Gun-Yu and the Chinese Flood Myth
Watery chaos is nothing new to creation—or re-creation—mythology, as in the case of the Great Flood. This tale has been recounted by numerous civilizations and religions, causing supporters to cite the common belief as evidence of its occurrence. The Chinese have more than one flood myth, the most common being the Gun-Yu myth.
The Gun-Yu Great Flood
One account of the Great Flood is said to have occurred during the reign of Emperor Yao. After the flooding began, he sought the advice of his advisors, the Four Mountains, who told him to appoint his distant cousin Gun to control the floods. Gun accepted the commission and chose to steal Xirang, a self-expanding soil, from the supreme deity. He continuously used this soil to build dams and embankments to battle the oncoming flood, but they would not hold and generally collapsed. Nine years later Emperor Yao resigned in shame and appointed another distant relative recommended by the Four Mountains, Shun. Shun became co-emperor and reorganized the kingdom the better deal with the flood. Despite these efforts, Gun was still unable to hold off the flood waters and four years later the waters were still said to be rising. Gun continued his efforts, claiming that the hard work of the people to build dams, dikes and embankments would eventually gain control of the flood waters. Continuous failing led Shun to banish Gun, his son Yu then taking over the efforts. Yu implemented drainage systems and was thus able to accomplish what his father never could.
The tale of the Yellow Emperor: This version of the myth dates the Great Flood during the Xia Dynasty from 2205-2197 BCE. The Yellow Emperor was in charge and had a pile of dirt whose magical qualities would soak up the water. Gun, the emperor’s grandson, stole the dirt from him and spread it around so that the people could use it to soak up the waters from the troublesome rivers. Gun also constructed fixtures such as dams to contain the water, but nothing would hold. When the emperor found out about the theft, he had his grandson killed at the hands of the fire god, Zurong. This is when Yu, Gun’s son, took over. He went to the Yellow Emperor and pledged his loyalty, asking for the magic dirt to help save the people. Pleased, the emperor gave him the dirt and instructed him to enlist the help of a tortoise and a dragon. With the aid of these creatures, Yu was able to route river waters to the sea, dig canals and tunnels, construct dams, and form lakes. Some versions say that he was aided here by mythological creatures, specifically a dragon.
It is noteworthy to mention that Yu was not a mere man battling such a catastrophe, but was considered a demi-god that was able to change shape. He also passed on leadership to his descendants—the first time succession passed through a blood line—and established the oldest family dynasty in China.
The Hei Miao myth: The Miao have no written record of the event, but an oral tradition. This version of the flood maintains that Thunder—who was of a bad disposition—was responsible for drowning the earth, and that there were only two survivors, on whom the account focuses, unlike in the other versions where humanity was not essentially wiped out.
It is interesting to note the Great Flood in Chinese mythology, except for the Miao account, is not considered a punishment from an almighty being for disobedience—as flood myths are commonly perceived in other cultures—but was thought to be the result of natural causes, though demi-gods and mythical creatures may have been involved in other aspects. Even in the Miao account, a specific reason for the actions of Thunder is not given. This makes the Chinese view of the flood unique. As it is commonly accepted that a massive flood did occur—though the dates, its source, and the extents of its destruction vary—we must as ourselves how this outlook on an historic event should change our preconceived notions. Mitigating the disaster through heroic efforts was a common theme here, as was the ultimate betterment of mankind through the knowledge learned from these efforts, not some sort of wrathful vengeance.