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Cataclysmic natural disasters frame indelible human stories.

No Smoke Without Fire: The Existence of Xia Dynasty and the Great Flood Legend

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The Xia Dynasty is traditionally regarded as the first dynasty of China. This dynasty is believed to have been founded by Yu the Great towards the end of the 3 rd millennium BC, and lasted until around the middle of the next. Whilst this dynasty is attested in the ancient Chinese texts, there is a lack of archaeological evidence to support the existence of this dynasty. Thus, the Xia Dynasty has commonly been regarded as a mythical dynasty. Nevertheless, recent archaeological finds have renewed discussion about the dynasty’s existence.

Emperor Yu as imagined by Song Dynasty painter, Ma Lin

Emperor Yu as imagined by Song Dynasty painter, Ma Lin (Public Domain)

What the Records Say

According to Chinese historical records, Chinese civilization was established by the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. These were legendary rulers who are believed to have imparted various important knowledge and skills to the Chinese people. These benevolent rulers preceded the Xia Dynasty, which was founded by Yu the Great.

The story of the Xia Dynasty’s foundation may be traced to the reign of the Emperor Yao, the second last of the Five Emperors. During his reign, Yao was having trouble controlling the flooding of the Yellow River. This was a serious problem, as it was affecting agriculture negatively, and was a threat to people’s lives. Therefore, the emperor decided to appoint a man by the name of Gun to handle this issue. For nine years, Gun attempted to stop the flooding, but to no avail. Eventually, Gun built a series of dykes, in the hope that they would stop the flooding. This, however, failed, and the new emperor, Shun, was not pleased with this.

‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (c.1830-1833) by Hokusai.

‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (c.1830-1833) by Hokusai. (Public Domain)

Yu’s Success

In some versions of the tale, Gun committed suicide, whilst in others, he was imprisoned by the emperor, or exiled himself to the mountains. In any event, his son, Yu, was appointed to continue his father’s work. Yu quickly realised that his father had overestimated his own abilities. As a result of this, he attempted to solve the problem all by himself without asking for help. Additionally, Yu realised that the methods used by his father worked against the waters, instead of working with it. The dykes, for instance, were placed in opposition of the flow of the water.

With these lessons in mind, Yu decided to seek aid from the surrounding tribes to build canals. These would serve to channel the water from the plains to the sea. It took 13 years for this undertaking to be completed. The emperor was pleased with Yu, and made him the commander of his army. Yu was then sent on a military campaign against a hostile tribe, the Sanmiao. Yu’s success against this enemy further impressed the emperor, who rewarded him by making him the heir to the throne.

Temple of Yu the Great, Yu Mausoleum of Shaoxing, Zhejiang, China

Temple of Yu the Great, Yu Mausoleum of Shaoxing, Zhejiang, China (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yu’s Succession

Yu’s succession to the throne marked the beginning of the Xia Dynasty. Yu reigned for 45 years, and before he died, named his son, Qi, as his successor. Yu had intended to appoint one of his ministers as the next emperor, as he was the best candidate for the position. Many people, however, wanted Qi to be the next emperor, and Yu assented to this. By doing so, Yu established the policy of hereditary rule in imperial China. Yu’s descendants ruled China until around 1600 BC. The last emperor of this dynasty was Jie, who was a tyrant. As a result, he lost the Mandate of Heaven, and was overthrown by Tang, the founder of the Shang Dynasty.

No Smoke Without Fire

The lack of archaeological evidence for the Xia Dynasty has prompted many to believe that the Xia Dynasty did not in fact exist, and was merely a myth. Nevertheless, recent archaeological findings have suggested that there may be some truth in this legend after all. In 2016, it was reported that the severe flooding mentioned in the historical sources did indeed occur. This is based on studies conducted by geologists along the Yellow River in Qinghai Province. It was also found that the flood happened around 1920 BC. These findings suggest that the legend of Yu may indeed have some factual basis, and that the Xia Dynasty may have been founded a little later than historians assume.

Top image: Cataclysmic natural disasters frame indelible human stories.  Francis Danby, The Deluge CC BY-NC-ND

By Wu Mingren


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Always enjoy your articles. Keep up the good work

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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