The formation of China’s first dynasty is a millennia-old story steeped in mythology, mystery and masses – and I mean masses – of water.
Tales of the Xia dynasty’s beginnings immortalise Emperor Yu – a hero who purged the surrounding land masses of water following the devastating overflow of the Yellow River, in a deluge now referred to as China’s Great Flood. According to the ancient tale, Yu dredged the canals to allow floodwater to escape, in an effort that extended across an entire generation. It earned him the heavenly mandate to rule over ancient China as master, establish the Xia dynasty and mark the start of Chinese civilisation.
Over time, however, this account has had a persisting problem: little archaeological evidence has ever surfaced to give it credence. Plus, the year in which it could have happened has been difficult to work out. It has made the legendary tale an apocryphal one, rendering Yu and the Great Flood little more than a mythical artefact, an enigma shored up in the history books by a desperate longing for it to be true.
Evidence for its existence has only been drawn from texts produced far later than the supposed time of the flood, with the Chinese Shujing and Shiji documents detailing the history, and much of Confucius’ ideology built from the Yu-led dynasty.
Archaeological excavations have previously confirmed the existence of the succeeding second and third dynasties: the Shang and Zhou. But the recurring dead-ends along the historical trail back to the great flood of China’s Yellow River have led archaeologists to ramp up their search for evidence of China’s first dynasty.
One of those archaeologists – Qinglong Wu of Peking University in Beijing – has led a team that may have just discovered all the evidence needed for the flood. Presenting their research in Science, they detail a number of significant findings, which create a vivid, evidence-backed picture of what happened in the build-up and aftermath of this cataclysmic flood.
In the Qinghai Province, Wu and his team examined the stretch of the Yellow River running through it; a key thing they found were remains of a landslide dam. The landslide, set off by an earthquake, would have created a natural dam 800ft high that completely covered the Jishi Gorge, blocking the river’s flow for six to nine months.
Wu’s team also found remains of 20 villagers who had lived downstream, killed by the collapse of their homes from the violent shaking of the same earthquake. Chinese mythology dates these events to around 2,000 BCE.
Researchers estimate that the river’s water built up behind the dam, accumulating into a massive lake destined to overflow and crush the piled-up landslide debris. According to this research, the lake’s mass of water bursting through the dam would have released up to 3.8 cubic miles of the stuff, which, when fully imagined, equates to an aqua gush racing 1,250 miles downstream.
It would have broken river banks, filled earthquake fissures with sediment and flooded the surroundings, making it one of the largest floods of the past few millennia.
The landslide dam, the villagers’ bones, the sediment – these were all crucial sources of information used to reconstruct the sequence of events ending with the flood.
In Lajia, the village where the remains were housed, the researchers radiocarbon-dated the bones to around 1,900 BCE. By doing the same for the sediments and deposits found, they determined that the earthquake and the flood happened in a window between 2,129 and 1,770 BCE. Due to a finding that placed the earthquake and flood within the same year, the researchers pinned these events to the year 1,920 BCE.
Crucially, all the textual sources about China’s first dynasty note a huge flood as the event that marked its beginning. The 1,920 BCE date found from Wu’s research lines up with the dates found in ancient Chinese texts about when the flood occurred and how long it took Emperor Yu to overcome it.
The flood is thought to have lasted for around 20-22 years. After it was cleared by 1,900 BCE, a period of transition occurred, which saw the Neolithic period become the Bronze Age in the Yellow River valley. This led to the emergence of the Erlitou culture – a Bronze Age society born of the Xia dynasty.
The concurrence of the flood with these cultural changes, according to the paper, “may not simply be coincidence but rather an illustration of a profound and complicated cultural response to an extreme natural disaster that connected many groups living along the Yellow River”.
Some historians are sceptical about how memories of the flood could have been so well-documented, when the first recordings of it are from centuries after the event. But if the researchers are right, the start of the Xia dynasty was prefaced by a natural disaster, aligning with the stories of old found in the Shujing and Shiji, which describe Yu beginning to dredge the Yellow River in the Jishi gorge.
Textual accounts of Chinese dynastic origins now have scientific evidence to back them up, and with further research, we could well be on our way to solving an almost 4,000-year-old mystery.