Quoting a few of Christopher Beckwith’s arguments on the influence of Indo-Europeans on ancient China (specifically the Shang and Zhou dynasties), taken from his book ‘Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age’ (which I recommend).
For geographic reference, here are the dynasties in question:
And below is a map displaying the approximate territories of some Indo-European peoples who once inhabited central and western China:
The Indo-Europeans who belonged to these cultures probably looked quite similar to these Iranians, who are descended from peoples such as the Sogdians and Bactrians:
Chinese Buddhist art featuring Tocharians and Sogdians:
The war chariot and some other elements of the Central Eurasian Culture Complex appeared in China somewhat before the twelfth century bc. Burials in the royal necropolis found in the ruins of the late Shang capital at Anyang on the north bank of the Yellow River include numerous chariots and their horses, often along with the chariot warriors and their weapons. The chariots have many spokes rather than only four or six, the typical numbers used in the ancient Near East; they thus have extremely close analogues to contemporaneous chariots found in the Caucasus. They are also often found together with “northern” type knives typical of the steppe zone.
It is now accepted that the chariot is an intrusive cultural artifact that entered Shang China from the north or northwest without any wheeled- vehicle precursors. The practice of burying chariots along with their horses and young men with weapons who seem to be their drivers and archers is a distinctive mark of the Central Eurasian Culture Complex, which at that time was undoubtedly still exclusively Indo-European. Such burials are frequently found at Shang sites, usually in association with the burial of high ranking noblemen. As noted, historical sources on Central Eurasia from Antiquity through the Early Middle Ages attest that the men who belonged to a lord’s comitatus were buried together with him and their horses, weapons, and valuables.
It is also significant that the first written Chinese texts, the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, began to be composed at about the same time. Although there seems to be no direct connection between this writing system and any other known system, the as- yet-unidentified Indo-European people who brought the chariots to China may well have brought the idea of writing as well. The introduction of the chariot and comitatus burial in China can only be due to the appearance of a Central Eurasian people there.
“Anyang chariot burials thus seem to indicate a substantial interaction with northern neighbors beginning about 1200 b.c.: not an invasion, but not a border incident either. The mere capture of enemy chariots and horses would not have brought the skills required to use, maintain, and reproduce them. . . . The clearly marked advent of the chariot is a clue to an episode of cultural contact that deserves more attention than it has received.” Because all other known examples of chariot warriors at that time were Indo-Europeans, most of whom belonged to Group B, the newcomers must have been Indo-Europeans. Considering the intruders’ significant impact on the culture of the Yellow River valley, they must have had a powerful linguistic impact also, one not limited to the words for the newly imported artifacts and practices. So far, their language has not yet been identified more specifically, but it is quite possible that it represents an otherwise unknown branch of Indo-European.
The story of Hou Chi ‘Lord Millet’, the divine found er of the Chou Dynasty, is a typical Central Eurasian foundation myth, closely paralleled by the Roman myth, the Wu-sun (*Aśvin) myth, and the Puyo-Koguryo myth. How could the origin of the most revered Chinese dynasty be represented by such an alien foundation myth?
It might seem surprising that the Chou, the ideal model of a dynasty throughout Chinese history, is traditionally considered by Chinese scholars to have been non-Chinese in origin. This view is not so surprising upon examination of the data on which it is based. The Chou came from what was at the time the western frontier of the Chinese culture area. The mother of Hou Chi, Chiang Yüan, was by name a member of the Chiang clan. The Chiang are generally accepted to have been a non-Chinese people related to or more likely identical to the Ch’iang, who were the main foreign enemies of the Shang Dynasty. The Ch’iang were evidently skilled chariot warriors in the Shang period, and were therefore necessarily well acquainted with horses and wheels.
But it has been shown that the Tibeto- Burman words for ‘horse’, though ultimately Indo- European in origin, were borrowed from Old Chinese, not from Indo- European directly, and the same appears to be true for the Tibetan word for ‘wheel’. For this and other reasons it is probable that the early Ch’iang were not Tibeto- Burman speakers (as widely believed), but Indo-Europeans, and Chiang Yüan belonged to a clan that was Indo-European in origin. The Central Eurasian myth about her and her son, the ancestor of the Chou line, is thus not surprising aft er all. Yet the literary language of the Chou, preserved mainly in the Bronze Inscriptions (texts inscribed on ritual bronze vessels), is clearly the continuation of the Shang language of the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, and both are certainly ancestral to modern Chinese. In the traditional view, which still dominates the view of Sinological linguists, there is no room for any significant foreign influence on the development of Chinese. Yet this cannot be correct.
The mounting evidence against the isolationist position, especially from archaeology, indicates that the intrusive Indo- European people who brought the chariot had a powerful influence on Shang culture and may even have been responsible for the foundation of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1570–1045 bc) itself. The Shang realm occupied only a rather small area in the Yellow River valley in what is now northern and eastern Honan (Henan), southeastern Shansi (Shanxi), and western Shantung (Shandong); such a state could easily have been dominated by an aggressive Indo-European people armed with war chariots. Although there is no direct evidence for or against any such political event, the existence of the intrusive chariot warriors, and their influence on Chinese material culture, cannot be denied.
The appearance of chariot warriors in East Asia coincides approximately with their appearance in Greece (Europe), Mesopotamia (the Near East, Southwest Asia), and northwestern India (South Asia). In all of the non East Asian cases, the chariot warrior people spoke an Indo- European language and had Central Eurasian culture. In the East Asian case the chariot warriors appear to have had the same Central Eurasian culture as the Indo-Europeans in the other regions of Eurasia. They should therefore have spoken an Indo-European language. Linguistically, there are only two possible outcomes of this Indo-European intrusion.
The Early Old Chinese language of the Oracle Bone Inscriptions is either a non- Indo- European language with an intrusive Indo- European element or an Indo-European language with an intrusive non- Indo- European element. In both scenarios, the language of the Bronze Inscriptions, Classical Chinese, and the modern Chinese languages and dialects are clear continuations of Early Old Chinese, the language of the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, which was therefore already “Chinese.” Recent linguistic research on Early Old Chinese supports the presence of numerous Indo- European elements that are clearly related to Proto-Indo-European already in the Shang period Oracle Bone Inscriptions. Their identification with a particular branch of Indo- European remains uncertain.
However, it is possible that the language was close to Proto-Indo-European itself. According to one current theory, the most likely scenario is that a small group of Indo- European chariot warriors entered the pre- Chinese culture zone in the central Yellow River valley as mercenaries. They stayed and intermarried with the local people, with the result that either their language became creolized by the local language, exactly as happened to the other Indo- Europe an daughter languages, or the local language was creolized or otherwise significantly influenced by Indo- European (as happened to the Indo European maryannu of Mitanni). In either case, the Indo- European language material in the resulting language, Early Old Chinese, derives from generic late Proto-Indo-European, from a known Indo- European daughter language, or from an already independent Indo-European daughter language that is otherwise unknown.
It is remarkable that the characters of the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, the earliest form of Chinese writing, are structured exactly like the most typical forms of writing in the ancient Near East at that time—they consist mostly of derived pictographic (or “zodiographic”) forms, rebuses, combinations of phonetic and semantic elements, and so on, rather than simple pictographs. For more precise terminology and analysis, see Boltz (1994). One might imagine that a totally unrelated writing system would be totally unrelated in structure, but this is not the case with the Oracle Bone writing system, as shown by Boltz, who however argues that the Chinese themselves invented this writing system de novo without any outside influence: “There is no tangible evidence known at present to suggest that . . . Chinese writing is the result of any kind of stimulus- diffusion, however indirect, from points outside China” (Boltz 1994: 34). Yet the Chinese writing system appears, fully formed, only in the thirteenth century bc, some two millennia after writing had been invented in the West, and it appears at the same time as the fully formed chariot, which was also invented long beforehand in the West. Humans are typically imitative more than inventive. The Chinese did not have wheeled vehicles before this period. They adopted the chariot from the foreigners who brought the fully formed artifact with them from the northwest. It is thus much more likely that the idea behind the Chinese writing system—though perhaps not the system itself—ultimately comes from the same direction. Boltz (1994: 35 et seq.) himself essentially debunks the theory that various marks found on Neolithic pottery are precursors of the Chinese writing system.