What Was the Xia Dynasty of Ancient China?

Archaeologists Study Remains of What Could Be the Xia Dynasty

King Yu (禹) as imagined by by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin (馬麟).
King Yu (禹) as imagined by by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin (馬麟). Hanging scroll, color on silk. Size 249 x 111.3 cm (height x width). National Palace Museum, Taipei

The Xia Dynasty is said to have been the first true Chinese dynasty, described in the ancient Bamboo Annals. There is debate as to whether the Xia Dynasty was myth or reality; until the mid-20th century, no direct evidence was available to support stories of this long-vanished era.

Myth or Reality?

The Xia Dynasty, mentioned in ancient Chinese documents and legends, was long thought to be a myth. In fact, some scholars believe that it was invented in order to validate the leadership of the Shang Dynasty, for which there is rich archaeological and written evidence. The Shang Dynasty was founded in about 1760 BCE, and many of the attributes ascribed to the Xia are the opposite of those ascribed to the Xia.

While there is still debate over the authenticity of the Xia, recent evidence has increased the likelihood that there really was a Xia Dynasty. In 1959, archaeologists working in the city of Yanshi uncovered the remains of stone palaces similar in location and size to those described as being part of the capital of the Xia Dynasty. For decades, archaeologists worked to unearth the site. Over time, they discovered the ruins of urban structures, bronze tools and decorative objects, tombs, and more.

In 2011, archaeologists excavated a huge palace. Dating technology showed that the palace was built around 1700 BCE, which would make it the palace of the Xia Dynasty. Additional finds seem to support some of the myths surrounding the stories of the Xia Dynasty.

Dates of the Xia Dynasty

The Xia dynasty is thought to have run from about 2070-1600 BCE.The Xia dynasty is thought to have been founded by Yu the Great, who was born in 2059 and considered a descendant of the Yellow Emperor. His capital was at Yang City. Yu is a semi-mythical figure who spent 13 years stopping the great flood and brought irrigation to the Yellow River Valley. Yu was the ideal hero and ruler, ascribed a mythical dragon birth. He became the god of the soil.

Facts About the Xia Dynasty

According to legend, the Xia dynasty was the first to irrigate, produce cast bronze, and build a strong army. It used oracle bones and had a calendar. Xi Zhong is credited in legend with inventing a wheeled vehicle. He used a compass, square, and rule. King Yu was the first king to be succeeded by his son instead of a man chosen for his virtue. This made the Xia the first Chinese dynasty. The Xia under King Yu probably had about 13.5 million people.

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, started around the second century BCE (over a millennium after the end of the Xia Dynasty), there were 17 Xia Dynasty Kings. They included:

  • Yu
  • Qi
  • Tai Kang
  • Zhong Kang
  • Xiang
  • Xiao Kang
  • Zhu
  • Huai
  • Mang
  • Xie
  • Bu Xiang
  • Jiong
  • Jin
  • Kong Jia
  • Gao
  • Fa
  • Jie

Fall of the Xia Dynasty

The fall of the Xia is blamed on its last king, Jie, who is said to have fallen in love with an evil, beautiful woman and become a tyrant. The people rose up in rebellion under the leadership of Zi Lü, the Tang Emperor and founder of the Shang Dynasty.