Fact or Fiction: Xia Dynasty

Yu the Great, first emperor of the Xia | Courtesy of Keyword-Suggestions

The Xia Dynasty was the first traditional Chinese dynasty in recorded history. It began in 2070 B.C.E and eventually came to an end around the year 1600 B.C.E. In ancient Chinese tradition, the Xia Dynasty was started by Yu the Great, who was a great decedent of one of the mythical five great Emperors, Zhuanxu. Before historians in the 20th century discovered physical evidence of the dynasty’s existence, it was thought to be only legend. The Xia was eventually overthrown by the Shang Dynasty, which historians are certain existed. Using facts and data discovered in recent times, there has been enough evidence found to show that the Xia Dynasty did in fact exist.1

yellowriver
The Current State of the Yellow River | Courtesy of Xinhuanet

The Xia Dynasty was therefore the first real government in Chinese history. It was the first to install the practice of dynastic succession. According to many historians, a great ruler named Huang-ti, better known as the Yellow Emperor, created the traditional Chinese culture we know today. Gun, the father of Yu the Great, was the first recorded member of the Xia. During his lifetime, the great floods of the Yellow River occurred. Due to the fact that the Xia Dynasty has been shrouded in mystery, it has been discovered recently that these floods did indeed occur. According to written documents and oral tradition, Gun was appointed to stop the flooding. He ordered the construction of large walls to attempt to control the path of the water. Gun attempted to stop the floods, which lasted for nine years, but ultimately ended in failure due to the repetition of the flood’s destruction. Eventually, Yu, who was highly trusted by Shun, was appointed to continue his father’s life work, and was successfully able to stop the flooding. Yu’s method was different from his father’s. He organized groups of people from different tribes and ordered them to help build canals as flood channels along the Yellow River to divert its destructive floodwaters. This would eventually lead the water out to the sea. People praised his hard working nature and were so inspired that more tribes began to join in on the attempts to stop the flooding. Yu did not slack when it came to his work. Verbal legends say that in the thirteen years it took him to complete the work, he never returned to his home village to stop and rest. It is even said that he passed by his home three times without visiting his family.2 

This account of the great floods has been often regarded as mythical by many historians in the past. However, there is now solid evidence that these floods did in fact take place. Archaeological evidence has been uncovered about a large flood that destroyed a portion of different cities on the upper reaches of the Yellow River dating back to about 1920 BCE. This date is right before the rise of the Erlitou culture, which was located in the middle Yellow River valley. Some scholars now suggest that this flood may have been the basis for the later myth, and a main contributor to the transition of cultures. They also argue that the timing is more concrete evidence for the identification of the Xia with the Erlitou culture.  However, no evidence of mass flooding in the northern regions of the Yellow River has been discovered.3

Apart from the stories of the flooding, there are even more questions raised due to newly discovered evidence. There have been many artifacts found including engravings on animal bones, which points to evidence for the second dynasty, the Shang. At one point, it controlled an area in the Yellow river basin about 3,500 years ago. There have been no similar confirmation for the existence of the mysterious Xia Dynasty. Even from inside China, some historians have long suspected that the country’s original timeline passing down through tradition is false. Emperor Yu completely stopping the floods on the Yellow river and establishing the first dynasty was either a myth that could be compared to the story of Noah’s Ark, or as propaganda invented later to justify to the people how centralized state power came about. Recently, state-controlled media have been discussing newly published evidence in an American journal titled Science that the flooding was in fact real. This has provided credible evidence that suggests that the Xia Dynasty was also real.4

Even though there is little solid evidence that the Xia Dynasty did actually exist, all the stories and pieces of information point to realness of this ancient Chinese dynasty. At the end of this, many still believe that the Xia Dynasty did exist and that more evidence will eventually be found to demonstrate that it did.

  1. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Xia Dynasty,” by Emily Mark.
  2. Qinglong Wu et al., “Outburst Flood At 1920 BCE Supports Historicity Of China’s Great Flood And The Xia Dynasty,” Science vol. 353, no. 6299 (2016): 25-32.
  3. Liu Kang, “Xia Dynasty Evidence: Remains Indicate China Did Have Great Flood,” The Japan Times, January 2016.
  4. Casey Day, “The Return of the Xia,” The Economist, August 20, 2016.

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This Post Has 30 Comments

  1. It’s nice to believe that stories that are told about the Xia Dynasty may actually be true, that they are not just stories. Although there is not much evidence to support the existence of the stories, just a little evidence can make a difference! Sometimes stories are told and changed over the centuries but the chance that this story might be true is impressive and exciting. Great article!

  2. It is very nice to know that the Xia dynasty was not purely mythical as some might have thought. I don’t know anyone like Yu the Great who would willingly ignore their families and leisure time just to go to work. I only wish that we will be able to uncover any form of writing from that time period if they exist. Nice job on the article, job well done!

  3. Joshua Breard

    I found this article to be a very interesting article. From the tribes banding together and how their leadership would work so hard to conquer the yellow river to make a statement to those around them. The entire dynasty is a mystery in the best of ways of how they were able to do so much in a specific period of time. Great article!

  4. Currently learning of the Chinese dynasty’s in class, I wanted to read this article to go a little more in depth. It is amazing how important events like this happened so long ago that we do not have sufficient proof to differentiate between fact or fiction. I was mostly fascinated by how the first tribes united to conquer The Yellow River together! This article also leads me to wonder if there is more truth to folk tales than we choose to believe.

  5. Despite feeling pretty confident in my world history knowledge, I would not have guessed that the Xia Dynasty was the first real government in Chinese history. As the article corroborates, many people believed that Xia Dynasty was in fact not one of the first structured civilizations in China but history has proven this to be wrong. I had no idea that so much evidence existed to corroborate this either, and your article compiles it in such a well-written format.

  6. This is an intriguing article. Maybe it was the controversy over the authenticity of this dynasty in history, but I had never heard of it, besides maybe seeing the name somewhere. I have heard many times of the Shang dynasty, which is surprising if the Xia dynasty is indeed real. No matter what, the perseverance and dedication of the first leaders of this legendary empire never ceases to amaze me.

  7. Really great article with so much information. I am not very familiar with ancient Chinese history, especially the early dynastic period. This article had a lot of information that was new to me and I found it interesting and well written. To think that the Xia dynasty was considered entirely myth until only recently is a testament to the advances in archaeology. I find it exciting that the information that has been found supports the possible existence of the first dynasty of China.

  8. Interesting article. Every dynasty in China seems to leave a legacy when they fell except the Xia Dynasty. It’s extraordinary that there’s no evidence of the Xia dynasty. I does make you wonder if the Xia dynasty even existed; if the Xia dynasty existed why are there no ancient documents or manifesto mentioning them. Great article, this topic was fascinating. I can’t wait for your next article!

  9. Chinese history and eastern history as a whole has always been super interesting because it is so elaborate and they really had long lasting rulings and dynasties. The idea that you started this article with a question as a title immediately pulled me in with the idea of me being able to formulate my own thoughts and answers to this topic. It also seemed like your organization and research was on point. Excellent job.

  10. I find it interesting how the Xia dynasty was questioned whether it existed or not. This is why I feel that historical artifacts are very important since it can help others to find more evidence about history. The floods were proven to exist because of this. Since this dynasty was one of the first to exist, I feel that it is important to find more evidence since it can help find more information about the other dynasties. This was very interesting because I was not familiar with the questionable existence of this dynasty. Great article!

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