XIA DYNASTY (2200-1700 B.C.)

Xia era mosaic

The Xia dynasty (2200-1700 B.C. by some reckoning, 2070 – 1600 B.C. by others) is the first dynasty in traditional Chinese history. Described in ancient historical chronicles such as the Bamboo Annals, the Classic of History and the Records of the Grand Historian but largely recognized as legendary, at least as it is depicted in these texts, the Xia (Hsia) dynasty is said to have begun when Emperor Shun, the last of Five Legendary Emperors, abdicated, in favor of Emperor Yu, the 8th grandson of the legendary Yellow Emperor, from whom all Han Chinese are said to have descended. One of the main problems with affirming the Xia Dynasty is that its time frame predated written Chinese and the documents that described it appeared many of hundreds of years after that time. The Xia was succeeded by the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 B.C.), for which there is firm historical evidence.

The oldest bronze vessels in China date back to the time of the Xia dynasty. According to legend bronze was first cast 5,000 years ago by the Yellow Emperor, who cast nine bronze tripods to symbolize the nine provinces in his empire. Bronze metallurgy in China dates back to 2000 B.C. significantly later than in southeastern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where it developed around 3600 to 3000 B.C..

Chinese astronomers in the Xia era were among the first to chart constellations and record supernovas. In 2296 B.C., Chinese astronomers observed a comet. They also developed a system of observation based on the equator and the poles that was not adopted by Europe until 4000 years later.

For a long time it was thought the Xia dynasty was completely legendary but in the last couple of decades evidence has surfaced that it really existed. A site near Erlitou in Henan Province dated to 2200 to 1700 B.C. is believed to have been a Xia capital. Archaeologists working there have found tombs filled with pottery, ornamental jade, clay irrigation pipes, and the world's oldest ritual bronze vessels.

Important Xia, Shang and Zhou archaeological sites include the newly-discovered Shang city ruins at Yanshi and Huanbei; the excavations of the Erlitou, Yinxu and Fenghao sites; new breakthrough discoveries at the cemeteries at the Liulihe site in Beijing, Qianzhangda in Tengzhou and Dadianzi in Inner Mongolia. Excavations at Shang and Zhou imperial cities such as the Yinxu ruins in Anyang, the Changan and Fenghao ruins in modern-day Xian, and the Eastern Zhou capital Wangcheng in Luoyang, which have helped archaeologists establish a chronology for the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties.

Xia dynasty location

Books: “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2004); “Shang Civilization” by K.C. Chang (Yale, 1980). According to Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University: “There are several introductory essays on the nature of oracle inscriptions. David Keightley, the foremost Western authority in the field, has written two, of which the more accessible appears in Wm. Theodore de Bary et al., ed., “Sources of Chinese Tradition” (NY: 2000, 2nd edition). No book has been more influential for oracle text studies in the West than Keightley’s “Sources of Shang Tradition” (Berkeley: 1977). Although it is exceptionally technical, because it is very thoroughly illustrated and covers a wide range of topics it can be fun to page through even for the non-specialist. Keightley, also wrote “The Origins of Chinese Civilization” (Berkeley: 1983). His “The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.)” (Berkeley: 2000) is an excellent source on Shang history, society and culture

See Separate Article ERLITOU CULTURE (1900–1350 B.C.): CAPITAL OF THE XIA DYNASTY?

Xia Dynasty: Real or Legendary?

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Naturally, both Chinese and Western scholars wish to relate the archaeological record to the textual account of pre-Shang China. As we have mentioned, this is difficult to do. Even were we to find the mummified remains of the Yellow Emperor in some grand tomb, how would we know it was he if no written mark could name him? Nevertheless, the controversies on this point, both within China and in the West, have been intense and interesting. The focal issue over the past two decades has concerned the historicity of the Xia. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

The traditional accounts of the Xia Dynasty resemble in many respects those of the Shang. A few kings notable kings, such as Emperor Yu, the Xia founder, and Jie, its evil last king, are portrayed with some detail, and the remainder are merely listed, with a story or two emerging here or there. The famous figures appear to be principally legendary, but the very dullness of the remaining list of kings suggests that there may be some factual basis to the chronology. Still, even if there once ruled in China a list of sovereigns with the names that we see in the annals of the Xia, were they the rulers of a significant polity, the true predecessors of the Shang, or is this simply a list of some tribal ruling clan grafted on to the history of the more universal dynasties of the Shang and Zhou. /+/

“Some years ago, a scholar named Sarah Allan, at Dartmouth College, proposed an interesting hypothesis to account for resemblances between the traditional accounts of the Shang and of the Xia. She suggests that the existence of the Xia was essentially a Shang myth, one which served to legitimize the power of the Shang kings, as the conquerors of a previous legitimate dynasty that had lost its virtue. Her proposal is very similar in structure (though quite different in its particular arguments) to those which were once proposed to demonstrate how the Shang might have been a mythical construct of the Zhou people. /+/

Legendary Emperors Yan and Huang di (the Yellow Emperor)

“Archaeology has tended to reinforce the certainty of those who believe in the historicity of the Xia. A number of Bronze Age excavations in places other than Xiaotun have uncovered large cities on a scale comparable to or greater than the ruins of the last Shang capital at Yin, and including massive city walls, which the Xiaotun site puzzlingly lacks. While at least one of these cities appears certain to be one of the former Shang capitals, a particularly early site at a location called Erlitou is located near where some traditional accounts place the capital region of the Xia, and many scholars now accept that this is indeed the homeland of the Xia. If it is, then the continuity between the Xia and Shang would be evident, as Erlitou appears to represent a developmental progression between the Neolithic Longshan and Shang cultural stages. But Erlitou could simply be explained as an early site of the Shang dynastic period, or even as a pre-dynastic Shang site – after all, something directly preceded the Shang; the issue is whether its nature is reflected in the later textual account of the Xia. /+/

“Perhaps the most intriguing evidence yet offered comes from a historian named David Nivison, from Stanford University. Nivison, who is noted for his tortuously detailed efforts to rationalize the chronological accounts of early historical texts and bronze inscriptions has, with the aid of an astronomer co-researcher, proposed an elaborate system of adjustments to our understanding of the existing annals of the Xia that would align perfectly all the astronomical records of eclipses and planetary conjunctions preserved in those texts with the dates for those phenomena as generated by contemporary computerized calculations. He argues that this spectacular coincidence between texts like the Bamboo Annals and modern astronomy demonstrates without doubt the historicity of the Xia. /+/

“Nivison is a wonderful scholar, and his claims may be correct. However, the remarkable coincidence of dates that he produces from his research does rely on a series of speculative adjustments. For example, Nivison’s proposal only holds if we assume that the last of the Xia rulers, the evil Jie, was fictional, and all the other kings listed were real. While the strange resemblance between Jie and other “last rulers” makes it reasonable to believe that he might have been invented as a literary device to legitimize the Shang conquest, the need to make this type of adjustment reduces to some degree the power of Nivison’s claim. Similarly, Nivison builds into his version of the chronology several other types of systematic adjustments to trim years from the traditional account or to add them as necessary. The result is that his evidence, while impressive, must be called highly “leveraged,” relying on an unusually large number of assumptions in order to achieve the result of perfect coincidence between textual and astronomical records. /+/

“Sarah Allan’s theories about the historicity of the Xia Dynasty are found in The Shape of the Turtle (Albany: 1991). David Nivison’s arguments concerning the Xia are found in, “Astonomical Evidence for the Bamboo Annals’ Chronicle of Early Xia” ( Early China 15), co-authored with K.D. Pong. /+/

Bronze Age China

18th century BC bronze vessel

According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The long period of the Bronze Age in China, which began around 2000 B.C., saw the growth and maturity of a civilization that would be sustained in its essential aspects for another 2,000 years. In the early stages of this development, the process of urbanization went hand in hand with the establishment of a social order. In China, as in other societies, the mechanism that generated social cohesion, and at a later stage statecraft, was ritualization. As most of the paraphernalia for early rituals were made in bronze and as rituals carried such an important social function, it is perhaps possible to read into the forms and decorations of these objects some of the central concerns of the societies (at least the upper sectors of the societies) that produced them. [Source: Department of Asian Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York:The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. metmuseum.org\^/]

“There were probably a number of early centers of bronze technology, but the area along the Yellow River in present-day Henan Province emerged as the center of the most advanced and literate cultures of the time and became the seat of the political and military power of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.), the earliest archaeologically recorded dynasty in Chinese history. The Shang dynasty was conquered by the people of Zhou, who came from farther up the Yellow River in the area of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province. In the first years of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1046–256 B.C.), known as the Western Zhou (ca. 1046–771 B.C.), the ruling house of Zhou exercised a certain degree of "imperial" power over most of central China. With the move of the capital to Luoyang in 771 B.C., however, the power of the Zhou rulers declined and the country divided into a number of nearly autonomous feudal states with nominal allegiance to the emperor. The second phase of the Zhou dynasty, known as the Eastern Zhou (771–256 B.C.), is subdivided into two periods, the Spring and Autumn period (770–ca. 475 B.C.) and the Warring States period (ca. 475–221 B.C.). During the Warring States period, seven major states contended for supreme control of the country, ending with the unification of China under the Qin in 221 B.C. \^/

“Although there is uncertainty as to when metallurgy began in China, there is reason to believe that early bronzeworking developed autonomously, independent of outside influences. The era of the Shang and the Zhou dynasties is generally known as the Bronze Age of China, because bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, used to fashion weapons, parts of chariots, and ritual vessels, played an important role in the material culture of the time. Iron appeared in China toward the end of the period, during the Eastern Zhou dynasty.” \^/

“The earliest Chinese bronzes were made by the method known as piece-mold casting—as opposed to the lost-wax method, which was used in all other Bronze Age cultures. In piece-mold casting, a model is made of the object to be cast, and a clay mold taken of the model. The mold is then cut in sections to release the model, and the sections are reassembled after firing to form the mold for casting. If the object to be cast is a vessel, a core has to be placed inside the mold to provide the vessel's cavity. The piece-mold method was most likely the only one used in China until at least the end of the Shang dynasty. An advantage of this rather cumbersome way of casting bronze was that the decorative patterns could be carved or stamped directly on the inner surface of the mold before it was fired. This technique enabled the bronzeworker to achieve a high degree of sharpness and definition in even the most intricate designs.” \^/

Xia Arts and Culture

Bronze Jin tong jug

According to the Encyclopedia of East Asian Art: “An important stage in Chinese art - a stage described in ancient historical chronicles, like the Bamboo Annals, Classic of History and Records of the Grand Historian - the Xia Dynasty is now accepted as China's first dynasty. Although authoritative archeological evidence is still lacking, and we are dependent on traditional chronology, combined with information from the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, for dates, the Xia Dynasty is believed to have featured 17 emperors and lasted almost five centuries, ruling China between approximately 2100 and 1700 B.C. It served as a bridge between late Neolithic art in China and the beginnings of recorded history represented by the long era of Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 B.C.). [Source: Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, visual-arts-cork.com ^=^]

“Up until the Xia Dynasty Chinese artifacts mainly comprised forms of pottery, already of great sophistication, and items worked from bone, ivory or stone. Xia Dynasty culture is best known for its bronze making (including the piece-mold casting technique), goldsmithing and other metalwork. Chinese pottery as well as jade carving, other forms of sculpture like ivory carving, sericulture, Chinese lacquerware, were also important exemplars of Xia culture. The first forms of calligraphy emerged during the final years of the dynasty.” ^=^

One of the most important finds from Erlitou is the Bronze Ornamental Plaque, a cast bronze and turquoise inlay that was unearthed in a tomb dated to 17th or 16th century B.C. Now housed in the Luoyang Museum, it features a foxlike animal that is thought to be a representation of a deity. Some speculate it may have been worn as a breast plate and a symbol of divine authority.

Pre-Xia Site Found in North China's Shanxi Province

In September 2105, the China Daily reported: “Archeological findings on the ruins of Taosi in Linfen stand a good chance of being the location of the capital of the Yao period, which would extend Chinese history 300 hundreds years ahead of the Xia Dynasty (c.21st century-16th century B.C.), Chinese archeologists said. Yao was one of the sage emperors living in the middle reaches of the Yellow River in Chinese mythology. Excavation of the Taosi site in Linfen city, North China's Shanxi province, began in 1978. [Source: China Daily, September 19, 2015 ||||]

“Wang Wei, head of the institute of archeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that many experts in the archaeological circle have reached a consensus that Taosi is the capital of the Yao period. Latest excavations also showed the ancient city of Taosi covered an area of 2.8 million square meters with various functional divisions, including a royal palace, residential areas for nobles, the king’s mausoleum, and a ritual platform. Meanwhile, the concept of kingship,etiquette, private ownership, and an ancient calendar were also developed in the period of Yao, according to Wang's report. ||||

“Wang said that a series of archeological findings at the Taosi site proves that it matches the capital of the Yao period 4,200 years ago in terms of the period, location, scale, and level of civilization. Although the findings may still face some disputes, Chinese archeologists believe that through archaeological excavation and research, the legendary Emperor of Yao will become a true part of the history of China.” ||||

Shimao, a Xia-Era Neolothic City

Shimao is a city that dates back to 2300 B.C., the Xia Dynasty era, whose significance was only appreciated in the late 2010s. Jason Urbanus wrote in Archaeology magazine: It was originally thought that the ancient stone walls visible on the edge of the Mu Us Desert in the northern province of Shaanxi had once been part of the Great Wall. But, when archaeologists examined them intensively, they realized something much older and more complex was buried there. They had discovered the lost city of Shimao, which dates back to 2300 B.C. Over the past 10 years, excavators including Zhouyong Sun of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology have uncovered a stone city with immense fortifications and sophisticated infrastructure, thousands of luxurious artifacts, and a 230-foot-high stepped pyramid that served as the residence for Shimao’s rulers and leading families. The site’s early date and peripheral location were surprising since Chinese civilization was thought to have first developed in the Central Plains around 500 years after Shimao’s founding. “The discovery really puzzled me and other archaeologists,” says Sun. “Shimao reveals a unique trajectory to urbanism in China. This once-powerful kingdom was completely unknown in ancient textual records.” [Source: Jason Urbanus, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2021]

Discoveries at the expansive site have caused archaeologists to rethink the roots of Chinese civilization.Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “The stones didn’t give up their secrets easily. For decades, villagers in the dust-blown hills of China’s Loess Plateau believed that the crumbling rock walls near their homes were part of the Great Wall. It made sense. Remnants of the ancient barrier zigzag through this arid region inside the northern loop of the Yellow River, marking the frontier of Chinese rule stretching back more than 2,000 years. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 7, 2020]

“But one detail was curiously out of place: Locals, and then looters, began finding in the rubble pieces of jade, some fashioned into discs and blades and scepters. Jade is not indigenous to this northernmost part of Shaanxi Province—the nearest source is almost a thousand miles away—and it was not a known feature of the Great Wall. Why was it showing up in abundance in this barren region so close to the Ordos Desert?

“When a team of Chinese archaeologists came to investigate the conundrum several years ago, they began to unearth something wondrous and puzzling. The stones were not part of the Great Wall but the ruins of a magnificent fortress city. The ongoing dig has revealed more than six miles of protective walls surrounding a 230-foot-high pyramid and an inner sanctum with painted murals, jade artifacts—and gruesome evidence of human sacrifice. Even more astonishing: Carbon-dating determined that parts of Shimao, as the site is called (its original name is unknown), date back 4,300 years, nearly 2,000 years before the oldest section of the Great Wall—and 500 years before Chinese civilization took root on the Central Plains, several hundred miles to the south.

History of Shimao

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Shimao flourished in this seemingly remote region for nearly half a millennium, from around 2300 B.C. to 1800 B.C. Then, suddenly and mysteriously, it was abandoned. None of the ancient texts that have helped guide Chinese archaeology mention an ancient city so far north of the so-called “cradle of Chinese civilization,” much less one of such size, complexity, and intense interaction with outside cultures. Shimao is now the largest known Neolithic settlement in China—its 1,000-acre expanse is about 25 percent bigger than New York City’s Central Park—with art and technology that came from the northern steppe and would influence future Chinese dynasties. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 7, 2020]

“Together with recent discoveries at other prehistoric sites nearby and along the coast, Shimao is forcing historians to rethink the beginnings of Chinese civilization—expanding their understanding of the geographical locations and outside influences of its earliest cultures. “Shimao is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of this century,” says Sun Zhouyong, director of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology and leader of the dig at Shimao. “It gives us a new way of looking at the development of China’s early civilization.”

Aerial view of the Shimao site

Only a small fraction of Shimao has been excavated so far, so the discoveries keep coming. Along with the stone carvings uncovered last year, archaeologists found evidence of human busts and statues that were once set into the walls around the East Gate. We are only beginning to understand what the carvings might signify, says UCLA’s Li Min, but the anthropomorphic representations are “a very innovative and rare attempt.” “So much about Shimao remains cloaked in mystery, including its name. Archaeologists are still trying to understand how its economy functioned, how it interacted with other prehistoric cultures, and whether its elites possessed a writing system. “That would solve a long-standing mystery,” says Sun.

“There are some clues, however, to why Shimao was abandoned after 500 years. It wasn’t earthquake, flood, or plague. A war might have helped drive them out, but scientists see more evidence that climate change played a pivotal role. In the third millennium B.C., when Shimao was founded, a relatively warm and wet climate drew an expanding population into the Loess Plateau. Historical records show a rapid shift from 2000 to 1700 B.C. to a drier and cooler climate. Lakes dried up, forests disappeared, deserts encroached, and the people of Shimao migrated to parts unknown.

Design of Shimao

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “The first impression of Shimao, even as a partially excavated site in the barren hills above the Tuwei River, is of a city designed to face constant danger. The city was built in a conflict zone, a borderland dominated for thousands of years by warfare between herders of the northern steppe and farmers of the central plains. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 7, 2020]

“To protect themselves from violent rivals, the Shimao elites molded their oblong 20-tiered pyramid on the highest of those hills. The structure, visible from every point of the city, is about half the height of Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza, which was built around the same time (2250 B.C.). But its base is four times larger, and the Shimao elites protected themselves further by inhabiting the top tier of the platform, which included a 20-acre palatial complex with its own water reservoir, craft workshops, and, most likely, ritual temples.

“Radiating out from Shimao’s central pyramid were miles of inner and outer perimeter walls, an embryonic urban design that has been echoed in Chinese cities through the ages. The walls alone required 125,000 cubic meters of stone, equal in volume to 50 Olympic swimming pools—a huge undertaking in a Neolithic society whose population likely ranged between 10,000 and 20,000. The sheer size of the project leads archaeologists to believe that Shimao commanded the loyalty—and labor—of smaller satellite towns that have recently been discovered in its orbit.

“More than 70 stone towns from the same Neolithic era, known as the Longshan period, have now been unearthed in northern Shaanxi province. Ten of them are in the Tuwei river basin, where Shimao is located. “These satellite villages or towns are like moons circling around the Shimao site,” Sun says. “Together they laid a solid social foundation for the early state formation at Shimao.”

“Shimao’s fortifications are astonishing not just for their size but also for their ingenuity. The defensive system included barbicans (gates flanked by towers), baffle gates (allowing only one-way entry), and bastions (a projecting part of the wall allowing defensive fire in multiple directions). It also employed a “mamian” (“horse-face”) structure whose angles drew attackers into an area where defenders could pummel them from three sides—a design that would become a staple of Chinese defensive architecture. Inside the stone walls, Sun’s team found another unexpected innovation: wooden beams used as reinforcement. Carbon-dated to 2300 B.C., the still-intact cypress beams represented a method of construction that scholars previously thought had only begun in the Han Dynasty—more than 2,000 years later.

Ritual Violence and Possible Human Sacrifice at Shimao

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “The most grisly discovery came underneath the city’s eastern wall: 80 human skulls clustered in six pits—with no skeletons attached. (The two pits closest to the East Gate, the city’s principal entrance, contained exactly 24 skulls each.) The skulls’ number and placement suggest a ritual beheading during the laying of the wall’s foundation—the earliest known example of human sacrifice in Chinese history. Forensic scientists determined that almost all of the victims were young girls, most likely prisoners who belonged to a rival group. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 7, 2020]

““The scale of ritual violence observed at Shimao was unprecedented in early China,” says Li Min, an archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has visited and written extensively about Shimao. The skulls at Shimao foreshadowed the massive human sacrifice that became what Li calls “a defining attribute of Shang civilization” many centuries later (from around 1600 to 1046 B.C.) before succeeding dynasties put an end to the practice.

“The skulls are just one indication that the East Gate marked the entrance to a different world. Anyone walking across the threshold—above the buried sacrificial pits—would have been awed by more immediately visible signs. Several stone blocks in the high terrace walls were carved with lozenge designs, making them appear like enormous eyes gazing down at the East Gate. Wedged into the stone walls at regular intervals were thousands of pieces of black and dark green jade, shimmering ornaments that served both to ward off evil and to project the power and wealth of Shimao elites. The abundance of jade artifacts suggests that Shimao, with no source of its own, imported large quantities from distant trading partners.

Culture and Art of Shimao

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Archaeologists uncovered 70 stunning relief sculptures in stone—serpents, monsters, and half-human beasts that resemble later Bronze Age iconography in China. Despite its seeming remoteness today, Shimao was not insulated from the outside world. It exchanged ideas, technology, and goods with a wide range of other cultures, from the Altai steppe to the north to coastal regions near the Yellow Sea. “What is significant is that Shimao, along with many other areas, shows that China’s civilization has many roots and does not emerge just from the growth in the Central Plains on the middle Yellow River,” says Jessica Rawson, a professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford. “Several features were taken from the world beyond even today’s northern China—for example, stone structures, that have more relation to the steppe than to the Central Plains. Other features are herded animals for subsistence, oxen and sheep and metallurgy. These are actually very important technologies that China adopted and incorporated seamlessly into their culture.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 7, 2020]

“Many artifacts found at Shimao could only have come from distant lands. Besides the jade, archaeologists also found the remains of alligator skins, which must have come from a swampier region much farther south. Alligator-skin drums were likely used during ritual ceremonies, one sign of the vital role music played in Shimao palace life.

“Another discovery flummoxed Sun and his team: 20 identical pieces of bone, thin, smooth, and curved. The archaeologists guessed that these were combs or hairpins, until a musical scholar deduced that the bones were the earliest examples of a primitive reed instrument known in Chinese as the mouth reed and more colloquially as the Jew’s harp. “Shimao is the birthplace of the mouth reed,” says Sun, noting that the instrument spread to more than 100 ethnic groups across the world. “It is an important discovery that provides valuable clues to explore the early flows of population and culture.”

Emperor Yu the Great

Emperor Yu

Yu the Great was a legendary ruler in ancient China famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by founding the Xia Dynasty, and for his upright moral character. The dates proposed for Yu's reign precede the oldest known written records in China, the oracle bones of the late Shang dynasty, by nearly a millennium. No inscriptions on artifacts from the supposed era of Yu, nor the later oracle bones, make any mention of Yu; he does not appear in inscription until vessels dating to the Western Zhou period (c. 1045–771 B.C.). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The lack of anything remotely close to contemporary documentary evidence has led to some controversy over the historicity of Yu. Proponents of the historicity of Yu theorise that stories about his life and reign were transmitted orally in various areas of China until they were recorded in the Zhou dynasty, while opponents believe the figure existed in legend in a different form - as a god or mythical animal - in the Xia dynasty, and morphed into a human figure by the start of the Zhou dynasty. Many of the stories about Yu were collected in Sima Qian's famous Records of the Grand Historian. Yu and other "sage-kings" of Ancient China were lauded for their virtues and morals by Confucius and other Chinese teachers. +

According to several ancient Chinese records, Yu was the 8th great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor. Yu was said to have been born at Mount Wen, in modern-day Beichuan County, Sichuan Province, though there are debates as to whether he was born in Shifang instead. When Yu was a child, his father Gun moved the people east toward the Central Plain. King Yao enfeoffed Gun as lord of Chong, usually identified as the middle peak of Mount Song. Yu is thus believed to have grown up on the slopes of Mount Song, just south of the Yellow River. He later married a woman from Mount Tu who is generally referred to as Tushan-shi ("Lady Tushan"). They had a son named Qi, a name literally meaning "revelation". The location of Mount Tu has always been disputed. The two most probable locations are Mount Tu in Anhui Province and the Tu Peak of the Southern Mountain in Chongqing Municipality.

Dr. Eno wrote: Yu was “a semi-divine figure, part man and part beast, who tamed the flood by dredging the river beds of mud. This Yu of myth came to be identified with the founder of what was traditionally known as China’s earliest dynastic ruling line: the Xia Dynasty – Yu the man-beast became Emperor Yu. In “The Canon of Shun” we see him rewarded for his flood-taming skills by being promoted to Minister of Works under the Emperor Shun. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Great Flood of Gun-Yu

20080317-yangtze_flood 1998 NASA.jpg
Satellite view of 1998 flood
According to legend, backed up by some geological evidence, a great flood on the Yellow River caused enormous disruption and hardships and led to birth of the Xia dynasty and modern Chinese civilization about 4,000 year. Emperor Yu, the legendary Chinese Emperor, made a name for himself by controlling the flood waters and devising the dredging scheme that directed the flood waters back into their channels. Restoring order after chaos earned "him the divine mandate to establish the Xia dynasty, the first in Chinese history," Wu Qinglong, professor in the department of geography at Nanjing Normal University, wrote in Science magazine.[Source: Kerry Sheridan, AFP, August 5, 2016]

Great Flood of Gun-Yu, also known as the Gun-Yu myth, was a major flood event that continued for at least two generations, resulting in many deaths, great population displacements and associated disasters, such as storms and famine. According to mythological and historical sources, it is traditionally dated to the third millennium B.C., during the reign of Emperor Yao, and people left their homes to live on the high hills and mounts, or nest on the trees. Emperor Yao, as quoted in the Book of History, said: “Like endless boiling water, the flood is pouring forth destruction. Boundless and overwhelming, it overtops hills and mountains. Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens. How the people must be groaning and suffering! “ [Source: Wikipedia +]

Gun is the name of a villain in some versions of a Chinese flood myth. He was appointed by Emperor Yao to control the flood. His flood control plan relied on use of a miraculously continuously self-expanding soil, Xirang, which he stole from the Supreme Divinity, who was angered by the act. Gun used the magical Xirang earth to block and barricade the flood waters with and patch up dams, dikes, and embankments. Thse efforts temporarily solved the problem but were not able to overcome the Great Flood. Whether his failure to abate the flood was due to divine wrath or to engineering defects has been debated by Chinese scholars for centuries. In “The Canon of Yao,” Gun was transformed in legend into the father of Yu. +

The Great Flood myth was in wide circulation in early China. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Its basic resemblance to the biblical flood tale has occasioned much speculation. Reconstructions of the Chinese flood myth suggest that in its early forms the tale involved a demon named Gun, an evil force who caused or prolonged the flood. “The Canon of Yao” recasts him in historical garb as an incompetent proto-bureaucrat, unable to manage a water conservancy emergency.” /+/

Emperor Yu and the Great Flood

Dr. Eno wrote: “Yu was originally the hero of an important myth concerning a great flood that occurred in China. The waters of all the major rivers swelled over their banks and the land was slowly sinking into sea. The legend tells us that Yu identified the problem as siltation of the river beds, and, using superhuman strength, personally dredged the rivers so they would again flow within their banks. (In fact, China’s main flood problems have always been due to the rapid siltation of the Yellow River in the north, whose periodic flooding throughout history inundated millions of square miles.) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Under Emperor Shun, Yu was appointed as Minister of Public Works with the task of controlling the flood. Yu tried a different approach than Gonggon, which seems to have involved relying more on drainage and less on containment with dams and dikes, plus defeating and utilizing various supernatural beings such as a channel-digging dragon and a giant mud-hauling turtle. In the Book of Documents, Yu is quoted as saying: “The inundating waters seemed to assail the heavens, and in their extent embraced the hills and overtopped the great mounds, so that the people were bewildered and overwhelmed. I opened passages for the streams throughout the nine provinces and conducted them to the seas. I deepened the channels and conducted them to the streams.”

Eno wrote: “So diligent was Yu in this work, that in the seventeen years that it took him to design and administer the massive water conservation project that relieved the flood, he never once returned home to sleep in his own bed, though three times his travels took him past his own door. This display of virtuous altruism (a devotion to others over oneself) is what led Shun to designate him as the next emperor.” /+/

20080317-history-Yellow-River Nolls.jpg
Flood-induced course changes on the Yellow River

Evidence of China’s Great Flood

In August, 2016, geologists announced they had found the first evidence of China's Great Flood: remnants of a massive landslide, caused by an earthquake, big enough to block the Yellow River in what is now Qinghai province near Tibet. Ancient sediments indicated that the pent-up river formed a vast lake over several months that eventually breached the dam, unleashing a cataclysm powerful enough to flood land 2,000 km (1,200 miles) downstream, the scientists wrote in the journal Science. [Source: Alister Doyle, Reuters, August 5, 2016 =]

Researchers, led by Qinglong Wu of Peking University, found that the landslide caused by the earthquake created a natural dam over 300 meters high at the upper reaches of the river. After building up for six to nine months, water broke through, resulting in a “Great Flood,” one of the biggest of the last 10,000 years, Darryl Granger, a geologist at Purdue University said, adding that the inundation would have extended more than 1,000 miles downstream and overwhelmed and rerouted the river’s network of tributaries, leading to years of uncontrolled annual flooding. To estimate the date of the initial floodthe researchers examined Lajia, a downstream Neolithic settlement thought to have been destroyed by the same earthquake that set off the landslide. Human remains at the settlement were dated to around 1920 B.C. Solid evidence of the Xia Dynasty in the region has been hard to come by. [Source: Daniel Weiss, Archaeology magazine, November-December 2016]

Alister Doyle of Reuters wrote: “The authors put the Yellow River flood at around 1920 BC by carbon-dating the skeletons of children in a group of 14 victims found crushed downstream, apparently when their home collapsed in the earthquake. Deep cracks in the ground opened by the quake were filled by mud typical of a flood and indicated that it struck less than a year after the quake. The flood on Asia's third-longest river would have been among the worst anywhere in the world in the last 10,000 years and matches tales of a "Great Flood" that marks the start of Chinese civilization with the Xia dynasty. "No scientific evidence has been discovered before" for the legendary flood, lead author Wu Qinglong of Nanjing Normal University told a telephone news conference. =

Kerry Sheridan of AFP wrote: Study co-author Darryl Granger, professor in the department of Earth atmospheric planetary sciences at Purdue University, said the floodwaters surged to 38 meters above the modern river level, making the disaster "roughly equivalent to the largest Amazon flood ever measured," he said. The flood would have been "more than 500 times larger than a flood on the Yellow River from a rainfall event," he added. "This cataclysmic flood would have been a truly devastating event for anyone living on the Yellow River downstream." | [Source: Kerry Sheridan, AFP, August 5, 2016 ||||]

“Since such floods toss debris and sediment all over, mixing old soil with new, the scientific team used human remains to pin down the timing of the disaster. Three children's skeletons were found in the rubble of an earthquake, which is believed to have triggered a landslide, researchers said. That landslide created a dam. Water built up around the dam and eventually burst through, unleashing the flood. Radiocarbon dating on the children's bones showed that they died in 1920 BC, coinciding with a major cultural transition in China. This is the first time a flood of this scale -- large enough to account for it -- has been found," said David Cohen, assistant professor in the department of anthropology at National Taiwan University. "The outburst flood... provides us with a tantalizing hint that the Xia dynasty might really have existed," he told reporters. "If the Great Flood really happened, perhaps it is also likely that the Xia dynasty really existed, too. The two are directly tied to each other." ||||

Evidence of China’s Great Flood Proof of Xia Dynasty’s Existence?

According to The Economist: “Even inside China, some historians have long suspected that the country’s founding story—in which Emperor Yu tames flooding on the Yellow river (with the help of a magic black-shelled turtle)., earns for himself the “mandate of heaven” and establishes the first dynasty—was either a Noah’s-Ark flood-myth or perhaps propaganda invented later to justify centralised state power. This month, however, state-controlled media have been crowing over newly published evidence in Science, an American journal, that at least the flooding was real. This, they say, has made it more credible that the Xia was, too. Not everyone is so convinced. [Source: The Economist, August 20, 2016 |^^|]

20080317-1014_irrigation3 yellow rive dykes columb22.jpg
Making dikes on the Yellow River

“Catastrophic floods leave their mark on soil and rocks. Qinglong Wu of Peking University and others have examined the geology of the upper reaches of the Yellow river. In the journal, they conclude that a vast flood did take place in the right area and not long after the right time for the supposed founding of the Xia. Although their evidence does not prove the existence of an Emperor Yu or of the dynasty he founded, it does provide a historical context in which someone might have gained power with the help of flood-taming exploits. |^^|

“According to Mr Wu, a vast landslide, probably caused by an earthquake, blocked the course of the Yellow river as it flowed through the Jishi gorge on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. For six to nine months as much as 16 cubic kilometres (3.8 cubic miles) of water built up behind the accidental dam, which, when it finally burst, produced one of the biggest floods ever. At its peak, the authors calculate, the flow was 500 times the normal discharge at Jishi Gorge. Mr Wu reckons the ancient flood could easily have been felt 2,000km downstream in the area of the Yellow river said by Chinese historians to have been the realm of the Xia. |^^|

“At about this time, either coincidentally or (more probably) because of the flood, the river changed its course, carving out its vast loop across the north China plain. The significance is that, while the river was finding its new course, it would have flooded repeatedly. This is consistent with old folk tales about Emperor Yu taming the river not through one dramatic action, but by decades of dredging. |^^|

“The ancient flood can be dated because the earthquake that set the catastrophic events in motion also destroyed a settlement in the Jishi gorge. Radiocarbon dating of inhabitants’ bones puts the earthquake at about 1920BC—not 5,000 years ago but close-ish. Xinhua, a state news agency, lauded the study as “important support” for the Xia’s existence. Xu Hong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences challenged this, saying the scholars’ findings had not proved their conclusions. The first dynasty has gone from myth to controversy.” |^^|

Evidence of China’s Great Flood May Rewrite the History of the Xia Dynasty

Kerry Sheridan of AFP wrote: “The findings in the journal Science may help rewrite history because they not only show that a massive flood did occur, but that it was in 1920 BC, several centuries later than traditionally thought. This would mean the Xia dynasty, led by Emperor Yu, may also have started later than Chinese historians have thought. [Source: Kerry Sheridan, AFP, August 5, 2016 ||||]

“Stories about Emperor Yu laid the ideological foundation for the Confucian rulership system, but in recent generations, some scholars have questioned whether it ever happened at all. Perhaps, they say, it was all a myth designed to justify imperial rule. So geologists investigated along the Yellow River in Qinghai Province, examining the remains of a landslide dam and sediments from a dammed lake and outburst flood. ||||

“Now that researchers have evidence to back up the tales in ancient texts, the Xia dynasty could be considered as starting around 1900 BC, instead of 2200 BC as previously thought, they argue. "Great floods occupy a central place in some of the world's oldest stories," wrote David Thompson of the University of Washington, Seattle in an accompanying commentary in Science. "And Emperor Yu's flood now stands as another such story potentially rooted in geological events."” ||||

Alister Doyle of Reuters wrote: “Their finds around the Jishi Gorge would place the start of the Xia dynasty several centuries later than traditionally thought, around the time of a shift to the Bronze Age from the Stone Age along the Yellow River. The evidence of a massive flood in line with the legend "provides us with a tantalizing hint that the Xia dynasty might really have existed," said David Cohen of National Taiwan University, one of the authors.Deluges feature in many traditions, from Hindu texts to the Biblical story of Noah. In pre-history, floods were probably frequent as ice sheets melted after the last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, raising world sea levels.” [Source: Alister Doyle, Reuters, August 5, 2016]

Emperors Kong and Jie and the Demise of the Xia Dynasty

Sima Qian wrote in Shiji 2.83-88: “Emperor Kong-was fond of magic and affairs of the ghosts and spirits. He was licentious and chaotic. The virtue of the House of Xia declined and the patrician lords revolted. Heaven sent down two dragons, one male and one female. Emperor Kong-was unable to feed them, and could locate no one from the Dragon Master clan. After the decline of the House of Yao-Tang (the clan of the Emperor Yao) among the clan descendants was one Liu Lei who had studied dragon training from a member of the Dragon Master clan. He came into the service of Emperor Kong-who bestowed upon him the surname of Dragon Driver and endowed him with all the properties descending from the clan of Pigskin. The female dragon died, and was prepared as a dish for House of Xia’s tables. The House of Xia thereupon ordered Liu Lei to procure more dragons for them, and in fear he ran off. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“When Emperor Kong-died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Gao. When Emperor Gao died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Fa. When Emperor Fa died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Lü-. This was Jie. Between the time of the Emperor Kong-and the time when the Emperor Jie came to the throne, many of the patrician lords had rebelled against the Xia. Jie did not apply his efforts to building virtue, and his military activities harmed the common people till they could not bear it. /+/

“Then Tang led his troops forth and attacked Jie of the Xia. Jie fled to Mingtiao and was later banished to die in exile. Jie said, “How I regret that I did not kill Tang when he was in the Tower of Xia! Now it has come to this. And now Tang sat astride the throne and held court to the empire in place of the Xia. He bestowed an estate upon the descendants of the Xia. During the Zhou Dynasty, their estate lands were located in Qi. [Tang’s story parallels that of King Wen of the Shang Dynasty. King Wen was also imprisoned and released by a lascivious ruler]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “One of the colorful stories illustrating Jie’s character which unfortunately does not appear in the “Shiji” account concerns a concubine whom he acquired in the course of a war campaign (some texts speak of two sisters). So infatuated did he become with this woman, who unfortunately bore him no sons, that he had his queen thrown in the River Luo to drown in order that this favorite, Meixi, should have no competitor at court. The following account captures the flavor of this tale, which may be compared of other evil “last rulers,” Zhòu of the Shang and You of the Western Zhou (whose story appears later in these readings). It appears that all these men fell victim to a single variety of evil influence. /+/

““Jie was of extraordinary strength. He could twist iron bars and tear apart tigers and rhinoceroses with his bare hands.... In the thirty-third year of his reign, he attacked Mount Meng, the country of the Youshi, who offered him the princess Meixi to propitiate him. The king made her his concubine and followed everything she told him to do.... The king had a palace built for Meixi, fashioned entirely of carnelian stone with halls of ivory, a jadeite tower, and a bed of jade. They engaged in lewd behavior and ordered that lascivious music and dances be performed for them... The king ordered that a lake of wine be constructed in which boats could be sailed. At the roll of a drum, 3,000 people would come drink from it like cattle.” Then Jie summoned Tang of the Shang and imprisoned him in the Tower of Xia, releasing him when his term was over. Tang cultivated his virtue and the patrician lords all cleaved to Tang. /+/

Image Sources: Columbia University; Nolls China website; NASA; Xinhua Wikimedia Commons, Xia Tomb, Ohio State University;

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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