Chinese civilisation has long been assumed to have developed in the Central Plains in the mid to late second millennium BC. Recent archaeological discoveries at the Bronze Age site of Shimao, however, fundamentally challenge traditional understanding of ‘peripheries’ and ‘centres’, and the emergence of Chinese civilisation. This research reveals that by 2000 BC, the loess highland was home to a complex society representing the political and economic heartland of China. Significantly, it was found that Later Bronze Age core symbols associated with Central Plains civilisations were, in fact, created much earlier at Shimao. This study provides important new perspectives on narratives of state formation and the emergence of civilisation worldwide.