The New York Times reports today that researchers led by Professor Wu Qinglong of Peking University have uncovered evidence that seems to support the historicity of the Emperor Yu and the great floods that preceded the founding of the Xia Civilization around 2070 BC.
The setting for the flood was a landslide, caused by an earthquake, that planted a massive natural dam across the Yellow River where it travels through the Jishi Gorge after emerging from the Tibetan plateau. To judge from the remaining sidewalls, the researchers wrote in Friday’s issue of Science, the dam would have risen some 800 feet above the river’s present level.
There has long been speculation about the Xia. Early 20th century scholars such as Gu Jiegang considered stories of a Xia Dynasty to be mostly mythology. The stories of a generational flood whose waters are then controlled by Yu, who then becomes China's first dynastic ruler, are consistent with the "Great Flood" myths found in other ancient cultures.
The ability of Yu to tame the flood was central to his legitimacy as a ruler, and this connection between being able to control the waters and political competency remains a part of Chinese political culture into the present day.
More recently, Chinese archaeologists have sought to validate more recent national mythologies of China's antiquity and historical continuity. They have energetically sought evidence that would prove the existence of an organized Xia state that matches the descriptions found in later texts, most notably the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian nearly 2000 years after the time of Yu and the flood.
Archaeological evidence does suggest the presence of Post- (or Late-) Neolithic civilizations in the Yellow River basin, but calling these a "dynasty" -- never mind making an assertion of cultural continuity to later Chinese states -- has always been a bit of a stretch.
Despite the findings presented by Professor Wu and his team, this skepticism remains.
Paul Goldin, who studies China’s Warring States period at the University of Pennsylvania, also sees the stories of Yu and the Great Flood as unlikely to represent historical events. And they date mostly to the fourth century B.C., long after the Jishi Gorge flood. “These are relatively late legends that were propagated for philosophical and political reasons, and it’s inherently questionable to suppose that they represent some dim memory of the past,” he said.
Dr. Goldin remarked on a “kind of fixation” in Chinese archaeology “to prove all the ancient texts and legends have some fundamental truth, which is an overreaction to an earlier period when they were rejected as myth. It shouldn’t be every archaeologist’s first instinct to see if their findings are matched in the historical sources,” he said.
When I teach the earlier periods of Chinese history, I usually prefer to refer to the Xia, Shang, and Zhou as civilizations (or civilization centers which rose and fell (and sometimes overlapped). In this way, the ancient Yellow River basin resembled more the Eastern Mediterranean as civilizations developed, spread, and then gave way to other rival civilizations. I don't think this necessarily undermines Chinese claims to great antiquity, although it might complicate contemporary teleologies of political and cultural centralism.