Short Discussion of Methodology
This is the second part of the series I've begun recently on Chinese history. In this post we'll cover the basics about the Xia.
The first thing one needs to know about the Xia is their historicity, or rather their possible lack thereof. While multiple texts including the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals discuss the Xia in detail, there is no definitive archaeological evidence to support the specific existence of a the Xia Dynasty. As will be a common theme in this blog overall, I'm going to weave the ancient and the modern - not to mention blending many different academic and artistic disciplines - in order to paint a full picture of what I wish to discuss at the time.
Here I want to introduce you all to a project initiated by the People's Republic of China. In 1996, a team of researchers were tasked with determining the location and dates of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. The head of the project, Li Xueqin, is considered a titan in the field of ancient Chinese history and archaeology. Li Xueqin, born in 1933, has experienced China through massive social change. He sits as the Director of the Institute of Sinology at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Having been tasked with discovering the locations and dates for the three earliest Chinese dynasties, he assembled a team of over two hundred multidisciplinary scholars to accomplish the task. The project released preliminary results in 2000. I will present the findings - both dates and locations - below for the non-academic public to enjoy, and will include the traditional chronology as well for comparison. I'll look at the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project in depth in another post.
So, there are a few obvious things that jump out from the comparison between the two systems: first of all, only one includes the named rulers for the dynasty. The traditional chronology is based on books like the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals, both of which go into some depth on the individual rulers of the dynasty and, thus, make for good reading. Interestingly enough, the dynasty receives a different time period based on which of those two books you use, with the Bamboo Annals suggesting an even later start and end date for the Xia. We're showing the date derived from the mystical numerologists exploring the Records of the Grand Historian in the traditional chronology timeline on the left. For transparency's sake, and in lieu of the upcoming post on the dating methods used for the earliest dynasties, it should be noted that the dating for the traditional chronology is not written within these original texts, but calculated later based on small tidbits of information within the stories. the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, on the other hand, makes a point of not including any rulers that cannot be verified through archaeological records or something equally convincing to the modern man.
The second obvious difference is in time. The traditional chronology suggests that the Xia existed from 2207 BC to 1766 BC, while the XSZCP suggests the Xia lasted from 2070 BC to 1600 BC. The total year counts are listed in the figure, and its clear that while there is some difference in total length it is not in any real sense substantial. There are some interesting questions one might ask about whether historians and archaeologists should reasonably expect for a timeline to match up that closely in both length and period, but we'll discuss that in the upcoming post.
For our second bit of data I'll include the suggested region of where the Xia dynasty might actually have been. Here's a short quote from the Records of the Grand Historian describing the last of the Five Emperors, Emperor Shun, having to deal with some minor flooding:
After Yao's death, the Emperor Shun asked the presidents of the four mountains, 'is there was any one who can perfect and develop Yao's undertakings, and can be employed in an official capacity?' They all said, 'There is lord Yu, the Minister of Works; he might perfect and develop Yao's labours.' Shun said, 'Ah yes! you, Yu, have regulated the water and the land, but in this office you must exert yourself.' Yu did obeisance with his head to the ground, and would have declined in favour of Xie, Prince Millet, or Gaoyao, but Shun said 'Go and attend to your duties.'Yu will become important very quickly in our story. The astute reader of visual aids will see that the first emperor of the Xia is named Dà Yǔ.
Not to get caught in the weeds, I'll actually show the data on where the mythical Xia were supposed to have lived:
That gives you a sense of where they were in China, which is nice to have. The capital (and general region/size of dynasties) will change hands many times over the course of this series. I'll start including cool geographic data in future posts, as it will be fun to visualize the change over time that China has experienced in what it considered to be the homeland.
Now we can move on to the fun part, which is discussing the rulers in some detail. We'll go chronologically using the traditional chronology as our guide, and we'll discuss some fun facts for each ruler as we go along. This will also give a nice overview of what was happening in the Middle Kingdom, and what the people cared about. Without further ado, let's jump into it with Yu the Great.
The Xià Rulers
Before we begin, here's another neat visualization of the length of rule for each separate ruler of the Xia - these are broken down into years with the total length of the dynasty, as per the traditional chronology, printed below the dynasty title.
We've got a list of eighteen separate people to discuss this time, and not all of them were, apparently, very important. We'll start out with the head honcho, the creator of the Xia, the water-controller - Yu the Great.
Dà Yǔ (Yu the Great)
Dà Yǔ was the first ruler of the Xia. He was minding his own business being the Minister of Works when Emperor Shun called upon him to help solve a problem for the people of Xià: namely, the massive amounts of flooding that were killing off crops and drowning folks. As a fun aside, scientists discovered evidence of massive flooding happening around the time of the legendary Xià dynasty. The evidence, found by a geologist named Wu Qinglong from Nanjing Normal University, was dated to around 1900 BC, which lands towards the last quarter of the traditional chronology or the middle of the XSZCP. This only shows that a big flood did, in fact, occur, but it's always nice when old stories seem to ring true.
Yu the Great, who at the time hadn't yet earned his honorific, set about doing the task admirably. He left his house for thirteen years while working to fix the flooding, and achieved the task by bringing along a massive workforce and achieving one of the earliest country-wide infrastructure projects. He widened channels and built dams where appropriate, and ultimately was able to control the flooding. The story of this chapter of his life is known as Dà Yǔ Zhì Shuǐ, approximately meaning Yu the Great Controls the Waters. If you ask a random person who grew up in China and learned even a little about Chinese history, they'll probably know about this story. To give you a taste of the sort of praise Yu gets, here's a little snippet about how virtuous and hard working he was during this time from the Records of the Grand Historian:
That could, viewed from a certain perspective, be describing a kindhearted robot. After he controlled the flooding and allowed things to get back to normal, he came back home. Relating back to something I referred to briefly above, Yu had actually passed his house three times during his infrastructural machinations. Each time, his family begged him to come in and stay with him, but Yu, being virtuous in a distinctly ancient way, refused to see his family until the rest of the country was spared from the floods. Also, if you trust the Bamboo Annals (and who does, honestly), Yu killed a ruler in the north named Fangfeng at the request of Emperor Shun around this time.
Yu was quick, earnest, and diligent, not deviating from virtue, kind, and lovable; his word could be depended on, his voice was musical, and his body, like a balance properly adjusted, moved unweariedly and solemnly in accordance with certain fixed rules.
One last story prior to Yu receiving his honorific is worth mentioning. Yu convinced Gaoyao, the Minister of Laws for Emperor Shun, to prefer admonishment to punishment. In essence, he convinced the minister to tell people not to do the bad thing again at least once before cutting off a body part or seizing titles from the offender. Here it is related again in the Records of the Grand Historian:
What a cool guy. Emperor Shun decided, after all the cool things that Yu had done, that he should be the heir to the throne of Xia. Yu accepted the position, and remembering how level-headed Gaoyao had been in his prior dealings, recommended he be promoted to Minister of Affairs. Gaoyao accepted graciously and then promptly died.
Gaoyao therefore, respecting Yu's virtues, bade the people carry out as a rule his plan of preferring admonition, but also made use of punishments. Shun's virtues were very clear.
From this point on, Yu apparently did very little of note. To be fair, he didn't really need to do much after stopping biblical-level flooding and reforming the penal code for an entire nation, but I am surprised that every single achievement made by Yu was prior to his ascension to the throne. Yu is said to have reigned for ten more years before dying during a routine inspection of the east. Now for the purposes of having a full and fun to use dataset, I'll note that the historical text Yue Jue Shu suggests he died from an illness of some sort. This seems perfectly believable, as Yu spent much of his life bandying about in the muck and water, likely without proper protection from bacterial infection. All told, Yu the Great was a great ruler.
Oh, one last thing: Yu created the nine tripod cauldrons, which were very large, from a bunch of metal he was gifted by a loyal subject. These nine tripods were used in ceremonies for a long, long time and are still thought of as culturally important details to Chinese history.
The next emperor is Qǐ. His history in the Records of the Grand Historian is far smaller than his father Yu's, but he did kill a guy. I'll let the only story about him in the aforementioned book speak for itself:
As the lord of Hu would not submit, Qi attacked him, and there was a great battle at Han. Just before the engagement the speech at Gan was delivered to the six generals, who were summoned together; Qi said, "Ah! ye who are engaged in my six armies, I have a solemn announcement to make to you. The chief of Hu violently sets at naught the five human relations, and idly casts aside the three obligations of duty. Heaven will on this account oppose him and cut off the span of his life, and I am now but reverently executing the punishment appointed by Heaven. If you on the left do not do your work on the left, and you on the right do not do your work on the right, it will be a disregard of my orders. If you, charioteers, do not observe the rules for the management of your horses, it will be a disregard of my orders. You who obey my orders shall be rewarded in the ancestral temple, but you who disobey my orders shall be slain before the altar of the spirits of the land, and I will destroy both you and your children." He thereupon destroyed the chief of Hu, and the whole nation went to the court of the Prince of Xia.Nice job, Qǐ. He dies, and his son Tài kāng takes over.
The Rest of Them
From here on out the story goes very quickly for the remaining rulers, at least within the pages of the Records of the Grand Historian. Things got pretty bad, and people became unhappy with the rulers. Here's the entirety of the remaining text (don't worry, it's not long):
Taikang died, and his brother Zhongkang the second came to the throne. In the time of the Emperor Zhongkang, Xi and He, indulging in wine and dissipation, neglected the seasons, and let the calendar get into confusion (No rice this year). Yin went to punish them, and the 'punitive expedition of Yin' was composed.*
Zhongkang died, and his son Emperor Xiang came to the throne. Emperor Xiang died, and his Son Shaokang came to the throne. Emperor Shaokang died, and his son Emperor Chu came to the throne. Emperor Chu died, and his son Emperor Huai came the throne. Emperor Huai died, and his Son Emperor Mang came to the throne. Emperor Mang died, and his Son Emperor Xie came to the throne. Emperor Xie died, and his son Emperor Bujiang came to the throne. Emperor Bujiang died, and his brother Emperor Jiong came to the throne. Emperor Jiong died, and his Son Emperor Jin came to the throne. Emperor Jin died, and Emperor Bujiang's son Kongjia, that is Emperor Kongjia, came to the throne. Emperor Kongjia was fond of enquiring into spiritual matters, and indulged in dissipation, and the virtue of the princes of Xia having degenerated, the chiefs rebelled. Heaven sent down two dragons, a male and a female. Kongjia could not feed them, and could not obtain a dragon-keeper. After the decline of Taotang (Yao) one of his descendants, Liu Lei, learnt to train dragons, and he was chosen out of the dragon-keepers to wait on Kongjia, who gave him the title of dragon-tamer, which was inherited by the descendants of the Shiwei. The female dragon died, and he served it up as a meal for the Prince of Xia, but the latter having sent some one to look for it, he became frightened and ran away.
Kongjia died, and his son Emperor Gao came to the throne. Emperor Gao died, and his son Emperor Fa came to the throne. Emperor Fa died, and his son Emperor Lu Gui, that is Jie, came to the throne. Regarding the reign of the Emperor Jie, ever since the time of Kongjia the barons had frequently rebelled. Jie of Xia did not strive after virtue, and the wars injured the people. Unable to endure their wrongs they summoned Tang to their aid, but he was imprisoned in the tower of Xia; being afterwards released. Tang cultivated virtue, and the princes all went over to him, so Tang led an army to attack Jie of Xia. Jie fled to Mingtiao, and was eventually driven out and slain. Jie observed to someone, 'I regret that I did not take the opportunity of killing Tang in the tower of Xia, and then I should not have been brought to such a pass.' Tang, being seated on the Imperial throne, superseded Xia, and gave audience to the people. Tang enfeoffed the descendants of the Xias. Until the time of the Zhou dynasty they held the principality of Qi.That's about all there is to say regarding the Xia. Most of their legacy stems from the glory of their first ruler, Yu the Great. After his son had a rather successful though arguably terrifying military career, things went downhill fast.
As we move into the next post, where I discuss the methodology of the different dating systems in depth, I'll be providing more data and visualizations for your entertainment. For now, that will do for our quick historical account of the Xia.
* Note from the Significant Other: It was pointed out to me that this may not make sense to westerners. The Chinese use the lunar calendar, and one of the rather interesting requirements of this system of dates is that each year, a team of specialists must recalculate the times when seeds are to be scattered, harvested, etc. Here is a quote from her to elucidate the import and quality of the lunar calendar:
"There is a day called the descent of the frost - Shuāngjiàng... and after that day, bok choy..." She pauses for dramatic effect - "... is no longer tasty."