San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Xia Dynasty of Ancient China

The literature of ancient China tells of a Xià dynasty that the Shang dynasty replaced. Since writing was only developed later there is not and could not be any direct literary record of this dynasty. Its traditional period was from 2205 to 1766 BCE. There is archaeological evidence of a tribal state in northern China for this period but nothing to connect it to the legend of the Xià.

What the legend states is that the Xià and other tribes of the region were plagued by the flooding of the Huanghe (Yellow River). The tribal leader gave a minister Gun the responsibility for stopping the flood. Gun organized the building of dams to try to contain the flood waters. After nine years of effort in controlling the river it was recognized that this method was a failure. The river had more power than the dams could cope with and when the river overwhelmed the dams the resulting flood was even worse than what had occurred before the dam building started. This is inherent in the nature of flood control by dams. The legend says that the minister Gun was ordered executed for his failure.

A new tribal leader, Shun, made his minister Yü responsible for controlling the floods. Instead of relying upon dams Yü had diversion canals built upon the tributaries of the river to divert the waters before it built up to a flood stage. This appeared to prevent the floods and the people and their leader were so grateful to Yü that he was made the new tribal leader.

Up to that time the position of tribal leader had gone to the person acknowledged to to be the most qualified. Yü himself was an obvious exampe of this policy. But Yü when he saw his life was drawing to a close designated his son to be the new tribal leader. This established the principle of hereditary rule and thus Yü founded a dynasty.

Ironically the dilemma of flood control by dams or diversion canals around 2000 BCE in China has been replayed again and again in different places and different times. In the U.S. the policy of the Corps of Engineers was to harness the Missouri-Mississippi River system by confining it within levees about a mile apart. This eliminated floods upstream but created stronger, uncontainable high water downstream. In the 1990's the Corps abandoned its containment strategy and started creating diversion overflow facilities along the course of the river system. In contrast in China the government is relying upon containment of flood waters by the Three Gorges Dam to end flooding by the Changjiang (Long River a.k.a. the Yangtze River). China experienced a disasterous failure of dams in August of 1975 when a typhoon dropped three times as much rain in north central China than the dams were designed to contain. As result dams began to break and the water from the breaking dams added to the flood waters from the typhoon and made it impossible to contain. For more on this episode see Catastrophic Dam Failures in China.

The story of Xià establishes flood control as the first priority of the leadership in China. The term oriental despotism refers to the notion that in China the criterion for a good leader was that he kept the water sytem of flood control and irrigation in good working condition. It did not matter how despotic the leader was in other matters, if he was successful hydrologically, he was a good leader.

The legend says that the Xià dynasty continued for many generation until the ruler Jie fell under the spell of an evil woman. The people rose up against Jié led by Tang, the founder of the Shang Dynasty.

Skeptics argue that the legend of Xià may have been a fabrication of the Zhou dynasty. The Zhou overthrew the Shang and created the legend of the Shang dynasty overthrowing a previous dynasty, the Xià.

For more on the history of China see China.

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