c. 2070 BC – c. 1600 BC
Guys, welcome to China. The beginnings of it. Shrouded in myth, legend and efforts from the Chinese government of today to stretch the history of China back all the way to the mythical Yellow Emperor, the father of all Chinese people, the Xia dynasty was the first traditional line of Chinese emperors to rule over the lands of China, even though there are doubts among historians about what is true about the dynasty – but we have no special alternative for what might be here to displace the Chinese national heroes existing at this time. At this point the Xia ruled certainly not the entirety of modern China but well, let’s get to where it actually was…
That’s quite a big map, but as it shows, if the Xia dynasty ruled from anywhere, they ruled from the Yellow River, upstream a bit where it splits into tributaries. There are multiple named archaeological cultures around China at this point, I’ve shown some of them on the map. The culture where the Xia are supposed to be located is named the Erlitou culture. At its peak, this culture reached a level of 24,000 people, and their site was abandoned around 1400 BC, a few centuries after the Xia were finished off.
Now this is interesting. There are different methods of tracking the Xia dynasty from different Chinese sources. The one I have used is based off of a project in 1996 sponsored by the Chinese government to determine with accuracy when Xia and its succeeding dynasties were in action. It wasn’t a perfect project but it’s the most accurate we have, as the traditional accounts by Liu Xin of the first century have many mythical parts, they can go from as early as 2205 BC (where Yu The Great traditionally starts to rule), or, if you consult another source, as late as 1558 BC. This set of dates is a medium between the two. It’s so flexible because we have to rely on archaeology for this part of Chinese history, we don’t get written records that survived until several centuries later.
As the meat of this post will be in the personalities part, there’s not much to say on this variable timeline except that from what we can guess, the Xia dynasty, or whoever they were, rose as a state around the turn of the millennium, they prospered for about four centuries on the Yellow River and then, traditionally, the last king of the Xia, Jie, was overthrown by Tang of the Shang dynasty. The remaining family of the Xia were given the land of Qi in modern-day Kaifeng as compensation while the Shang ruled the rest of China, and that will be in the next part of Chinese history from me.
As I don’t want to miss out the Chinese national myths when doing the first post on China, I’m combining the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors story into the personalities of the Xia. They preceded the Xia, traditionally, according to the stories, but they are very interesting. So let’s get to them. It all starts with the Yellow Emperor, either a sovereign or an emperor depending on interpretation. Or he’s the Yellow God, as he’s one of the forms of the Chinese god. He, according to tradition, a tradition that started much later in about 400 BC, was the first ruler of China, reigning six hundred years before the Xia, but he was considered to be historical until as late as 1920, when doubts began to seep in. It’s generally accepted now that he was a figure who began as a god of the Shang dynasty that later got retconned into being a historical person or it could be that he was invented later for this tradition as a figure to get common ancestry for all the dynasties up to that point, including the Xia. Or it was a combination of both. But the Chinese still see him as the father of their nation, and now, the ancestor of all Chinese, a later development, regardless.
The Yellow Emperor was born in Shandong and moved to Hebei, becoming a farmer and taming bears, as you do. He teaches those around him to do the same, and invents things like carts, boats and clothing, meaning that before him, all Chinese were naked. He also supposedly invented archery, astronomy, calendars, maths and basically everything a civilisation needs to get on its feet. Various Chinese historians were falling over themselves to make him the greatest human ever. In battle, he defeated another great leader, the Yan (Flame) Emperor, sometimes and for our purposes, the same person as Shennong, one of the three Sovereigns. The other Sovereigns are Fu Xi and (sometimes) his sister Nuwa, who created humanity way before the Yellow and Yan Emperor.
Then the five Emperors are descendants of the Yellow Emperor, who after ruling for a century passed his throne on to his son Shaohao, who ruled for 84 years, Shaohao’s nephew Zhaunxu (instead of his dishonest son Jiaoji) ruled for 78 next. You can see we have the improbably long length of reigns propping up yet again giving the impression that either ancient humans really were amazing and lived longer or that chroniclers a couple of millennia later could only be bothered to invent a certain number of characters. I really couldn’t say which one of those possibilities is more likely. Zhuanxu is credited with an early piece of music, as well as adding many improvements to the myriad number of inventions the Yellow Emperor made. His cousin Ku, and grandson of Shaohao, followed him – he was known as the White Emperor and ruled for 70 years. He rode on a dragon in spring and summer, it was obviously far too cold for dragons in other seasons. His second son Yao was another emperor, who ruled for 100 years, intelligent, sagely and wise, an example to future Chinese emperors. He supposedly invented the still incredibly popular Chinese board game of Go. Yao was succeeded by Shun, the last of the mythical Emperors, who ruled from the age of 53 to the age of 100, chosen as Yao’s successor because Yao’s sons were all useless, while Shun showed his worth through classic fairytale methods, being humble and compassionate until Yao recognised him as someone he’d like to inherit the throne. And that’s where the Xia come in.
So now we’re going to move out of the pseudo-historical Chinese fairytale part of history and into something that’s slightly less fairytale but still a little legendary. We start with Yu the Great, whose father Gun, had been an important figure in China’s Great Flood myth and had tried to hold back the waters but failed. The story of Yu is that he succeeded where his father had failed and introduced ways for the Chinese people to hold back the waters of the Yellow River, introducing irrigation to the Chinese. He’s also assisted by a yellow dragon and a black turtle because I was trying to make it seem like this was actual history and the myth wanted me to make it clear that it wasn’t. But anyway, Shun was so impressed by Yu’s work that he passed the title of emperor to Yu and his descendants (even though Yu didn’t want this but he was overruled after his death). Now Yu was related to the Yellow Emperor anyway, but this concentrated power into his family, the Xia. There’s no documented evidence about Yu like with the earlier emperors, but it’s a start. Yu ruled for 45 years and his son Qi ruled for ten so already we’re getting a bit more realistic.
After Qi, we don’t get a lot on many of the rulers, again, what we have is from the chronicles. We have the bad king Tai Kang, drowned in a lake after 19 years, his younger brother Zhong Kang for 13. Then Xiang who reigned for 28 years and had problems with barbarians, one warlord called Han Zhuo, plaguing him and his son Shao Kang, killing Xiang. Shao (22 years) defeated Han after living in exile in the north for a few years, and then went about a successful reign. He’s sometimes credited with inventing wine for China. Then there’s Zhu (17 years), Huai (44 years), Mang (18 years), Xie (16 years), Bu Jiang (59 years), Jiong (21/18 years), Jin (21 years), Kong Jia (31 years), Gao (11 years), Fa (19 years), and then we get to Jie, who had 52 years to play with. You can see I’m milking doing a state where we know the names of all the rulers (no matter if they were historical or not), I should have done that with the Old Kingdom.
Jie was a tyrant. And oppressor. He had slaves, lived a life of luxury, treated everyone cruelly, you name it, he did it. He rode on a sedan, demanded pure alcohol wine, took many wives and concubines, had picky cuisine demands, each ingredient had to come from the best places. He was a top of the range hedonist. And natural disasters become more common as you go further into his reign. This is obviously so when the Shang come and conquer him, everyone welcomes it. They were a kingdom under the Xia dynasty and Tang of Shang (there’s a great name) brought together many of the smaller kingdoms and ousted Jie. Who dies of illness after running away from the crucial battle of Mingtiao. An inglorious end for the first dynasty.
Reiterating again, this is still all mostly legend and we’re not certain on any of this. But it’s a decent story.
Culture and Other Things
Back to the strictly historical, there’s not a whole lot. So I can’t really say much. I mean, some of the Xia rulers were into music, but that’s associated with them and we’ve established that they may not have been real. There are bronze implement and tombs at the site of this dynasty – as well as a palace dated to the latter stages of the dynasty. So they were part of the Bronze Age and there was a ruling class in this area of China at this point – whether they were the kings whose names were given in later Chinese historical sources is not known. But a good start to China, I’m looking forward to coming back here for the Shang dynasty.