Xia Dynasty

The xia dynasty (Chinese: 夏朝; pinyin: Xià Cháo; Wade–Giles: Hsia-Ch'ao; ca. 2070 – ca. 1600 BC) is the first dynasty in China to be described in ancient historical chronicles such as Bamboo Annals, Classic of History and Records of the Grand Historian. The dynasty was established by the legendary Yu the Great

According to the traditional chronology based upon calculations by Liu Xin, the Xia ruled between 2205 and 1766 BC; according to the chronology based upon the Bamboo Annals, it ruled between 1989 and 1558 BC. The Xia Shang Zhou Chronology Project concluded that the Xia existed between 2070 and 1600 BC. The tradition of tracing Chinese political history from heroic early emperors to the Xia to succeeding dynasties comes from the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, in which only one legitimate dynasty can exist at any given time, and was promoted by the Confucian school in the eastern zhou dynasty period, later becoming the basic position of imperial historiography and ideology.

Although the Xia is an important element in early Chinese history, reliable information on the history of China before 13th century BC can only come from archaeological evidence since China's first established written system on a durable medium, the oracle bone script, did not exist until then. Thus the concrete existence of the Xia is yet to be proven, despite efforts by Chinese archaeologists to link Xia with Bronze Age Erlitou archaeological sites.

Traditional history

The xia dynasty was described in classic texts such as the Classic of History (Shujing), the Bamboo Annals, and the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) by Sima Qian. It has been documented that the tribe that founded the dynasty was the Huaxia, who were the ancestral people of the Han Chinese.

Origins and early development

According to ancient Chinese texts, before the xia dynasty was established, battles were frequent between the Xia tribe and Chi You's tribe. The Xia tribe slowly developed around the time of Zhuanxu, one of the legendary Five Emperors. The Records of the Grand Historian and the Classic of Rites say that Yu the Great is the grandson of Zhuanxu, but there are also other records, like Ban Gu, that say Yu is the fifth generation of Zhuanxu. Based on this, it is possible that the people of the Xia clan are descendants of Zhuanxu.

Gun's attempt to stop the flood

Gun, the father of Yu the Great, is the earliest recorded member of the Xia clan. When the Yellow River flooded, many tribes united together to control and stop the flooding. Gun was appointed by Yao to stop the flooding. He ordered the construction of large blockades to block the path of the water. The attempt of Gun to stop the flooding lasted for nine years but it was a failure because the floods became stronger. After nine years, Yao had already given his throne to Shun. Gun was ordered to be executed by Shun at Yushan (Chinese: 羽山), a mountain located between modern Donghai County in Jiangsu Province and Linshu County in Shandong Province.

Yu the Great's attempt to stop the floods

Yu was highly trusted by Shun. So Shun appointed him to finish his father's work which was to make the flooding stop. Yu's method was different from his father's; he united all the people of every tribe and ordered them to help him build canals in all the major rivers that were flooding and lead it out to the sea. He did this for 13 years, without going back to his home village. Legend says in those 13 years, he passed by his house three times without going in, which is a sign of his perseverance in his work. The people who noticed him praised his perseverance and were so inspired by him that other tribes joined in his work as well. In the end, after 13 years, he was successful in stopping the floods and was greatly praised by his people.


Yu was successful in stopping the flooding and increased the produce from farming (since the floods usually destroy the crops), the Xia tribe's influence strengthened and Yu became the leader of the surrounding tribes. Soon afterwards Shun sent Yu to lead an army to suppress the Sanmiao tribe who continuously abused the boundary tribes. After defeating them, he exiled them south to the Han River area.

Their victory strengthened the Xia tribe's power even more. Shun, since he was getting old, started to think of a successor. Shun abdicated the throne in favor of Yu, whom he deemed worthy. This succession of Yu as the king is the start of the xia dynasty. Soon before his death, instead of passing power to the person deemed most capable to rule, Yu's power passed to his son, Qi, setting the precedence for dynastic rule or the Hereditary System. The xia dynasty began a period of family or clan control.

Jie, the last ruler, was said to be a corrupt king. He was overthrown by Tang, the first king of the shang dynasty.

Qi state

After the defeat of Xia by Shang, the imperial descendants scattered and were absorbed by the nearby clans, and some members of the royal family of xia dynasty survived as the Qi ( Henan ) state until 445 BC. The Qi state was well recorded in the Oracle script as the one major supporter of the xia dynasty. The Kings of the state of Yue, and therefore its successor state Minyue, also claimed to be descended from Yu the Great.

Modern skepticism

The Skeptical School of early Chinese history, started by Gu Jiegang in the 1920s, was the first group of scholars within China to seriously question the traditional story of its early history: "the later the time, the longer the legendary period of earlier history. . . early Chinese history is a tale told and retold for generations, during which new elements were added to the front end". Yun Kuen Lee's criticism of nationalist sentiment in developing an explanation of Three Dynasties chronology focuses on the dichotomy of evidence provided by archaeological versus historical research, in particular the claim that the archaeological Erlitou Culture is also the historical xia dynasty. "How to fuse the archaeological dates with historical dates is a challenge to all chronological studies of early civilization. "

In The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art and Cosmos in Early China, Sarah Allan noted that many aspects of the Xia are simply the opposite of traits held to be emblematic of the shang dynasty. The implied dualism between the Shang and Xia, Allan argues, is that while the Shang represent fire or the sun, birds and the east, the Xia represent the west and water. The development of this mythical Xia, Allan argues, is a necessary act on the part of the zhou dynasty, who justify their conquest of the Shang by noting that the Shang had supplanted the Xia.

Archaeological discoveries

Archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the possible existence of the xia dynasty at locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts. There exists a debate as to whether or not Erlitou culture was the site of the xia dynasty. Radiocarbon dating places the site at ca. 2100 to 1800 BC, providing physical evidence of the existence of a state contemporaneous with and possibly equivalent to the xia dynasty as described in Chinese historical works.

In 1959, a site located in the city of Yanshi was excavated containing large palaces that some archaeologists have attributed to capital of the xia dynasty. Through the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs in the same locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts regarding Xia; at a minimum, the xia dynasty marked an evolutionary stage between the late neolithic cultures and the typical Chinese urban civilization of the shang dynasty.

As reported in 2011, Chinese archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an imperial sized palace—dated to about 1700 BC—at Erlitou in Henan , lending further questions to the existence of the dynasty.

Sovereigns of the xia dynasty

The following table lists the rulers of Xia according to Sima Qian's Shiji. Unlike Sima Qian's list of shang dynasty kings, which is closely matched by oracle bones from late in that period, records of Xia rulers have not yet been found in archeological excavations.

posthumous names (shi hao 諡號)1


reign 2


hanyu pinyin




also yu the great (大禹; dà yǔ)







tai kang





zhòng kāng









shào kāng





















bù jiàng









guoyu : jǐn or jìn, putonghua : jǐn




kǒng jiǎ












also lu gui (履癸 lǚ guǐ)

1: the reign name is sometimes preceded by the name of the dynasty, xia (夏), for example xia yu (夏禹).

2: possible length of reign, in years.

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