Xia dynasty

The Xia dynasty is the first dynasty in traditional Chinese history. According to tradition, the Xia dynasty was established by the legendary Yu the Great after Shun, the last of the Five Emperors, gave his throne to him.[1] The Xia was later succeeded by the Shang dynasty.


c. 2070 BC–c. 1600 BC
Proposed location of the Xia dynasty
c. 2070 BC
c. 1600 BC
Succeeded by
Shang dynasty
Today part ofChina
Hanyu PinyinXià
History of China
Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BC
Xia c. 2070 – c. 1600 BC
Shang c. 1600 – c. 1046 BC
Zhou c. 1046 – 256 BC
 Western Zhou
 Eastern Zhou
   Spring and Autumn
   Warring States
Qin 221–207 BC
Han 202 BC – 220 AD
  Western Han
  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei, Shu and Wu
Jin 266–420
  Western Jin
  Eastern Jin Sixteen Kingdoms
Northern and Southern dynasties
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
  (Wu Zhou 690–705)
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms

Liao 916–1125
Song 960–1279
  Northern Song Western Xia
  Southern Song Jin
Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1636–1912
Republic of China on mainland 1912–1949
People's Republic of China 1949–present
Republic of China on Taiwan 1949–present

There are no contemporaneous records of the Xia, and they are not mentioned in the oldest Chinese texts, the oracle bone inscriptions from the late Shang period (13th century BC). The earliest mentions occur in the oldest chapters of the Book of Documents, which report speeches from the early Western Zhou period, and are accepted by most scholars as dating from that time. These speeches justify the Zhou conquest of the Shang as the passing of the Mandate of Heaven, likening it to the succession of the Xia by the Shang. This political philosophy was promoted by the Confucian school in the Eastern Zhou period. The succession of dynasties was incorporated into the Bamboo Annals and the Records of the Grand Historian, and became the official position of imperial historiography and ideology. Some scholars consider the Xia dynasty mythical, or at least unsubstantiated, while others identify it with the archaeological Erlitou culture.

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, commissioned by the Chinese government in 1996, concluded that the Xia existed between 2070 and 1600 BC.

Traditional accounts

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. According to tradition, the Huaxia were the ancestral people of the Han Chinese.[2][3]

Origins and early development

Traditional histories trace the development of the Xia to the legendary Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. 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 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, tradition ascribes the ancestry of the Xia clan to Zhuanxu.[4]

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 Emperor Yao to stop the flooding. He ordered the construction of large blockades (levees) 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 imprisoned for life to reform the Eastern Barbarians 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 stop the flooding. Yu's method was different from his father's: he organized people from different tribes and ordered them to help him build canals in all the major rivers that were flooding and lead the water out to the sea. Yu was dedicated to his work. People praised his perseverance and were inspired, so much so that other tribes joined in the work. Legend says that in the 13 years it took him to successfully complete the work to stop the floods; he never went back to his home village to stop and rest, even though he passed by his house three times.[5]


Yu's success in stopping the flooding increased agricultural production (since the floods were destructive). The Xia tribe's power increased and Yu became the leader of the surrounding tribes. Soon afterwards Shun sent Yu to lead an army to suppress the Sanmiao tribe, which continuously abused the border tribes. After defeating them, he exiled them south to the Han River area. This victory strengthened the Xia tribe's power even more. As Shun aged, he thought of a successor and relinquished the throne to Yu, whom he deemed worthy. Yu's succession marks the start of the Xia dynasty. As Yu neared death he passed the throne to his son, Qi, instead of passing it to the most capable candidate, thus setting the precedent for dynastic rule or the Hereditary System. The Xia dynasty began a period of family or clan control. It is believed that Zhenxun (modern Gongyi) was one of the capitals of the dynasty.


Jie, the last king, was said to be corrupt. He was overthrown by Tang, the first king of the Shang dynasty. Tang is said to have given the small state of Qi as a fief to the remnants of the Xia ruling family.[6][7] This practice was referred to as "the two crownings and the three respects".

Zengzi was a descendant of the Xia dynasty Kings through Shao Kang.[8][9]

The Kings of the State of Yue claimed descent from the Xia dynasty Kings through Shao Kang.

Modern studies

The time gap between the supposed time of the Xia and the first written references to it have meant that the historicity of the Xia dynasty itself and the traditional narrative of its history are at best uncertain. The Skeptical School of early Chinese history, started by Gu Jiegang in the 1920s, was the first group of scholars within China to systematically question the traditional story of its early history. By critically examining the development of the narrative of early Chinese history throughout history, Gu concluded "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".[10]

Some historians have suggested that the Zhou rulers invented the Xia as a pretext, to justify their conquest of the Shang, by noting that just as the Shang had supplanted the Xia, they had supplanted the Shang. The existence of the Xia remains unproven, despite efforts by Chinese archaeologists to link them with the Bronze Age Erlitou culture.[11]

Among other points, Gu and other historians note certain parallels between the traditional narrative of Xia history and Shang history that would suggest probable Zhou-era fabrication or at least embellishment of Xia history. 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."[10]

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 represents 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. However, this claim that Zhou dynasty invented Xia dynasty does not have direct evidence or support either. It remains merely as a conjecture.

There are scholars also argue that Shang remnants still existed during early Zhou dynasty, Zhou rulers couldn't simply justify their succession to pacify Shang remnants if it's entirely fabricated since they wouldn't believe it in the first place.[12] For example, the powerful Song kingdom during the Zhou dynasty was the direct descendants of Shang people. During the later Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), an ancient bronze artifact "Shu Yi Zhong"(叔夷鐘) was unearthed with an inscription describing how the founder of the Shang dynasty, Tang, overthrew the Xia dynasty. The owner of this artifact, Shu Yi, a high officer of the Qi Kingdom during the Spring and Autumn period (~600 BC), was actually a direct descendant of the Song Kingdom's kings, which means he himself was a descendant of Shang people. This bronze artifact was used to memorialize his Shang ancestors. The inscription contradicts the hypothesis that the Zhou dynasty manufactured the existence of the Xia dynasty.[13]

Although the Shang oracle bone inscriptions contain no mention of the Xia, some scholars have suggested that polities they mention might be remnants of the Xia. Guo Moruo suggested that an enemy state called Tufang state mentioned in many inscriptions might be identified with the Xia.[14] The historian Shen Changyun pointed to four inscriptions mentioning Qi, the same name as the Zhou-era state of Qi, which according to traditional accounts was established by the defeated royal house of Xia.[15]

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 the Erlitou culture was the site of the Xia dynasty. Radiocarbon dating places the site at c. 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.[16] 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;[17] at a minimum, the era traditionally denoted as the Xia dynasty marked an evolutionary stage between the late Neolithic cultures and the urban civilization of the Shang dynasty.[17]

In 2011, Chinese archaeologists uncovered the remains of an imperial sized palace—dated to about 1700 BC—at Erlitou in Henan, further fueling the discussions about the existence of the dynasty.[18]

Archaeological evidence of a large outburst flood that destroyed the Lajia site on the upper reaches of the Yellow River has been dated to about 1920 BC. This date is shortly before the rise of the Erlitou culture in the middle Yellow River valley and the Yueshi culture in Shandong, following the decline of the Longshan culture in the North China Plain. The authors suggest that this flood may have been the basis for the later myth, and contributed to the transition of cultures. They further argue that the timing is further evidence for the identification of the Xia with the Erlitou culture.[19] However, no evidence of contemporaneous widespread flooding in the North China Plain has yet been found.[20]

Sovereigns of the Xia dynasty

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

Posthumous Names (Shi Hao 諡號)1
Order Reign2 Chinese Pinyin Notes
01 45 Also Yu the Great (大禹; Dà Yǔ) Founding Father of Xia dynasty
02 10 Son of Yu
03 29 太康 Tài Kāng Son of Qi  
04 13 仲康 Zhòng Kāng Son of Qi and younger brother of Tai Kang  
05 28 Xiāng Son of Zhong Kang  
06 21 少康 Shào Kāng Son of Xiang Restored the Xia dynasty
07 17 Zhù Son of Shao Kang  
08 26 Huái Son of Zhu  
09 18 Máng Son of Huai
10 16 Xiè Son of Mang
11 59 不降 Bù Jiàng Son of Xie  
12 21 Jiōng Son of Xie, younger brother of Bu Jiang  
13 21 Jǐn Son of Jiong Guoyu: Jǐn or Jìn, putonghua: Jǐn
14 31 孔甲 Kǒng Jiǎ Son of Bu Jiang, nephew of Jiong and Cousin of Jin  
15 11 Gāo Son of Kong Jia  
16 11 Son of Gao  
17 52 Jié Son of Fa Also Lu Gui (履癸, Lǚ Guǐ)
1 The reign name is sometimes preceded by the name of the dynasty, Xia (), for example Xia Yu (夏禹).
2 Possible length of reign, in years.

Xia dynasty family tree

See also



  1. Mungello, David E. The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500–1800 Rowman & Littlefield; 3 ed (28 March 2009) ISBN 978-0-7425-5798-7 p. 97.
  2. Cioffi-Revilla, Claudio; Lai, David (1995). "War and Politics in Ancient China, 2700 BC to 722 BC". The Journal of Conflict Resolution. 39 (3): 471–472. doi:10.1177/0022002795039003004.
  3. Lung, Rachel (2011), Interpreters in early imperial China, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, p. 5, ISBN 978-90-272-2444-6
  4. aprilholloway. "Gun-Yu and the Chinese Flood Myth". Ancient Origins. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  5. Mark, Joshua J. "Ancient China". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2017-10-15.
  6. "夏朝遗民流布情况概说". Zonghe.17xie.com. Retrieved 2014-08-16.
  7. "夏代是杜撰的吗——与陈淳先生商榷 沈长云". Cnki.com.cn. 2013-06-21. Retrieved 2014-08-16.
  8. 《宗聖志》,(清)曾國荃續修,宗聖奉祀官府,1974年
  9. 《武城曾氏重修族譜》,(清)曾繁墫纂,1807年
  10. Yun Kuen Lee, "Building the Chronology of Early Chinese History". Asian Perspectives, Vol. 41, 2002.
  11. Liu, L. & Xiu, H., "Rethinking Erlitou: legend, history and Chinese archaeology", Antiquity, 81:314 (2007) pp. 886–901.
  12. 李宏飛. 「夏商世系探索」. 《甲骨學110年:回顧與展望——王宇信教授師友國際學術研討會論文集》 (中國北京: 中國社會科學出版社). 2009年11月1日 (中文(中國大陸)).
  13. Zhang, Zhenglang 张政烺. "Shi you er gong ji qi xiang guan wen ti" “十又二公”及其相关问题 ["Ten plus two dukes" and related issues].
  14. "再论卜辞"土方"与夏人的相关问题". 郭沫若学刊.
  15. Shen, Changyun 沈长云 (2005). "Xiàdài shì dùzhuàn de ma——yǔ Chén Chún xiānshēng shāngquè" 夏代是杜撰的吗——与陈淳先生商榷 [Is the Xia dynasty fabricated – a response to Chen Chun].
  16. Fairbank, John K. China: A New History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992, page 35.
  17. "China – the ancient dynasties". Library of Congress Country Studies.
  18. "China finds 3,600-year-old palace". People's Daily Online. 13 December 2011.
  19. Wu, Qinglong; Zhao, Zhijun; Liu, Li; Granger, Darryl E.; Wang, Hui; Cohen, David J.; Wu, Xiaohong; Ye, Maolin; Bar-Yosef, Ofer; Lu, Bin; Zhang, Jin; Zhang, Peizhen; Yuan, Daoyang; Qi, Wuyun; Cai, Linhai; Bai, Shibiao (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. PMID 27493183.
  20. Normile, Dennis (2016). "Massive flood may have led to China's earliest empire". News. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved 5 August 2016.
  21. Mungello, David E. The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500–1800 Rowman & Littlefield; 3 edition (28 March 2009) ISBN 978-0-7425-5798-7 p.97.
  22. Wang Quangen 王泉根, (1993). Huaxia Quming Yishu 華夏取名藝術. (Taipei: Zhishu-fang Chuban Jituan 知書房出版集團), 42.


Further reading

Preceded by
San Huang Wu Di
Dynasties in Chinese history
2070–1600 BC
Succeeded by
Shang dynasty
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