The Xia Dynasty of Ancient China

Legendary Precursor of the Shang Dynasty—But was it real?

King Yu (禹) as imagined by by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin (馬麟).
National Palace Museum, Taipei

The Xia Dynasty is said to have been the first true Chinese dynasty, described in the ancient Bamboo Annals called the Ji Tomb Annals, dated to the late third century BCE; and in the Records of the Historian Sima Qian (called the Shi Ji and written about 145 BCE). There is a long-standing 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.

Some scholars still believe that it was invented in order to validate the leadership of the Shang Dynasty, for which there is abundant archaeological and written evidence. The Shang Dynasty was founded in about 1760 BCE, and many of the attributes ascribed to the Xia are different from those ascribed to the Xia.

Legends of the Xia Dynasty

According to the historical records, the Xia dynasty is thought to have lasted between about 2070–1600 BCE, and it was said to have been founded by a man known as Yu the Grea a descendant of the Yellow Emperor, and born about 2069. His capital was at Yang City. Yu is a semi-mythical figure who spent 13 years stopping a great flood and bringing irrigation to the Yellow River Valley. Yu was the ideal hero and ruler, said to have been assisted in his work by a yellow dragon and a black turtle. Many of the tales about him are cast in mythology, which doesn't necessarily rule out the possible reality of a sophisticated society predating the Shang.

The Xia dynasty is said to be 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 (the Shi Ji, 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 the Great: 2205–2197 BCE
  • Emperor Qi: 2146–2117 BCE
  • Tai Kang: 2117–2088 BCE
  • Zhong Kang: 2088–2075 BCE
  • Xiang: 2075–2008 BCE
  • Shao Kang: 2007–1985 BCE
  • Zhu: 1985–1968 BCE
  • Huai: 1968–1924 BCE
  • Mang: 1924–1906 BCE
  • Xie: 1906–1890 BCE
  • Bu Jiang: 1890–1831 BCE
  • Jiong: 1831–1810 BCE
  • Jin: 1810–1789 BCE
  • Kong Jia: 1789–1758 BCE
  • Gao: 1758–1747 BCE
  • Fa: 1747–1728 BCE
  • Jie: 1728–1675 BCE

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.

Possible Xia Dynasty Sites

While there is still debate over how much the texts can be relied on, there is recent evidence has increased the likelihood that there really was dynasty predating the Shang. Late Neolithic sites which hold some elements suggesting Xia dynasty remains include Taosi, Erlitou, Wangchenggang, and Xinzhai in central Henan province. Not all researchers in China agree to the connection of archaeological sites with prehistoric semi-mythical polities, although scholars have noted that Erlitou in particular had a high degree of cultural-political sophistication at an early period.

  • Erlitou in Henan Province is a massive site, covering at least 745 acres, and occupations between 3500–1250 BCE; at its heyday about 1800, it was the primary center in the region, with eight palaces and a large cemetery precinct.  
  • Taosi, in southern Shanxi, (2600–2000 BCE) was a regional center, and had an urban center surrounded by large rammed-earth walls, a craft production center for pottery and other artifacts, and a semicircular rammed-earth structure which has been identified as an astronomical observatory. 
  • Wangchenggang in Dengfeng province (2200–1835 BCE) was a settlement center for at least 22 other sites in the upper Ying River valley. It had two connected small rammed-earth enclosures built about 2200 BCE, a craft=production center, and many ash pits some containing human burials. 
  • Xinzhai, in Henan Province (2200–1900 BCE) is an urban center with at least fifteen associated sites surrounding it, with a large semi-subterranean structure interpreted as a ritual structure. 

In 2016, an international group of archaeologists reported evidence of a great flood in the Yellow River at a site called Lajia, dated about 1920 BCE, which they claimed provided support to the great flood in the Xia Dynasty legends. The Laija townsite in particular was found with several residences with skeletons buried within the deposits. Wu Qinglong and colleagues admitted that the date was several centuries later than the historical records state. The article appeared in Science magazine in August of 2016, and three comments were quickly received disagreeing with the dating and interpretation of the geological and archaeological data, so the site remains an open question like the others.