Origins of the Teochew People - Archaeological Evidences (Part 3): The Early Teochew Culture Trilogy

The old Teochew prefectural city (also known as Chaozhou) has a nickname as the “porcelain capital of the China” (中國陶瓷之都).

No doubt other historical porcelain towns in China, such as Jiangxi’s Jingdezhen (景德镇) and Fujian’s Dehua (德化), will vigorously dispute this claim, it is by no means an empty boast. Teochew was a leading exporter of fine porcelain during the Tang dynasty (618-907), as  proved by its celadon wares recovered from the famous Belitung shipwreck. During the Song dynasty period (960–1279), Bijiashan (筆架山, “Brushholder Mount”) in Teochew was known as the “Village of Hundred Kilns” (百窯村). Eleven of these ancient kilns have been resurfaced by archaeologists since 1953, including one 79.5m long – the longest of its era in China. It is estimated that the Bijiashan kilns could have manufactured as many as over a million pottery and porcelain pieces every year.

Bijiashan Song Era Kiln

Song-era kiln site at Bijiashan, Teochew City (source: Internet)

Another Unexpected Find – Hutoupu Culture

Through breakthrough local archaeological finds between the 1950s and 1970s, we now know that prehistoric inhabitants of Teochew were already engaged in pottery-making during the Early Neolithic (New Stone Age) Chenqiao Culture from 6,000 and 5,500 years ago (i.e. circa 4000 BCE to 3500 BCE), which attained a sophisticated level of local artistry in the Late Neolithic-Bronze Age Fubin Culture that encompassed not just Teochew, but also the present Hokkien-speaking southern coastal Fujian some 3,000 years ago (circa 1000 BCE). These finds shattered a long held myth that the Teochew region was culturally barren before contact with the China Central Plain.

The case for the emergence and progress of pottery-making in prehistoric Teochew being an indigenous phenomenon was strengthened in 1982 by another unexpected discovery. It happened one day as a representative of the Pholeng (普寧 Puning) county cultural bureau was introducing to some visitors the provenance of a kind of stamped pottery as part of a nationwide cultural relic survey in China. He was speaking when a local man interjected, saying, “It's nothing rare. There are lots of objects like this in our village!" Surprised by the revelation, officials decided to investigate and they were brought to Hutoupu (虎头埔, literally “Tiger-Head Plain”), a hillside orchard some 15 km southwest of the city of Gekyor (揭陽, Jieyang). There tranquil silence broken only by the murmurings of a flowing stream kept for 4000 years a secret that was finally to be unearthed.

An archaeological team dispatched to study the location later that year found heaps of stamped pottery sherds, as the informant said so. According to a report on the site, as cited in The Neolithic Of Southeast China, the sherds were of jars, some of which had short ring-foot. Most of the pieces were yellowish red on the exterior, and all were decorated with designs. Appliqués were common for the shoulder sherds and other decorative patterns included parallel lines, checks, zigzag, circles and mat impressions. 

Hutoupu Culture display showcase at Jieyang Tower  (揭陽樓)  (source: Wechat @人文揭阳)

Hutoupu Culture pottery artefacts on display at Jieyang Tower  (揭陽樓) (source: The Teochew Store)

But more than this, the archaeologists detected clue that Hutoupu was itself an extensive site of pottery kilns. This was confirmed by the first major excavation there that took place in March 2003. In all, 17 kiln pits, six ash-pits and one ganlan (干欄) stilt dwelling site were found over an area of nearly 10,000 square meters. The assemblage contained pottery jars, household wares and stone axes. Using contemporary stamped pottery from the Foshan riverine in Guangdong as a benchmark, the age of the Hutoupu Culture (虎頭埔文化) was estimated to be from 4200 and 3600 years before present (B.P.) (circa 2200 to 1600 BCE). Hutoupu is not only the oldest kiln site in Guangdong, but the largest group of Neolithic kilns ever found in China.

Archaeological work at Hutoupu site and picture of prehistoric kiln in inset (source: Wechat @揭阳读书人)

What fired all imaginations was the fact that the scale of Hutoupu kilns clearly exceeded the needs of a Stone Age community. A large proportion of the pottery here must have been manufactured for exchanges over a wider area. Indeed a high density of Hutoupu-style pottery was uncovered through the years in many locations on the nearby mid-river plain of Rong River (榕江), the Teochew region’s second waterway. In addition, there have been lower concentrations of similar finds at the downstream of Han River (韓江) and mid-upper streams of the Lian River (練江), the longest and third longest local rivers respectively. Pottery artefacts that may belong to Hutoupu Culture have also been unearthed as far away in Meizhou district north of Teochew, the Pearl River Delta and Fujian.

Distribution map of Neolithic sites in Teochew (source: The Teochew Store)

Completing the Early Teochew Culture Trilogy - Houshan Culture

In 1983 Chinese archaeologists excavated another group of 10 Late Neolithic burials at Chiwei (池尾), outside Pholeng city on the Lian River’s upstream. The burials were rectangular and they were faced in the East-West direction. There were no human remains, but like those of the Fubin Culture, each burial was interred with one to four items. Besides stone tools, there were grey-coloured jars with concave bottoms decorated with impressed check designs, bowls, pedestal cups or “chicken-shaped kettles” (雞形壺). 

Display of Houshan Culture pottery artefacts (source: WeChat @粤东城市网)

This assemblage of artefacts was given the name Houshan Culture (後山文化) and was assessed to be from between 3400B.P. and 2900B.P (circa 1400 BCE to 900 BCE). This makes it younger than Hutoupu Culture, with which it shared an area of concentration over the Rong River basin and adjacent areas. The Houshan Culture pottery was visibly different in style from its predecessor’s, but retained a unique primal and indigenous character.

Interestingly the Houshan site also yielded ten stone bark cloth beaters, a tool used widely by prehistoric communities across from southern China to Southeast Asia and as far as Polynesia. These people had learned that by repeatedly beating large pieces of tree bark with a beater on the riverside, they could wash away impurities to obtain the fibre base of the bark and thereby produce cloth. By sewing their products together with hemp using bone needles, they were able to clothe themselves for protection against the elements of weather.  

Significantly, the chicken-shaped kettle that is symbolic of the Houshan Culture has also been recovered from multiple Late Neolithic sites within the Han River basin, and Namoa (南澳, Nan’ao) island off the Teochew coast. The key implication is that the three river systems at the heart of Teochew land were already integrated under a common cultural system, a full millennium before China had its first imperial dynasty Qin.

"Chicken-shaped kettle" on display at Jieyang Tower  (揭陽樓) (source: The Teochew Store)

Together Hutoupu Culture and Houshan Culture appear to provide the missing link between the much older Chenqiao Culture and the advanced Fubin Culture, even though many gaps await to be filled by future archaeological discoveries. Regardless, local Teochew archaeologists and historians are convinced of a lineage relation from Hutoupu Culture to Houshan Culture and to Fubin Culture, which have been coined as the “Early Teochew Culture Trilogy” (潮汕文化早期的三步曲).

The next obvious questions to ask are where did the prehistoric inhabitants of Teochew come from, and could they be the first of our ancestors?


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