The Xia Dynasty

Legend or History?

According to ancient historical legends such as the Classic of History, the Xia Dynasty was the first dynastic clan to rule China. However, there are no known archeological remains that would substantiate those written records.

The ancient accounts tell about the rise and fall of a small kingdom along the Yellow River in the northern part of the country over a 500-year period from about 2,100 BC to 1,600 BC. The main ancient accounts are in the Records of the Grand Historian (史記) that were written between about 109 BC and 91 BC by Sima Qian and the Bamboo Annals (竹書紀年).

The Bamboo Annals was a text that was said to have been buried with the King of Wei who died in 296 BC and was rediscovered in 281 AD during the Jin Dynasty. The text was written on flat pieces of bamboo, and this is why it is called the Bamboo Annals.

Are these accounts accurate? It is said that the Xia Dynasty people didn't keep written records, but that their histories were passed orally.

Archeologists debate whether the Bronze Age towns that have been uncovered in recent years are the remains of the Xia Kingdom. Unless new evidence is unearthed, it is impossible to know how much of the accounts in those texts is accurate and how much is myth about the Xia Dynasty.

What the Different and Conflicting Legends Say

In the written stories, there was once a great flood that lasted many years about 2215 BC. A man named Yu the Great was given the task to control flooding on the Yellow River by a sagely king named Yao (2358–2258 BC). As you can see, the dates of these supposed events don't even match. It is said that Yao told Gun who was Yu's father to control the flood.

But the dikes that he built against the flooding didn't work. They collapsed, and the area was flooded. So Yao executed Gun and recruited Yu. Instead of relying on dikes, Yu had canals dug to divert the water. Digging the canals meant removing a mountain.

Though his hard work his body became miraculously different. The place where the mountain was removed was called Yu's Doorway (禹門口). The people seeing his hard work and success at controlling the canal respected him highly, and he became the ruler of the Xia tribe.

Even if this story is a myth, it points to a basic idea in Chinese culture that monumental hard work in obedience to authority pays off. It gives people a doorway to respect and position. The rest of the account about the Xia Dynasty is likewise full of morals.

Perhaps these are fables or even parables that were circulated in ancient times such as during the Warring States Period before the Bamboo Annals were written.

A Different Account

Another account describes that Yu was called Yu the Great after this feat. Because of greater harvests, the Xia tribe grew stronger. They were able to defeat a rival tribe. Yao gave his authority over to Shun. Shun executed Gun who was Yu's father. Obviously, there is a contradiction here.

The Bamboo Annals says that Shun rebelled against Yao and imprisoned him there. So the sage King died there. It is fairly obvious that there are differing accounts and legends even about the how the Xia Dynasty began. Shun passed the kingdom to Yu the Great and not to his own son.

The Course and End of the Dynasty

This Xia Dynasty is said to have continued for hundreds of years. The kingdom had ups and downs, and it expanded over the course of the lives of 15 later emperors.

The last emperor, named Jie, was very extravagant and fell into dissipation. Jie constructed a palace for his favorite concubine and drank all night long. He killed his loyal ministers who criticized him.

Tang watched. Tang was the leader of the Shang tribe, and he led an army, and many of the common people joined him and defeated Jie. Jie then died, and Tang became the first leader of the Shang Empire.

The Mandate of Heaven

Even if this story isn't true either, it is reminiscent of the lives of many emperors and accords with the ancient concept of a dynasty losing the Mandate of Heaven.

For example, the Sui Empire fell to the Li clan who founded the Tang Dynasty because the ruler was said to have lived overly luxuriously, and his rule was harsh. He killed too many of the people so that the people rebelled.

Again, Cixi who was considered the last empress of the Qing Dynasty squandered a lot of the imperial wealth on luxuries and building palaces and buildings instead of helping the people of the empire. Her empire fell in 1912. The concept of Mandate of Heaven is an ancient and important political idea.

The Archeological Evidence

In the 20th century the remains of Bronze Age architecture were discovered in the region of the central part of the Yellow River basin where the Xia Dynasty is said to have ruled. People found bronze tools and artifacts, but no written records have been found except for some markings on pottery and shells. Archeologists call the ancient people the "Erlitou Culture."

The Erlitou archaeological site is outside of Yanshi, between Luoyang and Zhengzhou, in western Henan Province. Radiocarbon dating places these discoveries between 2,000 and 1,500 BC. But whether the Erlitou people are the people who were called the Xia, people don't know.

See Evidence of China's Earliest Civilization for Yourself

The bronze implements and weapons and fine jade jewelry and figurines show high craftsmanship. Some artifacts can be seen in the National Museum in Beijing. Customize a tour of Beijingg to visit the museum.

The Erlitou exhibit in Yanshi is off the beaten path. It would be best visited in conjunction with a Luoyang tour or a Zhengzhou tour.

Further Reading

  • Yellow River Attractions — why and where you should see "China's Mother River", "the cradle of Chinese Civilization” to make your China experience complete.