Xia dynasty


The Xia Dynasty (pinyin: xià cháo) finds its source in Chinese historiography, in particular the Classic of Documents (9th-6th century BC, i.e. between 7 and 10 centuries after the events).

These texts, the oldest in Chinese historiography, concern the politics and administration of the rulers of Chinese antiquity, from Yao onwards. This mythical emperor is said to have commissioned Gun (鯀), father of Yu the Great, to fight floods. Yu the Great is the first legendary Chinese monarch of the Xia Dynasty, in an area that would correspond, perhaps, today to western Henan and southern Shanxi, that is to say, the area that roughly covers the culture of Erlitou. There is, moreover, the tourist site of the tomb of Yu, in Shaoxing, in the province of Zhejiang.

The texts in the Classic of Documents thus come mostly from the Zhou royal court. According to these texts the Xia dynasty would have been the first of the Three Dynasties (三代, sān dài) of pre-imperial China: the Xia, the Shang (c. 1570 – 1045 ) and the Zhou (c. 1046 – 256 ). It would have been founded by Yu the Great, and would have had power from 2205 to 1767 BC, according to the traditional Chinese chronology, or from 2070 to 1570 BC according to other chronologies. It would begin with the arrival of a hero, his successors encountering difficulties, then degeneration would have set in, celestial disturbances would have intervened, leading to the fall of the dynasty.

Generally the international scientific community outside China, and in China itself in the scientific community, considers this dynasty as a myth of origin that could have been composed in the first millennium BC, under the Zhou dynasty, precisely for reasons specific to the latter dynasty, or, in any case, as a question that is currently unanswered or, in the opposite case, a consensual answer that would be a matter of a “politically correct” attitude. The unexpected remains of a vast city with stone fortifications, discovered since 2013 at Shimao in the Shenmu xian in Shaanxi, have reopened the question. Chinese authorities see in this Neolithic site the first archaeological evidence of the existence of the mythical Xia dynasty.

The oldest texts mentioning the Xia are the Document Classic, Chinese Shu Jing (书经

According to traditional Chinese historiography, other sources complete the succinct information of the Classic of Documents: the Shiji (composed between 109 and 91 BC by Sima Qian. It begins with the passage entitled The Three Augustans and the Five Emperors, followed by a section on the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou) and the Bamboo Annals (the first known original found in a tomb dated 299 BCE) which Sima Qian would not have had in his hands. According to these literary sources, the Xia dynasty would have been the first in the history of China. It would have reigned from 2205 to 1767 BC.

However, there is some doubt about this tradition, because the first mention of the Xia dynasty is found in the Classic of Documents – Shujing – (“Book of Documents”), a work that dates from the beginning of the first millennium B.C. according to most scholars, and is therefore very much later than the supposed reign of the Xia. The document in question which concerns this dynasty is called the “Oath of Tang”. It is the speech that Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty, would have pronounced in front of his troops to encourage them to fight against the last ruler of the Xia. Tang explained why this king had to be overthrown. This document was written by annalists of the Zhou dynasty, which replaced the Shang dynasty around 1046 BC. It is surely a propaganda work: the Zhou explained that they had overthrown the Shang for the same reason that the Shang had overthrown the Xia. They said that they themselves had been former vassals of the Xia. One of their ancestors had to take refuge with the Barbarians because a bad ruler of the Xia had removed his office.

The Bamboo Annals only briefly alludes to each reign of the Xia dynasty, and gives very little information about Yu the Great. But it gives the “complete” list of Xia kings.

More problematically, no written source prior to the Shu Jing mentions the Xia, but a document from the same period was discovered in 2003. It is a vase of the xu type, the Bingong xu, which is dated by experts to the middle of the Western Zhou. It testifies to the high esteem in which Yu the Great was held at that time, and as this Zhou dynasty referred to heroes from a time before their enemies, the Shang, the overthrow of the Shang appeared as an act of restoration of a heroic era and became all the more legitimate. All the texts from the Zhou period, or earlier, have been preserved on Chinese bronzes or on oracular bones or tortoise shells.

The oracular writings being turned to the prediction of the future go back to the end of the IInd millennium before our era under the Shang. And historians have preserved an immense quantity of them. But, turned towards the future, none of them alludes to an earlier fact or enemy and therefore cannot inform about a dynasty which would have preceded them. This raises the problem of knowing in which period the Xia would have existed or if it is rather a myth, possibly a founding myth. We also notice that, according to Chinese tradition and mythology, Yu the Great, the founder of the Xia dynasty, is presented by the Chinese texts as a sovereign of the Bronze Age. Indeed, he would have melted bronze cauldrons. The Bronze Age does not begin in China until after 1900 BC, with the Shang dynasty and in the preceding culture: the Erlitou culture. This period corresponds, in fact, to the appearance of bronzes cast in several molds in the Erlitou culture. Which bronze technology appeared, in a different form, cast in two molds, in the areas of trade with the populations of the West within the culture of Qijia, further west, in the vicinity and in the corridor of Hexi around 2000 BC, essentially in Gansu. It is thus a time of the prehistory of China particularly complex, one sees it. If there is a Xia dynasty, it must have been in this period, and archaeologists are therefore looking around the Erlitou culture, or even on the site itself, for what would make it a “royal” capital. It is a culture that has “roots” in some points with the culture of Longshan, while elsewhere Erlitou meets the Shang culture, in western Henan and southern Shanxi.

However, this research is not only academic, it also crosses political issues.

History of research

The texts concerning the beginnings of China were very early the object of comments on behalf of the Western scholars, of which Édouard Chavannes, in 1901. This Édouard Chavannes “let appear as contestable the splendid isolation of China”. From the outset, the question of China”s relations with the rest of the world was raised. But this also concerns the interpretation of ancient texts that evoke the Xia dynasty and its predecessors.

The beginnings of Chinese studies on the first times of China, in the XXth century, seem to be able to be enlightened (in French language) on the question of so-called “foreign influences” by Henri Cordier: Histoire de la Chine et de ses relations avec les pays étrangers depuis les temps les plus anciens jusqu”à la chute de la dynastie Mandchoue (1920-21) which refers to the studies of Edouard Chavannes and Paul Pelliot and poses the limits of the scientific knowledge of the time from its first chapter Origine des chinois. Foreign theories .

Some information dates back to the beginning of Western archaeological research in China: in particular, Johan Gunnar Andersson”s information on the Majiayao culture in Gansu in 1923 and 1924. He considered this culture, judging from the drawings on the pottery, as the result of a diffusion of the Western culture, and Majiayao (in Gansu) would have been the initial phase of the Yangshao culture (in the Central Plain). Other Japanese research in Manchuria reinforced, in 1929, this idea according to which China was then considered, wrongly, as “under the influence” of the Neolithic and Western Antiquity. But Henri Maspero took this information with an explicit reservation, judging it insufficient, as early as this 1929 text. As for the literary sources, in particular concerning Yu the Great, he considered them as “mythological tales”. Since these beginnings of historical research on the early history of China, the work has been completely renewed and the new image of the Prehistory of China has been considerably clarified, without bringing the slightest precision on Yu the Great, and the question of the “Xia dynasty” still remains in suspense in 2013.

Chinese texts

After the Classic of Documents, the Shanhai jing is a second reference book, (Book of Mountains and Seas), essentially a description of the territories and plants or animals that one can meet. The current version is essentially that of the Han (between 206 and 220 CE), commented on under the Jin by Guo Puzeng (276-324). In this text we read that Yu is the son of Baima (White Horse), who is himself the son of Luoming (Shining Camel, the Camel in China evokes more Eastern Central Asia than China, properly speaking). The latter is the son of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor.

Yu the Great is known to have allowed the waters of China”s rivers to flow, probably by maintaining the existing network. By building dykes, his father Baima, also called Gun, had blocked them. According to Marcel Granet, Yu could thus bring back wealth and abundant harvests. But the maintenance of the rivers required the levying of taxes, and he established the right measure. He went through the territory in the four directions and established each one in its place: “Chinese and Barbarians”. And peace was restored. But at his death it seems that the principle of the election of the best of them by the lords, designated the son of Yu, thus establishing the first dynasty. This son, K”i, was essentially a warrior. And the last of the dynasty a tyrant who had lost the Mandate of Heaven. So he lost the battle with the founder of the next dynasty, king T”ang of the Shang.

According to Chinese texts, the name of Yu”s stronghold, Xia, became that of his dynasty. This name means “summer”. Huangdi is said to have created a dance called Xianzhi, which was performed at the summer solstice on a square mound placed in the middle of a lake. This mound surely represented the Earth. Yu was a smelter (like his son Qi and like Huangdi), as he is said to have made nine tripod bronze cauldrons, which became symbols of the power of the emperors of ancient China. These cauldrons actually appear in the Erlitou culture, on which Chinese archaeologists have long placed the capital of the Xia kingdom.

What is reported about Yu”s successors is still highly mythical. His wife was identified with a mountain, since she was called Tushan “Mount Tu”. Sometimes it is also considered that Yu was married to the goddess Nüwa, of Tokharian origin. Before giving birth to Qi, Yu”s successor, Tushan turned into a stone, which had to be split. Qi sought metal from the mountains and rivers and melted it down on Mount Kunwu. On this mountain in the west of China, there was red copper which could be used to make excellent swords. The Quanrong gave King Mu of the Zhou Dynasty a sword called Kunwu. In the west of China, there was also a mount Kunlun (with the same character kun), which was the residence of Huangdi.

The son of Qi was Taikang. The archer Yi, a mythological character closely resembling Heracles, forced him into exile while on a hunting trip. Yi was the lord of Qiong. He was killed by his wife Fufei (identifiable with the goddess Nüwa) and her lover, Zhuo of Han. King Taikang was succeeded by his younger brother Zhongkang, and then his son Xiang. The sons of Zhuo of Han and Fufei, Yao and Xi, murdered Xiang. Queen Min, who was pregnant at the time, managed to flee and take refuge with the prince of Reng. Her son Shaokang was born in the home of the prince and became the chief of the pastors. Later, he went to the prince of Yu and married two daughters. He avenged his father by killing Zhuo of Han and his two sons and then ascended the throne, restoring the Xia dynasty.

It is said that Jie, the last Xia ruler, was a debauched tyrant. His vices were exacerbated by the beautiful Meixi, one of those fatal empresses who have dotted the history of China. According to Liu Xiang (author of the first century B.C.), Jie had a large pool filled with wine dug in his palace. He also placed steps made of cooked meat on a hillside and hung pieces of dried meat from trees. Every day, he and his wives had orgies on this wine pool, where he rode in a boat, and in this “meat forest”. Tang, the ruler of a kingdom located in the south of Shandong, defeated him at Mingtiao, north of the present city of Kaifeng in Henan, and founded the Shang dynasty. Taken prisoner, Jie died of illness three years later.

The story of this overthrow of the Xia by the Shang is very doubtful: the character of Jie resembles far too much the archetype of the bad ruler to be plausible. It is very likely that the myth of the wine basin and the forest of meat were memories of the sumptuous banquets in which the aristocracy, led by the royal family, indulged during the Shang period. It is known that very large quantities of wine and meat were consumed. Aristocrats were considered by the common people as “meat eaters”. This mythical aspect puts into question the possible existence of this dynasty in history.

Museums in China systematically indicate on their labels: “Xia Dynasty” as a scientific evidence. The same is true of an important but recent academic publication (2010). And yet there is a big problem: are these finds from the Erlitou culture or elsewhere, since the existence of the Xia Dynasty is disputed by the international scientific community?

A first group of Chinese scholars, the yigupai group (Skeptics on Ancient Issues) began to question, in the 1920s, the sources of Chinese historiography, led by Gu Jiegang (1893-1980), particularly concerning the myth of the three Augustans and five Emperors and its description as a golden age. Challenging the authority of texts, these young researchers made archaeological research prevail as a truly “scientific” discipline. But the inscriptions found on oracular bones confirmed the identification of the ancient Yinxu, spoken of by Sima Qian a century before our era, with the present-day Anyang. And the public as well as the archaeologists in their majority deduced that, since archaeology gave reason to Sima Qian about the Shang, there was no reason to doubt this tradition about the Xia: they had indeed existed, it remained for the archaeologists to discover the place.

The question of the relationship between myth and reality also remains open: if all that is said about Yu the Great and his close successors is mythical, can we deduce that the Xia dynasty never existed? This is not certain either, because myths could very well be attached to a historical dynasty. On the other hand, many real dynasties have a legendary founder. The Xia, according to some, may have reigned in the maritime provinces of Shandong and Zhejiang. Indeed, it is in these provinces that the bulk of the Yu gesture is located. In ancient times, the rulers of the kingdom of Qi in Shandong claimed to be descended from Emperor Shao Kang of the Xia. The presumed tomb of Yu is located in the Kuaiji Mountains, in the municipality of Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, and remains a popular tourist site.

However, most Chinese archaeologists, always working from ancient textual traditions, see in the Erlitou culture, 1900-1500 B.C., a vestige of the Xia dynasty. However, in the absence of written information, it is impossible to decide. This culture having been discovered in Henan, their reasoning is simple: this culture predates the Shang dynasty and is located in the same region, so it should correspond to the Xia. Others, seeing in the Erlitou culture the beginnings of the Shang dynasty, direct their research further on sites dated between Erlitou and the Longshan culture, but the most internationally recognized Chinese archaeologists do not focus on these researches and recognize the impossibility of proving the existence of such a dynasty. Nevertheless, during this time, Chinese archaeologists and other nationalities, in the field, have had the confirmation that, by many sites, the culture associated, more or less, with the Erlitou site testifies to a high degree of sophistication, with a series of practices associated with a very hierarchical society of an undeniable proximity, as much on the level of the territory as on that of the practice of bronze, with the Shang culture. So what is this culture? A separate study, according to their own methods, of the texts, on the one hand, and of the archaeological documents, on the other hand, can advance the reflection.

Li Liu, from Stanford University, recalls the position defended in the West according to which the invention of this pseudo-dynasty would have been the work of the Zhou, in order to justify by the mandate of Heaven the overthrow of the Shang dynasty, which did exist. The question of a myth built more or less from scratch, at the time of the Zhou, has only recently been raised by some free minds. The scientific community outside of China considers the “Xia Dynasty” to be a mythological story, constructed in a completely different era. Robert Bagley, a professor at Princeton University, suggests that the myth was formed in the first millennium B.C., during the Zhou Dynasty, and in a context that justified its construction. Archaeological discoveries made at the end of the 20th century seem to support this hypothesis, according to this author.

According to recent publications (2012-2013), the Xia dynasty remains an enigma. First of all, it is false to claim that oracular bones allude to a Xia dynasty, and to its conquest by the Shang. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the inhabitants of the Erlitou culture never considered themselves as “Xia” and that this appellation being a practice of their enemies, it would have been transmitted to the Zhou.

LI Liu also alludes to a 2007 text by Lothar von Falkenhausen, who proposes that the attachment of many Chinese archaeologists to the existence of the Xia Dynasty is a “politically correct” attitude, and she takes the opportunity to review the history of the concept since the Mao era. For allegiance to ancient texts is a sign of “political correctness” as a dogmatic attitude. The survey she carried out among “scholars specialized in this question” shows that in China 49% believe in the historical veracity of the texts relating to the Xia dynasty, while outside the borders of China similar scholars, of Chinese origin, believed in this version only at 22%, while 59% of the latter think it is possible against 38% of those who reside in China And when asked where their beliefs come from, 56% of Chinese residents rely on their academic studies and 40% on their research, while only 32% of foreign researchers of Chinese origin rely on their academic studies and 59% on texts. This being said, not all convictions stem from explicit political formatting. Finally, 72% of resident archaeologists in China hold that archaeology has yet to prove the correspondence between Erlitou and the Xia, while the group that pursues their studies abroad is convinced that archaeology cannot prove such a relationship. In China, it is believed to be independent of politics, even if certain discoveries may favor a particular political figure locally, while outside China it is the opposite. In any case, only a purely academic study can solve the problem, but the majority believes in a link between Erlitou and the Xia (or the Shang). Moreover, a significant number of foreign residents tend to be critical of Chinese views, even if the question of the link between Erlitou and the Xia does not find a large stream of opponents to this theory: it can be seen as a discreet form of pressure exerted by the majority stream; thus, one would be reluctant to express one”s thoughts among the minority stream.

Reference document: Henri Cordier: History of China (1920-21)

This part remains to be sourced:

In 1995, China launched a vast project, the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project, aiming at establishing a rigorous chronology for the first three dynasties of its history, the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou (up to -841 for the latter). The initial idea was to cross-check carbon-14 dating and astronomical data, particularly concerning eclipses, with all that the Shang and Zhou inscriptions could tell us. About 200 researchers participated and the results are now used as references by Chinese scholars. The proposed dates for the Xia range from -2205 to -1767. The Shang would have reigned from 1766BC to 1112BC.

The problem is that this project still relies on traditional historiography and is therefore only partially scientific.

External links


  1. Dynastie Xia
  2. Xia dynasty
  3. Les chapitres existant dans la version chinoise actuelle sont : Yao (1), Shun (4), Xia (4), Shang (11), Zhou (38), soit un total de 58)
  4. On peut aussi se poser la question suivante : Et si les Xia étaient le souvenir d”une ancienne culture, précédant les Shang, transformé en mythe par les Zhou ?
  5. Robert W. Bagley : « Chapter 3. Shang Archaeology » in : Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy 1999 et brièvement évoqué dans : Gilles Béguin, Ma Chengyuan (dir.) 1998, p. 61
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Pankenier (1981–1982), p. 23.
  8. ^ Pankenier (1983–1985), p. 180.
  9. Tan Koon San (2014). Dynastic China: An Elementary History. The Other Press. p. 8. ISBN 9789839541885.
  10. Jun Li (2016). Chinese Civilization in the Making, 1766–221 BC. Springer. p. 49. ISBN 9781349251346.
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