Once upon a time, there was an emperor by the name of Yao. During his reign over various tribal societies, an immense flood began, and none of his territory was spared. “Like endless boiling water, the flood is pouring forth destruction. Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens,” he said, according to the Book of History, an ancient Chinese text.
A prince named Gun was assigned to protect them from the floodwaters, and he was said to have used a magical, self-expanding earthen barricade to block the incoming waters. Although this appeared to work, the barricades were eventually overwhelmed, and the emperor abdicated the throne in defeat.
Gun’s son, Yu, decided to step in to control the floodwaters. Taking a very different path, he opted to organize many hundreds of people to help him dig channels to divert, rather than block, the floodwaters. His efforts proved to be successful, and people were in awe.
“Yu created order from chaos. He separated a civilized Chinese center from its wild peripheries,” explained co-author David Cohen, assistant professor in the department of anthropology at National Taiwan University, in the press conference. “This earned him the divine mandate to found the first dynasty.”
During the possible reign of Yu, archaeological evidence shows that the Bronze Age began, and settlements grew to be 10 times the size they were during the Neolithic. Out of all-encompassing destruction, Yu focused the minds of many to produce a highly organized civilization.
The Great Flood certainly seems to have happened, so did Yu really exist and save China from a giant watery apocalypse? “The correlation of the dates is quite interesting, but even if the flood happened, the Xia dynasty could not be definitively proven to exist – not just yet,” Cohen noted. In sum, more archaeological evidence is required.
Perhaps not coincidentally, there is plenty of archaeological evidence for the enigmatic Erlitou culture, which researchers agree dominated the region during the early Bronze Age. There’s no direct evidence that they were the Xia dynasty, but their emergence in the archaeological records coincides perfectly with the appearance of the Great Flood. It stands to reason, then, this culture was the Xia dynasty all along.
This truly remarkable study has brought the past to life like few others. By providing strong evidence that the founding myth of the first Chinese civilization wasn’t a myth at all, it will no doubt inspire many to attempt to uncover additional evidence of the mysterious Xia dynasty.
However, at present, it's uncertain as to whether or not Yu the Great really ruled the land – for now, he will remain the stuff of legends.
Image in text: Yu the Great, as painted by Song dynasty artist Ma Lin. National Palace Museum, Taipei
The Great Flood fits perfectly within the estimated timeline of the Xia dynasty. Carla Schaffer/AAAS