The Xia dynasty is the legendary, possibly apocryphal first dynasty in traditional Chinese history. It is described in ancient historical chronicles such as the Bamboo Annals, the Classic of History and the Records of the Grand Historian. 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. The Xia was later succeeded by the Shang dynasty.
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. The tradition of tracing Chinese political history from heroic early emperors to the Xia, and on to succeeding dynasties, comes from the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, in which only one legitimate ruler exists at a given time. This political philosophy was promoted by the Confucian school in the Eastern Zhou period, later becoming the official position of imperial historiography and ideology.
Although the Xia is an important element of early recorded Chinese history, reliable information on the history of China before 13th century BC can only come from archaeological evidence, as China's first established written system on a durable medium, the oracle bone script, did not exist until then. No mention of the Xia, or the supposed conquest of the Xia by the Shang, has been found in any Shang period oracle bones. The first documentary reference to the Xia dates from more than a thousand years later, in the records of the Zhou dynasty.
Proposed location of the Xia dynasty
|•||Established||c. 2070 BC|
|•||Disestablished||c. 1600 BC|
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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. This practice was referred to as "the two crownings and the three respects".
The Kings of the State of Yue claimed descent from the Xia dynasty Kings through Shao Kang.
The paucity of written evidence and 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 is 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".
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.
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."
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, 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 era traditionally denoted as the Xia dynasty marked an evolutionary stage between the late Neolithic cultures and the urban civilization of the Shang dynasty.
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. However, no evidence of contemporaneous widespread flooding in the North China Plain has yet been found.
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|
|01||45||禹||Yǔ||Also Yu the Great (大禹; Dà Yǔ)||Founding Father of Xia dynasty|
|02||10||啟||Qǐ||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||相||Xiāng||Son of Zhong Kang|
|06||21||少康||Shào Kāng||Son of Xiang||Restored the corrupt Xia dynasty|
|07||17||杼||Zhù||Son of Shao Kang|
|08||26||槐||Huái||Son of Zhu|
|09||18||芒||Máng||Son of Huai|
|10||16||泄||Xiè||Son of Mang|
|11||59||不降||Bù Jiàng||Son of Xie|
|12||21||扃||Jiōng||Son of Xie, younger brother of Bu Jiang|
|13||21||廑||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||皋||Gāo||Son of Kong Jia|
|16||11||發||Fā||Son of Gao|
|17||52||桀||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 (夏), for example Xia Yu (夏禹).|
|2 Possible length of reign, in years.|
San Huang Wu Di
| Dynasties in Chinese history