It is widely acknowledged that in the Qijia Culture Period (cca 2200–1500 BC), the Chinese Northwest participated in a broader network of contacts spanning from the Middle Yellow River Valley to Central Asia. However, opinions differ considerably as one regards the character of those contacts and their role in the genesis of the culture. On one hand, many Chinese scholars view the emergence of the Qijia Culture as a result of large migrations from the East; on the other, some western scholars suggest that a number of western human groups participated in its formation. In the present article we use the model of non-uniform institutional the complexity to explain the emergence of the Qijia Culture. We first point out its continuity with earlier Late Neolithic local cultures, and then focus on the spread of new artefacts and, as evidence suggests, of institutions from the East which led to the transformation of various aspects of the material culture within the broader region of the Chinese Northwest, while other elements – burial rites, for instance – preserved their regional diversity. We suggest that eastern innovations spread partly through channels established earlier within an exchange network of locally produced painted pottery and also in association with local area’s social development. These suggestions are supported by the case study which considers the process of development at the well-known site of Liuwan in the middle reaches of the Huang River Valley, Qinghai Province.