The oldest reliable evidence for the emergence of Homo in eastern Asia as well as China, so far, is the Yuanmou Man: a homo erectus, the precursor of Homo sapiens, who reached Asia 1.7 million years ago . The age of these remains (2 teeth) has been repeatedly contested and confirmed, ( in 1977,  in 2002 and more recently by the Smithsonian's Human Origins project). If correct, the age of 1.7 million years brings an extremely significant factor into the discussion about the origins of humans in Asia, and, more broadly, which hominin species was to emigrate first from Africa:
a) The finds at Yuanmou, correlated with other homo erectus discoveries (features, age) in Europe and Asia, provide support for the theory that the first to leave Africa has been Homo erectus (makes sense anatomically too, since the Homo erectus was the first to have the posture and the longer legs needed to walk longer distances).
b) based on correlation with other human fossil finds along possible migration routes, the scenario of a 'southern route' ( and ) migration trajectory of early hominins out of Africa becomes plausible. Far from being a settled subject, the origins of humans in the world is a fascinating subject and Yuanmou man is definitely an important actor on this sparsely populated scene of firm knowledge. Anyway, so far we can conclude that the Yuanmou man represents the earliest 'immigrant' to China.
Note: mentioning the uncertainties in the research of homo's origins, the story of the Wushan man may be illustrative. At one point, it was believed that the fossils of 'Wushan man' discovered in 1985 in Chongqing evaluated as 2 million years old were the oldest hominin remains. The huge excitement was followed by disillusion when the remains were identified as being fossilized fragments of an extinct non-hominin ape.
The continuity of the evolution of the human species in Asia has been intensely studied, this being an important focus of both Chinese and international research teams. Many projects, excavations and studies have been undertaken to understand the links to the current modern humans occupying China. Various fossils of different ages have been excavated across the country. One of these is the famous Peking man (still a Homo erectus, precursor of H.sapiens), who inhabited the Zhoukoudian caves. Many measurements have indicated different ages, and, although for many years the age of 460,000 and 230,000BP has been accepted, modern measurements from 2009 indicate an approximate age of 780,000BP . Peking man was and remains one of the most famous stars of Beijing.
Homo erectus evolved slowly into the modern Homo sapiens. The Dali Man (discovered in 1978 in Shaanxi) (dated 230,000- 180,000 BP) is somewhere on the road of this evolution, a sort of archaic Homo sapiens, having a mixture of traits from both Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.
The Daoxian remains of the first Homo sapiens (the species that we, contemporary modern humans are part of) in China seems to lead us 80- 120,000 years back in time . Measurements with modern technology of the 47 human teeth unearthed in Daoxian (Hunan province) support this dating, and pin down this period as being the age of the first Homo sapiens known today in China. Did Homo sapiens produce pottery right at that date? There are many assumptions about the lifestyle of the Daoxian men based on the site and the remains, and it seems that he is still far from being able to create such a complex process. So, when did homo sapiens become able to produce pottery? archaeologists will continue to identify 'oldest potteries', but we will probably never know when, and how, their history really began.
What we know, though, is that by around 20,000 years ago, humans knew how to produce a sort of bowl out of a clumsy, rough piece of pressed earth. A few sherds were unearthed in Xianrendong in Jiangxi province. If recent measurements (2012 - ) are correct, this is the oldest piece of pottery known in the world (19,400 BP).
Debate: some doubts are cast regarding the accuracy of this determination; prior to the communication in 2012, the oldest sherds considered were those identified at Yuchanyan (18,000 BP) ).
Whichever the first sherds are, these small and apparently insignificant fragments just emphasize how distant the beginning of the arduous journey of forming, preparing, decorating, using and enjoying pottery has been. One of the most fascinating aspects of this journey is the fact that from the very first moment on, there was a need to decorate, to make things not only usable, but as well beautiful. That is the reason why following the evolution of pottery can be a fulfilling artistic and aesthetic adventure on its own, in addition to its relevance for understanding history.
There are many ways historians look at this period in the evolution of the humans in China. It covers important changes of every aspect of human life, from environment (Pleistocene to Holocene) to economic models (hunting-gathering to plant-and animal domestication) and to technology (stone/ bone tools to pottery). The occurence (from 24,500 to 18,300BP) of a cold period (Last Glacial Maximum LGM) has to be noted, with effect mainly on the populations of Northern China. But our focus being pottery, let's look for the earliest sites where pottery appears as part of everyday life, not surprisingly after the LGM:
In the South: Yuchanyan (18,000 BP) , Miaoyan (approx.17,000 BP), Nanzhuangtou (13,000 BP) and newer strata in Xianrendong (15,000 BP);
In the North: Hutouliang (14,700 BP) and Donghulin (9,000 BP)
(dates approximated based on ). This is the time of the first organized short-term sedentary settlements, when some burial practices can be assumed, simple dwellings may have been constructed, the dog has been domesticated, ash pits were used, and collecting-storing was added to hunting-gathering. Pottery must have played a central role in these lifestyle changes, both as an enabler and as a by-product. Pottery catalyzed a better quality of the sedentary lifestyle, and the sedentary lifestyle favored, in turn, the capability to produce better pottery.
To conclude from the findings of archaeologists and historians, by the end of this period the very first primitive stage of pottery making is successfully passed: clay is not just 'obtained at the site', but 'selected from the site'; the clay was raw and not prepared in any way; however, it seems that artificial ingredients were added occasionally in order to modify the qualities of natural clay (quartz, sand); modeling seems to have been achieved by hand, from sheets; the pots were dried or baked on open fire at low temperatures; the walls were thick and uneven; most amazingly, there is already a vague decoration in the form of a few pinched/ scratched short lines. The care for esthetics seems to be with us from the most distant times.
During this period, the number of different neolithic cultures multiplied across China, and the progress of pottery was remarkable. It can be safely stated that, if by 7,000 BCE people have successfully invented ceramic ware, what follows now is a perfectioning of materials, technology, forms and decoration.
Observing the most relevant cultures from this period:
in the North: Peiligang, Cishan, Dadiwan, Houli, Xinlongwa;
and in the Center/South: Pengtoushan, Xiaohuangshan ,
a few conclusions can be drawn:
- The first permanent settlement is considered to be found in the Pengtoushan culture, 7,000 BCE.
- Material: Geographic conditions did influence the evolution : The broad fluvial plains of the North, rich in loessic earthenware clays with alumina content, brought about the evolution of warm colors of the ceramics, ranging from yellowish-ochre to brick-red. The highly siliceous southern clay favored the appearance of stoneware, and the colors were rather on a gray scale, even white, where the clay contained kaolinite. In general, in the early Neolithic, the clay is still rough and in experimental phase, less procesed if at all, initially just 'as found', later some subject to sifting, rinsing, kneading. It was mostly sandy, sometimes mixed with crushed materials (charred rice husks or other particles to increase the workability and strength). However, there is no conscious differentiation yet between the two big classes of pottery, as will happen later. Later, pure clay pottery (ni zhi tao) will be used for finer ware (for eating, drinking, storage, burial, religious sacrifices), whereby the composit sandy pottery (jia sha tao), will be used for firing, cooking.
- Modeling: The walls of the pottery pieces are still thick. Most small pots are hand-molded and most of the larger vessels are coiled; some vessels employed both methods .
- Firing: emergence of primitive kilns (Jiahu and Peiligang), both horizontal and vertical. Temperatures of 920-960 C have been attained
- Forms are at this stage more differentiated per function, evolving towards the later typical Chinese neolithic shapes: in this sense, see a drawing from  Simon Kwan's 'Chinese Neolithic Pottery': jars, tripod jars, plates, rounded bowls, cauldrons, bowls, saucers, basins.
- Function: in addition to being used in daily life, ceramics were used as burial items and in religious rituals.
- Exterior: usually rough, towards the end some pottery is polished (burnished).
- Decoration: structural cord patterns (both pounded and rolled), awl spike, jab prints, carved patterns. The incisions have a double role: preventing cracking during firing, and decorative.
- The first painted pottery Dadiwan (6,000 BCE) mixed reddish-brown or purplish-red stripes around the mouth of round bowls and tripods, and some legs are painted. As well, a few bowls show rests of circles, short curves, arrows, comb motifs .
- The first wheel- painted pottery dates as well back to Jiahu, where rounds of red parallel stripes realized on a slow wheel have been found on a jar .
- The first white pottery: In Chengbeixi in Hubei,  pottery has been produced at around 5,000 BCE that is whiteish, being a pre-cursor to white pottery, later porcelain.
Pottery technology and aesthetics reached a peak during the middle of this period, when greatly diverse cultures were scattered densly over whole of China:
In the North: Yangshao, Majiayao, (Majiayao phase: potters decorated their wares with designs in black pigment featuring sweeping parallel lines and dots; the Banshan phaseis distinguished by curvilinear designs using both black and red paints; the Machang phase pottery is similar, but often not as carefully finished), Dawenkou, early Qijia, Longshan, Zhaobaogou, Hongshan;
in the Center/South: Chengbeixi, Majiabang, Songze, Hemudu, Liangzhu and others (see the 'Neolithic' table of cultures).
The Yellow and Yangtze river regions differentiate themselves from other areas through complex hierarchical social structures. archaeologic material is richer than from earlier phases. Regional fortified settlements with evolved urbanistic and specialized craft production features represent the centers from which the first dynastic states will be ruled. This is the time when bronze is produced and used as a commodity for the first time (the oldest bronze knife is dated cca.2800 bce and was found at a Majiayao site).
In terms of ceramics:
Material: The clay is finer. It is selected based on plastic properties and processed according to the functional destination. Clear differences regarding the materials, execution technique and decoration can be noted depending on the function of the pot (serving food/ liquids, storage, cooking, burial).
Highlights: a few spectacular categories of pottery must be mentioned, like the famous egg-shell black ware (Longshan) and the first beautiful white pottery (Dawenkou). This has to be seen in the context of social differentiation, which led to the wide scale production of prestige goods for the elite groups.
Symbols:pottery sherds with carved marks, urns with pictographs and pottery with painted symbols were found (proto- writing).
Modeling: First slow-, then later fast-turning wheels appeared in many regions. However, hand-modeling and coiling were still the most frequent. The majority of the vessels are built from coils of clay in a spiral from the bottom up, and then worked by hand, pressing the strands together. After shaping the vessel, the potter often would pat the vessel from the outside with a wooden club against a flat stone held inside the vessel (the paddle-and-anvil method). The club may have had a fiber-clad ending in order to create a fiber pattern on the vessels. Some vessels were made in a mould, filled with vegetable fibers, basket or other woven material. The later thin-walled vessels were pressed and formed in molds. In the Longshan and Qijia the vessel mouth was made separately on a slow-turning wheel and applied to the body. The fast-turning wheel was used in the late phases.
Firing: quite sophisticated kilns (both horizontal and vertical) allowed for temperatures in the 1000 C range.
Forms: There is a tremendous diversity of forms. Many of the vessels were fashioned in the shape of turtles, birds, humans and other animals. Some are so beautiful that one may imagine that they were created as objects of art, and only incidentally turned out to be functional also.
The exterior of the pottery was either simple (rough) or burnished, polished.
Decorations: Some decoration was developed to strengthen the pieces and resist firing (allowing moisture to escape through cut incisions). These are regular linear patterns, usually covering uniformly the surfaces, produced by carving, incision, or pressing (molding) with padded tools/ rounded mallets.
Painting: 3 types of painting can be identified: a) on some vessels a slip (thinned clay containing pigments) is applied to the exterior of the vessels, which, through oxidation during firing, assumed a dark red or white color; b) painting before firing (black, red or white), and c) painting after firing. The motifs, on a peak of elegance and artistry, vary from geometrical, plant, animal and human.
The changes introduced during the late Neolithic continue to mature and can be observed based on abundant archaeologic data. These changes include the formation of states, the establishment of dynasties, a large scale urbanization, cultural accomplishments in writing and metallurgy.
In 2,075 BCE, Xiang of Xia became king of the Xia dynasty. Various Xia kings ruled until 1,675 when the dynasty was finally overthrown by the Shang.
It is during this period that the transition to the Bronze Age has been completed in most regions of central and northern China. This transition is marked by the replacement of copper with bronze (an alloy of copper mixed with small amounts of tin and lead) on a large scale. The bronzeware produced under the control of the state was used by the ruling class for ritual purposes and entered the scene as an important artistic category with symbolic conotations.
Ceramics were less spectacular, but, towards the end, in Erlitou, there were important innovations: glazed stoneware was first produced, and recently (2012) the first ever kiln in China that produced white stoneware (proto-porcelain)has been excavated at Piaoshan in Zhejiang .
Of course the new innovation was useful mainly for ritual purposes and for the elite class, whereby less elaborate, rough or thick utilitarian ceramics, produced in kilns around the country, served the large population.
In terms of archaeologic facts, the period acknowldeged as the Xia dynasty is today associated with a range of cultures of which Erlitou (from 1,900 BCE) has been the dynastic center. Other cultures, most notably the late Qijia and Yueshi co-existed with Erlitou.
The first documented dynasty in the history of China was the Shang. Tang, as recorded on oracle bones as Da Yi, was the first king of the Shang dynasty, called in Chinese sources often Yin. He started the dynasty when he overthrew Jie (the last ruler of the Xia) in 1,675 BCE. During Tang's reign the capital was moved to Yinxu (Anyang). Tang's reign was considered beneficial, he lowered taxes and the conscription rate of soldiers. His influence spread to the Yellow River, and many outlying tribes, such as Di and Qiang, became vassal states. Over time, the Shang kings exerted power and cultural influence on cities and states as far south as the Yangtze river.
Erligang is the name of an archaeologic site near Zhengzhou which gave its name to the Erligang culture, in general associated to the Shang period. The history of the Shang state and the Erligang culture, mainly the ruler's, the court's and the official's lives, the battles, executions, intrigues and wars during the second millenium BCE reveal a complex society. This complexity drew along a spectacular cultural expression through bronzes, jades, pottery, architecture, burial and urban planning.
The state was a strict and well-controlled organization, based at its core on military power. The Shang were one of the many states which existed in the same time spread over whole China, however they were most successful in exercising their influence over the other ones through economic and military means. Some of the other contemporary city-states were in a subordination relationship to the Shang- these had to send tributes and taxes in the form of grains or military assistance during warfare. Some were in more amiable economic relations, in the position to provide resources (bronze, clay, salt, jade and other raw materials) to the central state. In any case, from thousand miles away, the Shang succeeded in developing a political management network that covered an extensive territory. This configuration didn't last, however, more than a few hundred years. The power of the state shrank by 1350 BCE, and the Yellow river valley became again a network of interacting states at about the same political power and cultural level. The year 1350 is considered the end of the Erlitou culture.
The end: Zhou (the last Shang king) led a life filled with immorality, heavy drinking and cruelty, the most famous example of decadence and corruption of a ruler in Chinese history. Mostly moral reasons and economic hardship of the people who suffered from his cruel regime led to a revolt and his defeat by Jiang Ziya, who founded the Zhou dynasty. The downfall of king Zhou who forfeited the 'Mandate of Heaven' remained a cautionary tale to kings and emperors for years to come. PotteryPottery objects were abundant, from fired-clay sectional molds for casting bronzes to clay vessels, whose shapes in many cases clearly inspired designs in bronze. Some ceramics was shaped on a potter's wheel; there are dishes and bowls in a white glaze for ceremonial and ritual use, as well as black pottery and a rich brown glaze for everyday use. Bronzes. The Shang are first and foremost famous for the spectacular ceremonial bronze vessels, which were produced with the piece- molding technology, an innovation that enabled a high quality, level of detail and sophistication. The process consisting of creating the pieces of mold out of clay, carving a design into it, pouring molten bronze into the mold, cracking the mold away, and finishing (handles etc.)
Oracle bones: divination inscriptions on turtle shells and ox scapulae are invaluable written sources about the Shang times.
WritingWriting was first time extensively used: on oracle bones, on bamboo slips and on bronze vessels.
The Zhou people were descendants of the Longshan Neolithic culture. During the course of several centuries, the Zhou moved away from barbarian pressures, migrating towards the westernmost agricultural basin of North China, the lower Wei River valley, present-day Shaanxi province. During the Shang, they settled in the Plain of Zhou where they built a city and practiced agriculture. The Shang ruling class considered the Zhou 'semibarbarious country cousins'. For many years the Zhou and the Shang coexisted alternating peace and war, until the Zhou conquered the Shang (see above).
Western Zhou (1046-771 BCE) The Zhou was not a unified country as we may imagine today, but rather a network of city-states which were led by rulers who were more or less vasals of the Zhou king. If at the beginning these ties were stronger, later the links between the central and peripheral states weakened, and the regions became more and more independent. Frequent wars with northern tribes accelerated this process. In 771 BCE the capital city (Haojing) became too vulnerable to assaults from the frontier, so the capital was moved to Luoyang. This marks the end of the Western Zhou period.
Eastern Zhou (771- 256 BCE) The disintegration of the Zhou power continued. The states located on the peripheries grew into major territorial powers, and their rulers developed greater military and economic strength than the Zhou king, who was now dependent on a small royal domain around Luoyang. By 700 BCE, the state of Qin in the west, Jin in the north, Qi in the east and Chu in the south were the main centres of power in China, and the royal Zhou domain in the central Yellow river plain was powerless in comparison to these peripheric states.
Spring and Autumn period (772 - 476 BCE) is called after the name of the preserved official chronicle of the small state of Lu, in which the events throughout China between these dates are recorded. During this period, the military conflict gradually escalated. War after war, the different states started to annex each other and form the roughly 100 states that were in China in about 770 BCE - there were just 40 towards the end of the Spring and Autumn Period . This was a time of violence and social conflict: battles, civil wars, assassinations of rulers, and intrigues among aristocratic families. Battles slowly shifted from being relatively short and restrained by a code of chivalry to large-scale slaughters. Paradoxically, arts and philosophy flourished like never before: thinkers belonging to the diverse schools of thought developed many different ideological traditions. This is the time when some of the most important Chinese schools of thought such as Daoism, Confucianism and Legalism were born.
During the Warring States(476-221 BCE), seven states became the chief contenders that fought for the control and unification of China. War and disorder, chaos and brutality were the dominant treats of these times.
The end: The Zhou Dynasty came to an end in 256 BCE, when the army of the state of Qin captured the city of Chengzhou and the last Zhou ruler, King Nan, was killed. From this point the Zhou did basically not exist anymore, and the remaining 3 powerful states (Qin, Qi, Chu) continued the battle for supremacy for the next 30 years. Eventually the state of Qin conquered Qi and Chu, and unified China in 221 BCE. This moment marks the beginning of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) and of the Dynastic period of China.