when local farmers digging in the area handed over to the archaeologists a piece of ge furnished from bronze. It was a completely unexpected find, as the Teochew territory does not produce metal.

The once hidden burials on Tazijinshan and Dingdapushan produced in total over 200 funerary items. Another more than 100 artefacts were recovered from their surroundings. An assortment of vessels that are red sandy pottery (夾砂紅陶), black pottery (黑陶) or grey clay pottery (泥質灰陶), many coated with a brownish glaze, dominated the collection. There were also stone weapons and implements, such as the ge, spearhead, axe, chisel and gravel, and smaller number of rings and half-pendants. The distinctive characteristics of the artefacts, together with consistency in the assemblages of both sites, convinced scholars that a Late Neolithic-Bronze Age archaeological culture, later given the name Fubin Culture (浮濱文化), had been stumbled upon.

Graphical representation of a Fubin Culture burial and its funerary objects found in Hulinshan, Zhangzhou. (source: 福建漳州市虎林山商代遗址发掘简报)

The Central Plain Speculation

Through the vast archaeological collection of Father Maglioni and the previously discovered Chenqiao Culture, archaeologists were already aware about prehistoric human settlement in and around the Teochew region. However compared to Chenqiao Culture, Fubin Culture belonged to a considerably more advanced society. The clear hierarchical order by which the burials and grave goods at Tazijinshan were arranged, pointed to the existence of social ranks in a stratified community. The ability to manufacture glazed pottery articles, as well as sizable vessels, such as the big-mouth zun (大口尊), further highlighted significant achievements in pottery-making techniques.

The deliberate incision of many pottery items with various symbols (examples being “王”, “十”, “×”, “‖” and 川”), some singularly, others in pairs, also caused no small extent of fascination. In all 30 different symbols have been gleaned from Fubin Culture pottery vessels. The way they were marked suggested of their purpose to communicate certain meanings, rather than for aesthetics. Accordingly, some scholars see these incisions to be the embodiments of a proto-writing system. While most concur that this is still a postulation, it is of interest that about 20 of these symbols have been observed from artefacts unearthed in Bronze Age sites elsewhere in Guangxi, Guangdong, Jiangxi and Shanghai.

Beyond the above, Chinese scholars were transfixed by the discovery of the ge on Tazijinshan and Dingdapushan. In particular, the latter stood out as the only bronze object in all the artefacts. Imaginations were stirred, as the bronze form of this weapon had been known to be used by soldiers of Shang (circa 1600 – 1046 BCE). Centred in the Central Plain on lower Yellow River, Shang is the second oldest dynastic power mentioned in antiquated Chinese writings. It is famously associated with the oracle bone script (甲骨文), and may thus be the source of Chinese writing, and the Chinese civilisation itself.

Illustration of Shang warriors with ge and shield in hand (source: Kenneth Blair, "Ji {Halberds} & Ge {Dagger-axes} in ancient China", April 2009)

The Dingdapushan ge remains one of the oldest-dated bronze artefact recovered in Guangdong. However, a question of its provenance lingered as it was not recovered in situ. This did not matter for many writers in China. To them, its find simply pushed forward the date when the Teochew region and its surrounding were subjugated to the Central Plain, as according to the nationalistic creed that the Yellow River was the sole cradle of the Chinese civilisation. Stressing the objects’ rudimentary features, further argument was made that the stone ge at Tazijinshan have to be rough imitations of bronze specimens from the north.

Other than nationalistic dogma, the above stance appears to have no basis. Archaeological sites verified to be connected to the Shang dynasty until today remain limited to two ancient walled cities excavated at Anyang and Erligang in Henan province. The spatial gap between the Shang realm and Jaopeng is some 1,200km in direct distance.

Moreover, since bronze technology was more advanced than stone, it is illogical that the stone ge of Fubin Culture could be fashioned after bronze ones from the Central Plain. In fact a number of studies into prehistoric Chinese cultural practices have revealed a trend of early Chinese bronze cultures picking up from older Neolithic innovations. In particular, Kenneth Blair's comparison ("Ji {Halberds} & Ge {Dagger-axes} in ancient China", April 2009)  between the late Neolithic stone ge  and the first locally forged bronze ge of the Yellow River Erlitou Culture (which Chinese scholars have linked to the Xia dynasty that preceded Shang), surfaced not only an evolutionary relationship between the two type, but also a likelihood role of the jade ge as an intermediary.

More Exciting Fubin Culture Finds

However, for a brief period, there seemed to be a case for a direct relationship between Fubin Culture and the Central Plain.

In the same year the Fubin Culture was identified, another ancient burial was uncovered nearly 200km northeast from Jaopeng at Dayingzhaishan, Nan’an County of Quanzhou (泉州南安縣大盈寨山), in Fujian. This burial that measured only two metres long and one metre wide contained many valuable funerary goods. They included 20 pieces of bronze objects – including five pieces of ge, two qi (戚, a type of battle-axe), one spear (矛), two daggers (匕首), two adzes (錛) and eight small-sized bells, as well as five jade articles – comprised of one ge and four pieces of huang (璜, a type of arc-shaped pendant). Subsequent assessment that the assemblage here not too different from those in Jaopeng, established for the first time that Fubin Culture was not confined to the Huanggang River drainage away.

Even as this was being ascertain, another batch of Fubin Culture artefacts was unearthed in 1975 to the southwest of Jaopeng, at Teochew’s Gekyor county (揭陽, Jieyang). The site was a hill slope in front of Xianqiao town (仙橋鎮), which lies by the bank of a tributary of the Rong River (榕江).  The assemblage consisted of glazed pottery vessels, along with stone ge, triangular spearheads, adzes and two yazhang blades (牙璋) - the first of its kind to be found in Southeast China.

Coloured photos of two stone yazhang found in Gekyor, Teochew (source: 浮濱文化的石撞、符號及相關問 題)

Like the ge, the yazhang is another category of artefacts intimately associated with Shang. While the former is of military nature, yazhang made from jade were symbols of authority of the Shang elite class, and used as ceremonial instruments in important rituals. The presence of the two stone yazhang at Gekyor pointed to high-level religious and political contact between the Fubin Culture and external parties.

As in the case of the ge, a host of Chinese scholars adhere to the textbook explanation that the stone yazhang had to be replicas of jade ones from the Central Plain, never mind that jade technology is also more sophisticated than stone.

However the situation has since been complicated by separate finds of the jade yazhang in Sichuan, northern Vietnam and Hong Kong -  all in the south and far-flung from the Central Plain. Critical minds began to wonder - could the Chinese civilisation have evolved from multiple starting points? Or perhaps have a more ancient or foreign origin that we have not realised?

Fubin Culture’s Age & Extent of Distribution

Over the course of the next three decades, even more Fubin Culture archaeological sites were found in both historical Teochew territory and coastal Fujian. For example, two more clusters of burials were located around Dabu county’s Fenglang town (大埔縣楓朗鎮) and Gekyor’s Didu Youganshan (揭陽地都油柑山). The first produced several more pieces of stone ge and jade instruments, while the second, which had suffered plundering, yielded both stone and jade jue (玦, or slotted rings).

In the 1990s, human activity sites with probable links to the Fubin Culture were located at Dongkengzai, Longdong village (隆东乡东坑仔) on Namoa (南澳, Nan'ao) island and Xiajiashan town's Niubogongshan (普寧下架山鎮牛伯公山) in Pholeng (普寧, Puning) county. In particular, the Niubogongshan site contained several signs of human dwelling, including postholes, surface activity areas, ash-pits and water drainage system. The postholes suggested that inhabitants lived in pile-dwellings or stilt houses built close to the river bank or marshland. Six radio carbon dating samples determined its date to be between 1440 and 920 BCE – in line with previous estimations that the Fubin Culture was a contemporary of the Shang dynasty.

Even as these findings greatly expanded the known distribution area of the Fubin Culture in Teochew, further archaeological projects carried out in the Rong River basin in the 1990s and early 2000s made apparent the central importance of Gekyor. In all more than 30 sites belonging to this prehistoric period were identified in this district. At the Xinheng town Xinling mine (新亨鎮新嶺礦廠), archaeological workers found four worn stone hammers or perforators, along with half-finished stone implements and materials. These suggested the specialised use of the location as a stone tool manufacturing facility.

Distribution of Fubin Culture archaeological sites in Teochew (white), Zhangzhou (blue) and Quanzhou (green) regions. (source: The Teochew Store) 

Meanwhile the dots continued to be joined in Fujian also. In mid-2011 rescue archaeological excavations were conducted for a handful of burials affected by highway construction at Zhao’an and Pinghe (平和) counties in Zhangzhou. The two sites were the most recent of a string of discoveries that confirmed the linkages between the Fubin Culture sites of Teochew and Quanzhou.

“Freshly" unearthed Fubin Culture pottery vessels in Pinghe county, Zhangzhou (source: 

The most important of these finds was yet another cemetery, which came to the attention of archaeologists in 2001 also because roadwork at Hulinshan, near Zhangzhou’s Chaoyang town (漳州朝陽鎮虎林山). The Hulinshan cluster of 20 burials, like the ones at Tazijinshan, were structured and filled with funerary items according to the apparent social status of the deceased. Those who were apparently of high social rank were buried with prestige goods like stone yazhang, bronze weapons (a ge and a spearhead), bronze bells and jade accessories. In contrast the commoners had only simple pots or stone adzes to accompany them in afterlife.

Hulinshan excavation site and a big-mouth zun (大口尊), found (source: Zhangzhou City Library)

New Insights

The discovery of Fubin Culture bronze artefacts at Hulinshan and Dayingzhaishan confirmed that coastal Southeast China (compromising Teochew and Fujian) had entered the Bronze Age at slightly later, if not around the same time, as Shang.

Significantly, the bronze ge recovered from Hulinshan and Dayingzhaishan have been observed to be nearly identical with the Dingdapushan specimen. They all have straight tang and no vertical blade, which is a style imprinted in many Fubin Culture’s stone ge, but not seen anywhere else in China.

Comparison of styles of ge found in Central Plain, Changsha and Zhangzhou (L-R columns). No. 17 represents the Hulinshan ge (source: 豆海锋:从出土遗物看商时期南方与中原的文化互动)

The implication is that Fubin Culture might have indigenously advanced its own ge technology, even though knowledge in bronze metallurgy was probably received from a contemporaneous nearby full-blown bronze civilisation. The Wucheng Culture in Jiangxi (which has a shared border with Teochew and Fujian) has identified as a likely, while the Dong Son Culture in North Vietnam could be another.

Through careful scrutiny, it may also be observed that the Fubin Culture yazhang have substantial differences from yazhang found in the Central Plain and elsewhere.

Comparison of styles of yazhang found in Central Plain, Changsha and Guangdong/Fujian (L-R columns). No. 13, no. 17 and no.18 are the Hulinshan and two Gekyor  yazhang respectively (source: 豆海锋:从出土遗物看商时期南方与中原的文化互动)

All these turned on its head, the theory that the Teochew region was an isolated and sparsely populated backwater before supposed mass migrations from the Central Plain towards the end of the Song dynasty (960–1279).

At the same time, it should not be lost that the geographical limits of the Fubin Culture from some 3,000 years ago conforms neatly with the territory of native speakers of Teochew and Hokkien –  two closely-related vernaculars, if not two branches of a same.


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