The Xia Dynasty and Yue the Great – A History of China in Tiny Chunks

  • The Xia are seen as the first dynasty in China, though they could be more mythical than historical.
  • Yue the Great is said to have stopped huge flooding, and saved many lives.

It is almost impossible to understand people, places, and culture without understanding their history. In a few articles, I hope to scratch the surface of Chinese history. There are a few places I could start but perhaps the best place is with The Xia Dynasty and Yue the Great.

The Xia Dynasty is often placed as the first Dynasty in Chinese history and sprung up on the Yellow River Plain around 4000 years ago. Though it is often taken as the first dynasty many believe it may not have existed at all and be more a myth than history, debate on this question is fierce to this day among scholars of Chinese history.

It is believed the Xia Dynasty had a writing system; unfortunately, it was printed on degradable objects and has not survived. The evidence we have is therefore mostly archaeological, it appears the Xia was a sophisticated and advanced society. Artefacts exist showing they had complex stone tools, domesticated horses, and most impressively the ability to smelt bronze.

Because of the dynasties fame in Chinese history, many sites are suggested to be the home of the Xia, for example, a complex series of tombs, urban structures and even a palace found in Yanshi, Henan. Though it’s hard to place the exact location of the Xia dynasty a rich array of archaeological finds dated from the period suggest there was indeed a great civilisation in the Yellow River Plain in the period the Xia would have ruled.

The Dynasty was founded by Yue the Great, one of the most famous and revered emperors in China’s history. Even Confucius praised Yue for his virtues.

During a period of intense flooding along The Yellow River, Emperor Yao ordered Yue’s father to save his kingdom from the floods. Yue’s father initially succeeded, using a series of earth damns to hold the waters at bay. However, during one intense rainstorm, the protections broke and the whole kingdom was flooded, killing thousands. This led to the execution of Yue’s father.

Yue himself was then tasked with fixing the problems, he dredged the river and built new pathways for the water, not only helping with flooding but also aiding farmers by improving irrigation. Yue was so passionate about his fellow citizens he would not rest until he had helped as many people as possible. After over a decade of hard work, he rested having saved the kingdom from natural disaster. Interestingly archaeologists have found evidence of large floods occurring in the exact period that Yue is supposedly from.

Shun, who had proceeded Yao as emperor, was so impressed by Yue that rather than passing his kingdom onto his sons he offered the thrown to Yue. Yue repeatedly rejected this offer but realising the people loved him and that he could do great things for the kingdom he eventually accepted. Having spent years travelling the kingdom to fight flooding he knew the area better than anyone and therefore ruled with great knowledge and understanding, and also intelligence and fairness. It’s hard to know whether Yue and The Xia are real or mythical or a bit of both, though Yue’s influence on Chinese culture is certainly real and profound.

The Xia Dynasty is seen as the birth one of the most key periods in Chinese history. Intelligent and moral rule, which is important throughout Chinese history, may have its roots with Yue the Great. To this day many people consider The Yellow River Plain the birthplace of Chinese civilisation.