An international team of researchers, led by Dr. Qinglong Wu of Peking University and Nanjing Normal University, has uncovered geological evidence for the ‘Great Flood,’ a disastrous event on the Yellow River from which the Xia dynasty, the first in Chinese history, is thought to have been born.
“The flood occurred in roughly 1920 BC, which is several centuries later than traditionally thought – meaning the Xia dynasty, and its renowned Emperor Yu, likely had a later start than Chinese historians have thought,” Dr. Wu and co-authors said.
According to Chinese legend, Emperor Yu gained notoriety through his handling of the Great Flood.
He tamed this flood by dredging, earning him the divine mandate to establish the Xia dynasty and marking the beginning of Chinese civilization.
Yu’s story was handed down for a millennium before entering the historical record, yet, geological evidence for the flood he mastered has always been lacking.
Some scholars have argued that the story is either a historicized version of an older myth or propaganda to justify the centralized power of imperial rule.
“China’s earliest historiographies, including Shujing (Book of Documents) and Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian, by Sima Qian), tell of the Great Flood, a lengthy, devastating flood of the Yellow River,” the scientists explained.
“According to the Shiji, Yu’s father labored unsuccessfully for 9 years to tame the flood before Yu took over for 13 more years. Yu’s success led to his mandate to become founding king of the Xia 22 years after the flood started.”
“Because these accounts laid the ideological foundations for the Confucian rulership system, they had been taken as truth for more than 2,500 years until challenged by the ‘Doubting Antiquity School’ in the 1920s.”
By reconstructing a sequence of events along the Yellow River, including a landslide that created a dam from which water built up and burst forth, Dr. Qinglong and his colleagues provide geological evidence for a catastrophic flood event that may be the basis of the Great Flood.
The researchers mapped and dated distinctive sediments that were deposited downstream of a Qinghai Province dam when the dam broke. They also determined that the flood that broke the dam was of enormous proportions.
Using radiocarbon dating techniques on samples that included human bone, they dated the flood to 1920 BC.
“The discovery and reconstruction here of the massive outburst flood originating in Jishi Gorge provide scientific support that the ancient Chinese textual accounts of the Great Flood may well be rooted in a historic natural event,” the researchers said.
If the Jishi Gorge outburst flood is indeed the event that came to be known as the Great Flood, the scientists could propose a new beginning date for the Xia dynasty, at 1900 BC.
“This date coincides with the major transition from the Neolithic to Bronze Age in the Yellow River valley and supports hypotheses that the primary state-level society of the Erlitou culture is an archaeological manifestation of the Xia dynasty.”
Taken together, these results reveal how the concurrence of these major natural and sociopolitical events may be an illustration of a profound and complicated cultural response to an extreme natural disaster that connected many groups living along the Yellow River.
The research is published in the journal Science.
Qinglong Wu et al. 2016. Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China’s Great Flood and the Xia dynasty. Science 353 (6299): 579-582; doi: 10.1126/science.aaf0842
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