Theses Doctoral

Elites in Between: Elite Formation and Cultural Interaction in Bronze Age Lower Yangtze (ca. 1300–350 BCE)

Wang, Shih-han

The formation of elites is an essential and common phenomenon of human society, both in the past and present. Elites are individuals with superior power, substantial resources, and the ability to influence other members. Depending on the sources and practices of power, the elite stratum may be divided into several groups. Scholars have studied the process of elite formation, identifying triggers that may lead to the emergence or development of elites. All of these triggers involve interactions between elites and others, often from different cultural backgrounds. Therefore, elite formation is also a process of constant intercultural interaction. Under this premise, the dissertation poses two interrelated questions: How did elites utilize different cultures to foster their power? And, how were elites affected when they used cultures as their tools to gain power?

During the Bronze Age (ca. 1300–350 BCE), the lower Yangtze region is believed to be the homeland of two states, Wu and Yue. Positioned as the “periphery” of the Zhou political and cultural spheres, the histories of the two states are recounted in the historical texts from the Zhou perspective. However, the region’s diverse and vibrant local culture, coupled with the presence of affluent tombs, suggests that the region has history that was not recorded in the transmitted texts and thus warrants comprehensive study. Furthermore, elites in the region borrowed cultural elements from various cultural zones, including the Zhou, to sustain their power, rendering the region a good case study to explore the aforementioned questions.

Numerous archaeological excavations of mounded tombs, kiln sites, and mining and smelting sites supply the primary material for the project. Statistical analyses unveil the general cultural landscape of the region and elucidate the process of elite formation. Stylistic and contextual analyses further suggest how elites connected with commoners in the local society, their elite colleagues inside the region, and their allies of diverse cultural backgrounds through proto-porcelain and bronzes.

The study suggests that initially, there were several elite groups scattered throughout the region. After competition and integration, the number of elite groups in the region was reduced to two, and each had access to different resources and strategies for communicating with others. The elites residing in the Taihu-Hangzhou Bay area adhered to local funerary practices and further engaged with the local society as fashion leaders in the development of new utensils through their partial control over the ceramic production. The elites who occupied the northwestern part of the region, the Ningzhen area, used their better access to bronzes from the north and created a mythical and possibly supernatural image to gain support from the locals. In terms of the two elite groups’ cross-cultural contact with the outside world, both seemed to have connections with northern elites, especially in Phase IV (ca. 550–350 BCE).

Since the local elites had frequent intercultural contact, they inevitably acquired foreign practices and cultural elements that might distance them away from local traditions. However, they would not be completely alienated from the local society because they maintained interactions with people from their homeland. While such a hybrid is not uncommon in cultural contact scenarios, what the project emphasizes is the intricate process of balancing, and possibly dilemma, experienced by elites: while their primary goal is to utilize all the available resources to grow their power, they must also skillfully balance local followers and their foreign allies.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2029-02-20.

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Li, Feng
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 21, 2024