Xia dynasty

Annie Lee | Oct 3, 2023

Table of Content


The Xia dynasty (pinyin: xià cháo) finds its source in Chinese historiography, in particular the Classic of Documents (9th - 6th centuries 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 ancient China, 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 today may correspond to western Henan and southern Shanxi, i.e. the area that roughly covers the Erlitou culture. There is also the Yu tomb tourist site in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province.

Most of the texts in the Classic of Documents therefore come from the Zhou royal court. According to these texts, the Xia dynasty was 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 was founded by Yu the Great, and held power from 2205 to 1767 BC, according to traditional Chinese chronology, or from 2070 to 1570 BC according to other chronologies. The dynasty began with the rise of a hero, followed by difficulties for his successors, degeneration and celestial disturbances, leading to the fall of the dynasty.

Generally speaking, the international scientific community outside China, and even within China itself, considers this dynasty to be 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, if not, a consensual answer that would fall within a "politically correct" attitude. The unexpected remains of a vast city with stone fortifications, discovered since 2013 at Shimao in the Shenmu xian of Shaanxi, are reviving the question. Chinese authorities see this Neolithic site as the first archaeological evidence of the existence of the mythical Xia dynasty.

The oldest texts mentioning the Xia are the Classical Documents, Chinese Shu Jing (书经

According to traditional Chinese historiography, other sources complement the succinct information in 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, Shang and Zhou) and the Bamboo Annals (the first known original unearthed in a tomb dated 299 BC), which Sima Qian would not have had in his hands. According to these literary sources, the Xia dynasty was the first in Chinese history. It reigned from 2205 to 1767 BC.

However, there is some doubt about this tradition, as the first mention of the Xia dynasty is to be found in the Classic of Documents - Shujing - ("Book of Documents"), a work which, according to most specialists, dates from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, and is therefore much later than the supposed reign of the Xia. The document in question, which concerns this dynasty, is called the "Oath of Tang". This is the speech that Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty, is said to have made to his troops, encouraging 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. The Zhou explained that they had overthrown the Shang for the same reason that the Shang had overthrown the Xia. They said they themselves had been former vassals of the Xia. One of their ancestors had had to take refuge with the Barbarians because a bad Xia ruler had abolished his office.

The Bamboo Annals only briefly alludes to each reign of the Xia dynasty, and gives very little information on Yu the Great. But it does give a "complete" list of the Xia kings.

More problematically, no written source prior to the Shu Jing mentions the Xia, although a document from the same period was discovered in 2003. This is a xu-type vase, 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 the time, and as this Zhou dynasty referred to heroes in an era prior to their enemies, the Shang, the overthrow of the Shang appeared to be an act of restoration of a heroic era and became all the more legitimate. All texts from the Zhou period, or earlier, have been preserved on Chinese bronzes or on oracular bones or tortoise shells.

The first oracular writings to predict the future date back to the end of the 2nd millennium BC, under the Shang period. Historians have preserved an immense number of them. However, none of them allude to an earlier fact or enemy, and therefore cannot provide information on a dynasty that preceded them. This raises the question of what period the Xia might have existed in, or whether this is more of a myth, possibly a founding myth. We also note that, according to Chinese tradition and mythology, Yu the Great, the founder of the Xia dynasty, is presented in Chinese texts as a Bronze Age ruler. Indeed, he is said to have melted bronze cauldrons. The Bronze Age did not begin in China until after 1900 B.C., with the Shang dynasty and the preceding Erlitou culture. This period corresponds, in fact, to the appearance of cast bronzes in several molds in the Erlitou culture. Bronze technology appeared in a different form, cast in two molds, in the areas of trade with western populations within the Qijia culture, further west, near and in the Hexi corridor around 2000 B.C., essentially in Gansu. As we can see, this was a particularly complex period in China's prehistory. If there was a Xia dynasty, it must have been during this period, and archaeologists are therefore looking around the Erlitou culture, or even on the site itself, to see what would make it a "royal" capital. This is a culture that has "roots" at certain points with the Longshan culture, while elsewhere Erlitou meets the Shang culture, in western Henan and southern Shanxi.

However, this research is not just academic, it also intersects with political issues.

Research history

Texts on China's beginnings were commented on early on by Western scholars, including Édouard Chavannes in 1901. Édouard Chavannes "makes the splendid isolation of China seem questionable". From the outset, the question of China's relations with the rest of the world was raised. This also concerns the interpretation of ancient texts that evoke the Xia dynasty and its predecessors.

The beginnings of Chinese studies on the early history of China in the 20th century seem to be illuminated (in French) 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 studies by Édouard Chavannes and Paul Pelliot and sets out the limits of scientific knowledge at the time in its first chapter Origine des chinois. Foreign theories .

Some information dates back to the beginnings of Western archaeological research in China: in particular, Johan Gunnar Andersson's work on the Majiayao culture in Gansu in 1923 and 1924. Judging by the drawings on the pottery, Andersson considered this culture to be the result of a diffusion of Western culture, and Majiayao (in Gansu) would have been the initial phase of the Yangshao culture (in the Central Plain). Further Japanese research in Manchuria in 1929 reinforced the idea that China was then wrongly considered to be "under the influence" of the Neolithic and Western Antiquity. But Henri Maspero was explicitly cautious about this information, deeming it insufficient as early as 1929. As for literary sources, particularly concerning Yu the Great, he considered them to be "mythological tales". Since these beginnings of historical research on early China, work has been totally renewed and the new image of China's prehistory has become considerably clearer, without providing the slightest clarification on Yu the Great, and the question of the "Xia dynasty" still remains unresolved 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 can be encountered. 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 in turn is the son of Luoming (Shining Camel - the Camel in China is more reminiscent of East Central Asia than of China proper). The latter is the son of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor.

Yu the Great is known for having allowed the waters of China's rivers to flow, probably through maintenance work on the existing network. By building dikes, his father Baima, also known as Gun, had blocked them. According to Marcel Granet, Yu was thus able to bring back wealth and abundant harvests. But maintaining the waterways required the levying of taxes, and he established the right measure. He scoured the territory in all four directions, establishing each in his place: "Chinese and Barbarians". And peace was restored. But when he died, it seems that the principle of the lords electing the best among them designated Yu's son, 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. And so he lost his battle with the founder of the next dynasty, King T'ang of the Shang.

According to Chinese texts, the name of Yu's fiefdom, Xia, became that of his dynasty. The name means "summer". Huangdi is said to have created a dance called Xianzhi, which was performed at the summer solstice on a square mound in the middle of a lake. This mound surely represented the Earth. Yu was a foundryman (like his son Qi and like Huangdi), since 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.

The stories told about Yu's successors are still highly mythical. His wife was identified with a mountain, since her name was Tushan "Mount Tu". Yu is also sometimes said to have been 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 fetched metal from the mountains and rivers and smelted it on Mount Kunwu. On this mountain in western China, red copper was found and used to make excellent swords. The Quanrong offered King Mu of the Zhou dynasty a sword called Kunwu. In western China, there was also a mountain called Kunlun (with the same character kun), which was Huangdi's residence.

Qi's son 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 de Han. King Taikang was succeeded by his younger brother Zhongkang, and then by Zhongkang's son Xiang. Zhuo de Han and Fufei's sons, Yao and Xi, assassinated Xiang. Queen Min, who was pregnant at the time, managed to escape and take refuge with the Prince of Reng. Her son Shaokang was born to this prince and became chief of the shepherds. Later, he went to the prince of Yu, marrying two of his daughters. He avenged his father by killing Zhuo of Han and his two sons, then ascended the throne, re-establishing the Xia dynasty.

The story goes 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 (1st century BC author), Jie had a large pool of wine dug into 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 took part in orgies on this wine basin, where he rode in a boat, and in this "meat forest". Tang, ruler of a kingdom south of Shandong, defeated him at Mingtiao, north of present-day Kaifeng in Henan, and founded the Shang dynasty. Taken prisoner, Jie died of illness three years later.

The story of the overthrow of the Xia by the Shang is highly dubious: Jie's character resembles far too much the archetypal bad ruler to be plausible. It's very likely that the myth of the wine basin and the forest of meat were souvenirs of the sumptuous banquets that the aristocracy, led by the royal family, enjoyed during the Shang period. We know that very large quantities of wine and meat were consumed. Aristocrats were considered "meat-eaters" by the common people. This mythical aspect calls into question the possible existence of this dynasty in history.

China's museums systematically indicate on their labels: "Xia Dynasty" as a scientific truism. The same is true of an important yet recent academic publication (2010). And yet there's 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?

In the 1920s, a first group of Chinese researchers, the yigupai group (Skeptics on questions concerning Antiquity), began to question the sources of Chinese historiography: led by Gu Jiegang (1893-1980), in particular the myth of the three Augustans and five Emperors and its description as a golden age. Challenging the authority of texts, these young researchers promoted archaeological research as a truly "scientific" discipline. But inscriptions discovered on oracular bones confirmed the identification of ancient Yinxu, spoken of by Sima Qian a century BC, with present-day Anyang. And the majority of the public and archaeologists alike deduced that, since archaeology had proved Sima Qian right about the Shang, there was no reason to doubt this tradition about the Xia: they had indeed existed, and all that remained was for the archaeologists to discover the place.

The question of the relationship between myth and reality also remains open: if everything said about Yu the Great and his close successors is mythical, can we deduce that the Xia dynasty never existed? This, too, is not certain, as myths may well have been attached to a historical dynasty. On the other hand, many real dynasties have a legendary founder. According to some, the Xia may have reigned in the maritime provinces of Shandong and Zhejiang. Indeed, it is in these provinces that most of Yu's legacy is to be found. In ancient times, the rulers of the kingdom of Qi in Shandong claimed descent from the Xia emperor Shao Kang. Yu's presumed tomb is located in the Kuaiji Mountains, in the Shaoxing municipality of Zhejiang province, and remains a popular tourist site.

However, most Chinese archaeologists, always working from ancient textual traditions, see the Erlitou culture, 1900-1500 BC, as a vestige of the Xia dynasty. However, in the absence of written information, it's impossible to say. As this culture was discovered in Henan, their reasoning is simple: it 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 towards sites dated between Erlitou and the Longshan culture, but the most internationally recognized Chinese archaeologists do not focus on this research and recognize the impossibility of proving the existence of such a dynasty. Nevertheless, in the meantime, Chinese and other archaeologists in the field have confirmed that the culture associated, more or less, with the Erlitou site bears witness to a high degree of sophistication, with a series of practices associated with a highly hierarchical society that is undeniably close, both in terms of territory and bronze practice, to the Shang culture. So, what is this culture? A separate study of texts, on the one hand, and archaeological documents, on the other, according to their own methods, can help to advance this reflection.

Li Liu, from Stanford University, recalls the position defended in the West that the invention of this pseudo-dynasty was the work of the Zhou, in order to justify the overthrow of the Shang dynasty, which did in fact exist, by the mandate of Heaven. The question of a more or less fabricated myth from the Zhou period has only recently been raised by certain free minds. The scientific community outside China considers the "Xia dynasty" to be a mythological tale, constructed in an entirely different era. Robert Bagley, professor at Princeton University, suggests that the myth was formed in the first millennium BC, during the Zhou dynasty, and in a context that justified its construction. According to this author, archaeological discoveries made at the end of the 20th century seem to support this hypothesis.

According to recent publications (2012-2013), the Xia dynasty remains an enigma. First of all, it's wrong to claim that oracular bones allude to a Xia dynasty, and its conquest by the Shang. On the other hand, it's not impossible that the inhabitants of the Erlitou culture never considered themselves to be "Xia", and that this appellation, being a practice of their enemies, was passed on 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 part of a "politically correct" attitude, and 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 "academics specializing in this question" shows that in China, 49% of people believe in the historical veracity of texts relating to the Xia dynasty, while outside China, similar researchers of Chinese origin believed in this version by only 22%. However, 59% of the latter believe it to be possible, compared to 38% of those living in China. And when asked about the origin of their convictions, 56% of Chinese residents rely on their university studies and 40% on their research, while only 32% of foreign researchers of Chinese origin rely on their university studies and 59% on texts. That said, not all convictions are the result of explicit political formatting. Finally, 72% of archaeologists resident in China believe that archaeology has yet to prove the correspondence between Erlitou and the Xia, while the group who continue their studies abroad are convinced that archaeology cannot prove such a relationship. In China, we believe we are independent of politics, even if certain discoveries may favour a particular local political figure, whereas outside China, the opposite is true. In any case, only a purely academic study can solve the problem, but the majority believe in a link between Erlitou and the Xia (or Shang). What's more, a significant number of foreign residents tend to be critical of Chinese views, even if the question of a link between Erlitou and the Xia does not find a vast current of opponents to this theory: this can be seen as a discreet form of pressure exerted by the majority current; so they would be reluctant to express their thoughts among the minority current.

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, aimed at establishing a rigorous chronology for the first three dynasties of its history, the Xia, Shang and Zhou (up to -841 for the latter). The initial idea was to cross-reference carbon-14 dating and astronomical data, particularly concerning eclipses, with all that the Shang and Zhou inscriptions could tell us. Some 200 researchers took part, and the results are now being used as references by Chinese academics. Proposed dates for the Xia range from -2205 to -1767. The Shang are thought to have reigned from -1766 to -1112.

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


  1. Xia dynasty
  2. Dynastie Xia
  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), p. 23.
  8. ^ Pankenier (1985), p. 180.
  9. ^ Nivison (2018), p. 165.
  10. Tan Koon San (2014). Dynastic China: An Elementary History. The Other Press. p. 8. ISBN 9789839541885.
  11. Jun Li (2016). Chinese Civilization in the Making, 1766–221 BC. Springer. p. 49. ISBN 9781349251346.

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