Traditional China identified five directions, east, south, west, north, and centre. Exactly why the centre should receive a separate nomination is not certain, although in ancient times the Chinese liked to group things in fives, such as the Five Elements, the Five Senses, the Five Colours, the Five [musical] Tones, the Five Flavours , etc. Perhaps the importance of the centre was connected with the very ancient practice of archery as part of religious ritual activity, hitting the centre marking the ultimate goal of human activity. The character for centre, zhong, is a pictograph of an arrow striking its target.
When, in the middle of the first millennium BC, 'China' consisted of many feudal states, the central states (zhong guo), i.e. those situated on the Great Plain and in the vicinity of the Yellow River, saw themselves as the true inheritors of political and religious legitimacy. As a result, they were the most conservative. When the empire was united in 221 BC, the name Zhong guo, interpreted now as the 'Middle Kingdom', stuck, and thereafter the Chinese regarded their country as being at the heart of the universe, surrounded by uncivilised peoples and lands. The centre had become identified with orthodoxy and sophistication.
Central China is not precisely definable in terms of topography or climate. To the modern geographer the region between the Huanghe (the Yellow River, often referred to simply as He) and the Yangzi Jiang - that is, southern Henan and Hubei provinces - perhaps comes closest to it. The Huanghe, called 'yellow' because of the loess silt it carries down from the Gobi desert, has been a mixed blessing throughout China's history. Despite being China's second longest river (3,000+ miles), its irregular rate of flow made much of it unsuitable for navigation, and its propensity for serious flooding earned it the nickname 'China's Sorrow'. Nevertheless, the silt that choked it was very rich, and spreading it across the Great Plain of Shanxi and Henan ensured the fertility of the soil. Moreover, civil engineers in the Qin and Han periods incorporated sections of its eastern course into the canal system with which they linked the metropolitan area with the Yangzi valley and beyond.
To the Chinese, central China was traditionally associated with the Wei River valley in southern Shaanxi and the long stretch of the He as it emerged from the mountains of Shaanxi, turned eastwards and headed towards the sea. This was the region where the great capital cities - Chang'an , Luoyang, and Kaifeng - were situated for over a thousand years, and in early imperial times the art of central China was inevitably associated with that currently preferred by the court. But long before that, some of the earliest neolithic cultures in eastern Asia had evolved in this vicinity. Pottery remains from Beiligang, Henan, date from the 6th millennium BCE. In the Wei River valley, one of the best preserved settlements was excavated at Banpo village, near the later city of Chang'an , between 1954 and 1957, and has been carbon dated to c.4,800 BCE. This culture, typified by its red and black painted pottery, is known as Yangshao after another southern Shaanxi village where it had first been discovered in 1922.
Further to the east lies evidence for the origins of China's long political history. There, at Erlitou, near Luoyang in Henan province, are remains of the first known statelet to bear the name of a ruling dynasty, the Xia. Formed around the 21st century BCE, it was the first to learn and exploit the skills involved in manufacturing bronze vessels.
Thanks to its primacy in ceramic and bronze culture, central China has earned the nickname 'the cradle of Chinese civilisation'Prof. K. Pratt | Sep 2002