The Yangshao Culture developed between 5000 and 2800 BC in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi and Henan. Painted pottery is one of its main characteristics, which can be divided into four distinct phases.
The Banpo phase developed between 5000 and 4000 BC, in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. Its pottery is characterised by the depiction of human heads with feathers and other ornaments in the form of fish. The depiction of fish is another of the iconographic elements characteristic of the painted earthenware of the Banpo phase. The representation of human figures wearing feathers and other adornments could point to the existence of rites and shamanistic practices. Besides representing the figures usually with their eyes closed, alluding to the idea of abandonment of the body and spiritual journey, the presence of the man-animal motif represents the archetype of the animal as a vehicle of spiritual journeying, playing a key role in the communication with the ancestral spirits. In some archaeological sites, the larger basins painted with these motifs used as urns for the burial of children, providing a spiritual meaning to the decoration of the pottery associated with funerary practices and death.
Between 4000 and 3500 BC, the Yangshao Culture extended its area of influence to Gansu Province, to the west, and to Henan Province and the region of Zhengzhou, to the east, giving rise to the Majiayao and Miaodigou phases, respectively. The painted pottery of the Majiayao phase is distinguishable from that of the Banpo phase both for its greater diversity, in terms of typologies and forms and for the decoration of the objects. Between the Banpo phase and the Majiayao phase, this decoration changed from figurative to abstract. The contrast between black pigment on the orange-brown ceramic reveals an inclination towards the complete decoration of the piece, which leads to the idea that the importance of the pottery was related not only to its utilitarian and ritual nature but also to the ostentation and sophistication of the objects inherent to the establishment of social hierarchies and the institution of political authority.