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Flood control pivotal in early civilization era

By Shen Changyun | 2015-05-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Statue of Yu the Great, a legendary leader in ancient China famed for his flood control ability

In Chinese history, ancient leader Yu the Great (2200-2100 BC) was famed for his flood control ability by redirecting rivers and other waterways. Many people recognize the fact that Yu’s flood control to a large extent resulted in the establishment of the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BC), China’s first dynasty. According to ancient documents, major floods occurred during the reigns of emperors Yao and Shun, the last two leaders of the tribal union.

Yu was recommended as a leader based on his flood control ability. Shun then gave his position of union leader to Yu. However, Yu passed down his power to his son Qi instead of another sage, which laid the foundation of imperial family rule in the Xia Dynasty.

Modern scholars hold that Yu intensified management of manpower and material resources of all tribes for the purposes of flood control, resulting in the establishment of the early state of China. The arduous and long-term task of flood control required unified deployment and management of manpower and material resources from all tribes.

Yu inevitably took advantage of his authority as union leader and exerted more influence on each tribe. Qualitative changes thus took place in loosely affiliated tribes that lacked unity. The union’s leadership featured centralized power that was eventually characterized by absolutism involving all tribes. Yu, who had been in charge of flood control for a long time and cemented his family’s authority, was selected as the tribal union leader from his former position as head of the Xia tribe. He eventually became the sovereign of the Xia Dynasty, holding hereditary power.

Recorded stories of floods
Japanese scholar Miyamoto Kazuo (1958-) linked Yu’s flood control and the founding of the Xia Dynasty in one of his books, noting that flood control was of great significance in an agricultural society. Flood control could be carried out only based on robust backing and political power, claimed Kazuo.

According to Kazuo, the fact that Yu was the creator of the Xia Dynasty showed that the task of flood control was accomplished under his rule during the formative period of the Xia kingdom. However, Kazuo expressed doubts about the truth of Yu’s flood control.

Early in the 20th century, Shiratori Kurakichi (1865-1942) proposed that Yao, Shun and Yu were not historical figures. Chinese scholars, including Gu Jiegang (1893-1980), also doubted the truth of Yu’s flood control.

Gu said stories of Yu’s flood control were myths, not true history; Yu and his father Gun were both gods, not mortal kings; water and soil control was beyond the control of people at the time; and that the legends of Gun and Yu’s flood control arose in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), when developed water conservancy aroused people’s imagination.

The influence of these views continues today. Nevertheless, most scholars in China don’t agree with Gu. There are stories of Yu’s flood control in many early documents, which cannot be casually dismissed. These stories include many mythological elements, which should be rejected to create a clearer understanding about whether flooding occurred during Yu’s period and the true extent of his flood control ability.

Verified by inscription
An inscription on a recently found bingongxu, a bronze ware dating to the middle period of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC-771 AD), may address doubts held by some scholars. The inscription from nobles of the Western Zhou Dynasty clearly narrates the story of Yu’s flood control ability, asserting claims that it arose in the Warring States Period are groundless. The inscription indicates that in the hearts of people in the Western Zhou Dynasty, Yu was not a god but a king who served the people and was admired by the people through his deeds of water-harnessing.

It also outlined two methods of Yu’s flood control. One was dredging small rivers to make flooded land reappear and be available to the masses; the other was piling soil into mounds to provide high, dry ground for people during flooding. The two methods are both in accordance with historical records.

Yu’s flood control was traced by later generations on bingongxu inscriptions. The details described conformed to the geographical environment in related areas of the Xia Dynasty as well as the findings of archeological investigations. Floods in Yu’s period didn’t cover a vast area, but occurred within the residential areas of the tribal union headed by Yu. According to renowned historian Xu Xusheng (1888-1976), people of the time lived in ancient Yanzhou (today’s East Henan and West Shandong provinces) and its surrounds.

Some people thought a sudden rise in temperature led to the floods. However, studies by environmental archeologists have found that the climate at the time was naturally dry and cold, with no substantial increase in precipitation. The floods in Yu’s period were actually a result of the low-lying terrain in ancient Yanzhou and its location downstream from the Yellow River, where there are many rivers and lakes, which made flooding a natural hazard.

Meanwhile, many clans and tribes moved to this area, which caused the population to soar. People had to consider flood management strategies to make a living here. Legends of Gun and Yu’s flood control reflect how ancestors combated flooding to survive and engage in lowland agriculture.

Credible evidence of flood control
It is undoubted that Yu’s people lived in ancient Yanzhou. A series of ancient ruins and town sites dating back to the Xia Dynasty or even before it have been found in the area in recent years. In particular, the excavation of the Gaocheng site in Puyang, Henan Province, revealed the residence of Xia Dynasty leaders as recorded in ancient documents, such as Zuo Zhuan (Commentary of Zuo).


The Erlitou site in Henan Province, a hot spot for archeologists, was a residential site in the late Xia Dynasty. Although it shows the imperial court’s power extended westwards, the site doesn’t conflict with ancient Yanzhou’s status as a hub in the Xia Dynasty.

More importantly, in ancient Yanzhou where people of the Xia Dynasty lived, there have been many ancient sites identified as “mounds” or “piles.” Investigations have found that most of these sites emerged during the Yao, Shun and Yu periods. These sites, which served as refuges for people during floods, support claims of Yu’s flood control and its contribution to the establishment of China’s first early state.

China, together with ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and India, represents one of the four major ancient civilizations. All these civilizations were located at the lower reaches of great rivers. The establishment of their early states was also closely related to flood control. Many mounds people built as refuge sites during floods can be seen in the plains and river valleys where they resided, including ancient Yanzhou. People will have a deeper understanding about the birth of China’s early states if scholars conduct further comparative research into this area, taking history at home and abroad into consideration.

Shen Changyun is a professor from the School of History and Culture at Hebei Normal University.